Great Moments in Labor History


The labor movement in the United States started when a few people fought to make sure that people were working under fair conditions and earning the wages that they deserved which lead many women to do the family work at home. It eventually led to the strict labor laws of today.

The Beginning of the Labor Movement

In 1835, children employed in the silk mills of New Jersey went on strike for an 11-hour day/6 days a week work schedule. In 1842, Commonwealth v. Hunt established that unions were legal, opening the floodgates for unions to strike without fear. There were many attempts to form unions, the first of which was the National Labor Union, founded in 1866. The union tried to establish an eight-hour workday and in 1868, Congress passed the statute, making it a law. The NLU dissolved in 1873.

After the NLU collapsed, Knights of Labor, which had been founded in 1869, emerged. It became a real union with local assemblies starting to initiate strikes in their own areas. They instigated the Wabash Railroad strike in 1885, which was considered a great success.

Timeline of Labor Organizations

The first real union dates back to 1869, when the Knights of Labor was founded. In 1876, the first official successful strike was held in Philadelphia over a $6-per-week wage. In 1886, Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor. In 1905, the International Workers of the World was formed, and in 1913, the government established the Department of Labor. In 1950, two of the largest unions merged to form the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Since then, large unions have formed in different areas and joined the AFL-CIO.

Women in the Workforce

Women were also a driving force in the labor movement. Sarah Bagley formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn played a leading role in the IWWW union. Mary Harris Jones, called Mother Jones, was a member of the Knights of Labor. Known as "the most dangerous woman in America" she organized countless strikes involving women and children.

Famous People in Labor

There were many key men in the labor movement as well. Uriah Smith Stephens led the Knights of Labor. Samuel Gompers founded his own union, the American Federation of Labor, and achieved many solid gains for American workers. John L. Lewis helped found the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which established the United Steel Workers of America. He organized millions of industrial workers in the 1930s.

Famous Labor Quotes

The Labor Movement seemed to inspire people – their impassioned words are still on record today. For instance, Walther Reuther once said, “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.” Samuel Gompers once noted, "You can't do it unless you organize." Gompers also had a very dim view of child labor, saying, “No race of barbarians ever existed yet offered up children for money.”

Mother Jones was never afraid to speak her mind, either, saying, “I know that there are no limits to which the powers of privilege will not go to keep the workers in slavery.” She also passed on her world view to her followers: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  

John L. Lewis, one of the most influential men in the labor movement, is quoted as saying, “Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.”

If not for the labor movement, people would still be working in appalling conditions. Children would still be losing limbs. As a result of the efforts of the brave people who fought for the welfare of every worker, there are numerous laws to protect workers in the workplace today.