The Rise of Labor Unions EARLY LABOR ORGANIZING Skilled workers had formed small, local unions since the late 1700s. The first large-scale national organization of laborers, the National Labor Union (NLU), was formed in 1866 by ironworker William H. Sylvis. The refusal of some NLU local chapters to admit African Americans led to the creation of the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU). Nevertheless, NLU membership grew to 640,000. In 1868, the NLU persuaded Congress to legalize an eight-hour day for government workers.
NLU organizers concentrated on linking existing local unions. In 1869, Uriah Stephens focused his attention on individual workers and organized the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. Its motto was "An injury to one is the concern of all." Membership in the Knights of Labor was officially open to all workers, regardless of race, gender, or degree of skill. Like the NLU, the Knights supported an eight-hour workday and advocated "equal pay for equal work" by men and women. They saw strikes, or refusals to work, as a last resort and instead advocated arbitration. At its height in 1886, the Knights of Labor had about 700,000 members. Although the Knights declined after the failure of a series of strikes, other unions continued to organize.
Union Movements Diverge As labor activism spread, it diversified. Two major types of unions made great gains under forceful leaders.
CRAFT UNIONISM One approach to the organization of labor was craft unionism, which included skilled workers from one or more trades. Samuel Gompers led the Cigar Makers' International Union to join with other craft unions in 1886. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), with Gompers as its president, focused on collectivebargaining, or negotiation between representatives of labor and management, to reach written agreements on wages, hours, and working conditions. Unlike the Knights of Labor, the AFL used strikes as a major tactic. Successful strikes helped the AFL win higher wages and shorter workweeks. Between 1890 and 1915, the average weekly wages in unionized industries rose from $17.50 to $24, and the average workweek fell from almost 54.5 hours to just under 49 hours.
INDUSTRIAL UNIONISM Some labor leaders felt that unions should include all laborers–skilled and unskilled–in a specific industry. This concept captured the imagination of Eugene V. Debs, who made the first major attempt to form such an industrial union–the American Railway Union (ARU). Most of the new union's members were unskilled and semiskilled laborers, but skilled engineers and firemen joined too. In 1894, the new union won a strike for higher wages. Within two months, its membership climbed to 150,000, dwarfing the 90,000 enrolled in the four skilled railroad brotherhoods. Though the ARU, like the Knights of Labor, never recovered after the failure of a major strike, it added to the momentum of union organizing.
SOCIALISM AND THE IWW In an attempt to solve the problems faced by workers, Eugene Debs and some other labor activists eventually turned to socialism, an economic and political system based on government control of business and property and equal distribution of wealth. Socialism, carried to its extreme form–communism, as advocated by the German philosopher Karl Marx–would result in the overthrow of the capitalist system. Most socialists in late-19th-century America drew back from this goal, however, and worked within the labor movement to achieve better conditions for workers. In 1905, a group of radical unionists and socialists in Chicago organized the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the Wobblies. Headed by William "Big Bill" Haywood, the Wobblies included miners, lumberers, and cannery and dock workers. Unlike the ARU, the IWW welcomed African Americans, but membership never topped 100,000. Its only major strike victory occurred in 1912. Yet the Wobblies, like other industrial unions, gave dignity and a sense of solidarity to unskilled workers.
OTHER LABOR ACTIVISM IN THE WEST In April 1903, about 1,000 Japanese and Mexican workers organized a successful strike in the sugar-beet fields of Ventura County, California. They formed the Sugar Beet and Farm Laborers' Union of Oxnard. In Wyoming, the State Federation of Labor supported a union of Chinese and Japanese miners who sought the same wages and treatment as other union miners. These small, independent unions increased both the overall strength of the labor movement and the tension between labor and management.