The Rise of Labor Unions, 1880-1920

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The Rise of Labor Unions, 1880-1920

At the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, American workers debated how they could best defend their interests in the face of powerful national corporations. One of the most contentious questions that faced them was whether labor should agitate for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions, or for more fundamental transformations in the nation's economy. Another source of controversy was whether unions should try to organize whole industries (what are called industrial unions) or organize particular skilled crafts (craft unions).

At stake in these debates was the very meaning of the labor movement: Whom to organize? How to organize them? What to do once they are organized? Playing key roles in providing their own answers to those questions were three labor unions: the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World.

DIRECTIONS: Read your assigned labor unions’ source & complete the appropriate portion of the chart below. Then, research some additional information about your labor union.

Knights of Labor


American Federation of Labor


Industrial Workers of the World


Principles / Goals















Preamble and Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor of America


The alarming development and aggressiveness of great capitalists and corporations, unless checked, will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses.

It is imperative, if we desire to enjoy the full blessings of life, that a check be placed upon unjust accumulation, and the power for evil of aggregated wealth. This much-desired object can be accomplished only by …united efforts….

Therefore we have formed the Order of Knights of Labor, for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses, not as a political party, for it is more…but it should be borne in mind, when exercising the right of suffrage, that most of the objects herein set forth can only be obtained through legislation, and that it is the duty of all… [to] vote only such candidates as will pledge their support to those measures…. [W]e declare to the world that are our aims are:

  1. To make individual and moral worth, not wealth, the true standard of individual and National greatness.

  2. To secure to the workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, sufficient leisure in which to develop their intellectual, moral, and social faculties: all of the benefits, recreation and pleasures of association; in a word, to enable them to share in the gains and honors of advancing civilization.

In order to secure these results, we demand at the hands of the State:

  1. The establishment of Bureaus of Labor Statistics, that we may arrive at a correct knowledge of the educational, moral and financial condition of the laboring masses.

  2. That the public lands, the heritage of the people, be reserved for actual settlers; not another acre for railroads or speculators, and that all lands now held for speculative purposes be taxed to their full value.

  3. The repeal of all laws that do not bear equally upon capital and labor, and the removal of unjust technicalities, delays and discriminations in the administration of justice.

  4. The adoption of measures providing for the health and safety of those engaged in mining and manufacturing, building industries, and for indemnification to those engaged therein for injuries received through lack of necessary safeguards.

  5. The recognition… of trades' unions, orders and such other associations as may be organized by the working masses to improve their condition and protect their rights.

  6. The enactment of laws to compel corporations to pay their employees weekly, in lawful money, for the labor of the preceding week, and giving mechanics and laborers a first [legal claim] upon the product of their labor to the extend of their full wages.

  1. The enactment of laws providing for negotiation between employers and employed, and to enforce the decision of the mediators.

  2. The prohibition by law of the employment of children under 15 years of age in workshops, mines and factories.

  3. To prohibit the hiring out of convict labor.

  4. That a graduated income tax be levied.

And we demand at the hands of Congress:

  1. The establishment of a National monetary system, in which a circulating medium in necessary quantity shall issue direct to the people, without the intervention of banks…

  1. That the importation of foreign labor under contract be prohibited.

  2. That, in connection with the post-office, the Government shall organize financial exchanges, safe deposits and facilities for deposit of the savings of the people in small sums.

  3. That the Government shall obtain…by purchase, under the right of eminent domain, …all telegraphs, telephones and railroads, and that hereafter no charter or license be issued to any corporation for construction or operation of any means of transporting intelligence, passengers or freight.

And while making the foregoing demands upon the State and National Government, we will endeavor to associate our own labors.

  1. To establish co-operative institutions…to replace the wage system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system.

  2. To secure for both sexes equal pay for equal work.

  3. To shorten the hours of labor by a general refusal to work for more than eight hours.

  4. To persuade employers to agree to negotiate all differences which may arise between them and their employees, in order that the bonds of sympathy between them may be strengthened and that strikes may be rendered unnecessary.

American Federation of Labor

Declaration of Principles
“Whereas a struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor which must grow in intensity from year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations, if not combined for mutual protection and benefits. The history of the wage workers of all countries is but the history of constant struggle and misery, engendered by ignorance and disunion, whereas the history of the non-producers of all countries proves that a minority thoroughly organized may work wonders for good or evil. It behooves the representatives of the workers of North America in congress assembled, to adopt such measures and disseminate such principles among the people of our country as will unite them for all time to come, to secure the recognition of the rights to which they are justly entitled. The various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women's and children's labor and the lack of an apprentice system, so that the skilled trades are rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor. To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established.”

Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), members of which are commonly termed "Wobblies", is an international, radical labor union that was founded in 1905. The philosophy and tactics of the IWW are described as "revolutionary industrial unionism," with ties to both socialist and anarchist labor movements. Seeing workers on the lowest rung of the social ladder as the victims of violent repression, the IWW advocated direct action, sabotage, and the general strike—tactics designed to trigger a workers’ uprising. The IWW never had more than 10,000 members at any one time, although possibly as any as 100,000 workers belonged to the union at one time or another in the early twentieth century.
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

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