Stories from PA History
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Overview: Labor's Struggle to Organize

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Address to the Journeymen Cordwainers, by John McIlvaine. Philadelphia, PA,...

Since the early 1700s, Pennsylvania's working people have led American labor's efforts to form unions, workers' cooperatives, federations, and benevolent organizations. Based on the desire for material improvement of their working conditions - and often the survival of their families - working Pennsylvanians have struggled hard for the right to have their own protective organizations to ensure safety and decent working conditions, and for laws to reinforce fair treatment on their jobs. Unions, however, were never a foregone conclusion. From the earliest days of colonial settlement to the present, unions have been the hard-won fruits of difficult struggles.

The obstacles were enormous. Work stoppages in North America date from colonial times, but printers in Philadelphia, demanding a minimum wage of $6 per week, staged the new nation's first documented strike for higher wages in 1786. Philadelphia's Journeymen Cordwainers became the first union to be convicted of engaging in a criminal conspiracy when it went on strike against master craftsmen and city entrepreneurs in 1806. From these beginnings, Pennsylvania workers continued to seek protection of their jobs and benefits through unions.

Police battle men demonstrators.
Confrontation between jobless workers and police, Reyburn Square in Philadelphia,...
Divisions within the working class along ethnic, linguistic, and racial lines often made union organization difficult. The relative prosperity of the workers at various periods in American history also tended to delay the organization of unions and to undermine struggles for legal rights and safety. And the structure of Pennsylvania politics sometimes militated against workers finding elected officials to champion the legislation needed to serve their interests.

More often than not, state and federal courts firmly upheld employers' rights to manage their workers, resulting in further violent clashes when companies felt empowered to resist workers' efforts to unionize. Employers hired company detectives and private police against strike agitators and union organizers. State militias and federal troops were sometimes employed during the most violent confrontations, and local police kept track of and harassed labor organizers from the 1860s to the 1970s.

In the aftermath of World War I, "red scares" in the United States flared into the infamous Palmer raids, and the mass arrests of labor organizers and other suspected subversives. With the rise of the Cold War after World War II, the federal government again cracked down on political radicals and the left wing of Pennsylvania's labor movement.

Sepia photgraph, head and shoulders of a bearded man, wearing a suit, white shirt, and tie.
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Uriah Smith Stephens, founder of the Knights of Labor, circa 1900.
Against these forces, Pennsylvania workers forged some of the largest and strongest unions in the country. National leaders sprang up from local organizing efforts. Indiana County's William H. Sylvis founded the Iron-Molders' International Union and later led the National Labor Union during the 1860s. Uriah Stephens of Philadelphia and Terence V. Powderly of Scranton led the Knights of Labor, the most important national union between 1871 and 1886, which grew to some 750,000 members. Pennsylvania's anthracite miners in Schuylkill, Carbon, and Northumberland Counties organized the Workingmen's Benevolent Association in 1868, and Pennsylvanians played an important role in the formation of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in 1876.

Pennsylvania's early and nationally significant industrialization put its skilled craft workers, textile mill operatives, miners, and steelworkers on center stage of labor activism through the nineteenth century. Yet in the most important industries where they found employment, such as in mining and steel, wages were chronically low, hours long, and benefits for injury or family crises notoriously insufficient. From the Civil War until 1877, the secretive Irish-based Molly Maguires worked to organize miners in the anthracite region until they were smashed by railroad executive Franklin B. Gowen.

Ruins and Rioters. Looking East from 14th Street.
Riot of 1877: Ruins and Rioters. Looking East from 14th Street.
Undaunted, Pennsylvania coal miners staged a succession of job actions and strikes throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the great anthracite strike of 1902, which resulted in a 10-percent wage raise and a small reduction in work hours, but failed to achieve union recognition. Nevertheless, United Mine Workers under John Mitchell's leadership grew to encompass all coal mine workers, and President Theodore Roosevelt's intervention set the pattern for non-violent arbitration in labor relations, after which the union expanded its membership and spread throughout the bituminous coal regions of western Pennsylvania.

Intervention in the anthracite strikes of the 1920s by Governor Gifford Pinchot brought the eight-hour day, and soon state legislation subjected the "coal and iron police," private police forces controlled by companies, to stricter standards of conduct. But as Pennsylvanians shifted to new sources of heating and industrial production, unionized miners faced painful structural adjustments within the industry.

Steel Workers Vote as Government Watches.
Jones & Laughlin steel mill workers voting for union representation, Aliquippa,...
Pennsylvania's railroad and steel industries witnessed similar worker unrest and violent clashes. Pittsburgh and Reading were the scenes of widespread property destruction during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The pitched battle between Pinkerton agents and striking steelworkers at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel works in 1892 shocked the nation. During the great steel strike of 1919, company officials in the greater Pittsburgh district and Monongahela River Valley sabotaged efforts to organize workers at every turn, and the strike ended in utter defeat.

During the Great Depression, Pennsylvania again emerged as a center of American labor organization, as western Pennsylvania steel workers formed a center of strength with the Steel Workers Organization Committee (SWOC). By then, the hardships of the country's worst depression drove workers to unions in unprecedented numbers. It was a dispute over the right of SWOC to organize workers at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation's Aliquippa plant that led, in 1936, to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding the constitutionality of the Wagner Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board. In 1942, SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America.

Soft coal miners return to work ... miners stand in the elevator cage, ready to descend into the H.C. Frick coke company mine to work their first shift since settlement of the soft coal strike.
Soft coal miners return to work, Red Lion, PA, June 1, 1946.
New challenges faced Pennsylvania workers during the Cold War as the globalization of markets brought heightened competition among companies across international borders. Deindustrialization left Pennsylvania's once mighty industries a mere shadow of their former selves by the late 1970s; hundreds of thousands of workers lost jobs, pensions, and the rising standard of living that blue-collar workers struggled so hard to gain in previous years. Workers could no longer assume that they would work for the same company for a lifetime, or with the same skills.

Mergers and takeovers led by multinational corporations, outsourcing, subcontracting, and the use of temporary workers all changed the face of labor-management relations and forced workers to learn new skills. Increased competition from domestic and foreign sources and the deregulation of many industries forced companies to cut back the costs of labor to stay competitive. At the same time, the increased costs of providing health benefits caused many smaller companies to cut back or to eliminate this benefit for most employees.

Union membership has declined significantly since the 1970s, especially in the original industrial workers' organizations. Strikes, which were an important vehicle for making gains in wages and working conditions, became even harder to win in recent decades. At the same time, the need for unions has remained as strong as ever, and many new ones formed during the 1970s and 1980s in the ever-growing sectors of white-collar and high-technology jobs. These organizations no longer fight against child labor or excessively long work weeks, as the movement did for much of the nineteenth century. Instead, pressing concerns often involve health care, equitable pay for similar skill, fair treatment on the job, short staffing or forced overtime, and retirement security, especially in the face of multinational corporations cutting back on all of these basic needs.

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