Stories from PA History
Story Details
Labor's Struggle to Organize
Since the early 1700s Pennsylvania has been at the center of American workers' long and difficult struggle for a living wage, safe working conditions, and legal rights. The heartland of many of the nation's heavy industries, including coal, iron, railroads, and steel, the Commonwealth also experienced some of the nation's most violent and prolonged labor struggles. Battling against some of the nation's most powerful corporations and dangerous workplaces, Pennsylvania workers forged some of the earliest, largest, and strongest unions in the country.

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Overview: Labor's Struggle to Organize
Chapter one: The Early Years
Chapter two: The Struggle to Organize, 1877 to 1914
Chapter Three: Between the Wars: 1919-1938
Chapter Four: Hot and Cold War

Historical Markers In the Story
marker icon William H. Sylvis (Indiana) marker icon Allegheny Cotton Mill Strikes (Allegheny)
marker icon Avondale Mine Disaster (Luzerne) marker icon Colonial Gristmill (Delaware)
marker icon Conestoga Wagon (Lancaster) marker icon Cornwall Furnace (Lebanon)
marker icon Cumberland County (Cumberland) marker icon Duffy's Cut Mass Grave (Chester)
marker icon Eagle Grange #1 (Lycoming) marker icon Execution of Molly Maguires (Carbon)
marker icon Hopewell Village [Iron] (Berks) marker icon Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations (Philadelphia)
marker icon Terence V. Powderly (Lackawanna)

Lesson Plans for this Story
Take your students back in history with these discussions and activities for the classroom

Story Bibliography

Original Documents
icon full text Preamble of the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations, Philadelphia, 1828.
icon full text John M. Davis, "A Defense of the Knights of Labor," 1875.

1780 Pennsylvania Assembly passes a law providing for the emancipation of slaves.
1791 Philadelphia carpenters carry out the first strike in the building trades.
1791 Philadelphia cordwainers (shoemakers) form the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers, the nation's first "permanent" union local.
1794 Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers formed in Philadelphia.
1806 A Philadelphia court declares the organization of labor illegal in the Philadelphia Cordwainer’s Conspiracy Case; in Pittsburgh, a court renders a similar decision in 1814.
1827 Formation of the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia, the first city-wide labor council. In a trial of Philadelphia tailors for conspiracy, the verdict stresses the "injury to trade" aspect of their organization.
1828 Formation of the Republican Political Association of the Workingmen of the City of Philadelphia, one of the first independent "labor parties." Philadelphia Mechanics Union of Trade Associations unsuccessfully strikes for a ten-hour day.
1833 Textile strike in Manayunk, Pennsylvania.
1834 Formation of the National Trades' Union, the first national labor federation; Pennsylvania provides for tax-supported compulsory education.
1836 Philadelphia Bookbinder's strike.
1838 One-third of the nation's workers are unemployed due to the economic hard times.
1840 Ten-hour day without reduction in pay proclaimed by President Van Buren for all federal employees on public works.
1845 Female workers in five cotton mills in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, strike for the ten-hour day. New Hampshire is the first state to make the ten-hour day the legal workday.
1848 Child labor law in Pennsylvania makes twelve the minimum age for workers in commercial occupations. Pennsylvania passes a ten-hour day law. When employers violate it women mill workers riot and attack the factory gates with axes.
1859 Formation of the Iron Molders Union in Philadelphia.
1862 An arsenal explosion in Pittsburgh kills 79 young women and girl workers.
1866 William Sylvis, president of the Iron Molders Union, organizes the National Labor Union.
1867 Founding of the Knights of St. Crispin, a union open to all factory workers in the shoe industry.
1868 Anthracite coal strike in northeastern Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania legislature passes the Coal and Iron Police Act, which enables companies to employ private police that enjoy all the powers of public law enforcement officers.
1869 Pennsylvania enacts first mine inspection law for Schuylkill County; Avondale mine explosion kills 109; formation of the first local of the Knights of Labor, in Philadelphia, with membership open to African Americans and women; formation of the General Council of the Workingmen's Associations of the Anthracite Coal Fields, in Pennsylvania.
1870 Coal mine operators sign first written contract with coal miners. The Pennsylvania legislature passes the first mine safety act in the country (legislation that was rejected prior to the Avondale Mine disaster).
1875 Long Strike in Anthracite Region of Workingmen's Benevolent Association
1876 Molly Maguires convicted for coalfield murders in Pennsylvania. Ten are later hanged. Formation of the Socialist-Labor party in Philadelphia, and of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers in Pittsburgh.
1877 Great Railroad Strike protesting wage cuts turns violent in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Reading, and other rail centers across the nation. Approximately 40 killed, the rail yards burned and one thousand rail cars destroyed in Pittsburgh. Ten workers are killed in Reading; six killed in Scranton.
1878 Formation of Noble Order of Knights of Labor on a national basis in Reading, Pennsylvania, with Uriah Stephens as Grand Master Workman.
1879 Knights of Labor elect Scranton mayor Terrence Powderly as Grand Master Workmen.
1881 Formation of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, forerunner of the American Federation of Labor, in Pittsburgh; The Burlington and Reading rail strikes lead to the enactment of the first Federal labor relations law providing for arbitration on railways.
1886 Nationwide strike for the eight-hour workday.
1888 Passage of the first federal labor relations law, which only applies to rail companies.
1890 Formation of the United Mine Workers of America.
1891 Explosion in the Mammoth Mine of H. C. Frick kills 109 miners; deputies of Henry Clay Frick kill seven striking coke workers in the Morewood massacre near Mt. Pleasant.
1892 Homestead Strike near Pittsburgh. Day-Long gun battle on July 6 leads to surrender of 300 armed Pinkerton agents after seven workers and three Pinkertons are killed. The strike is broken by the Pennsylvania militia and unionism is ousted from Pennsylvania steel mills until the CIO organizing drive of the 1930s.
1896 Founding of Ironworkers International Union in Pittsburgh.
1897 Coal and Iron police kill 19 immigrant miners marching with an American flag during strike near Hazelton in the infamous Lattimer Massacre.
1901 American Federation of Labor adopts the Scranton Declaration making "craft autonomy" the cornerstone of its policy.
1902 Anthracite strike in eastern Pennsylvania threatens to paralyze the nation. Arbitration by a presidential committee and achievement of a union contract through the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt strengthens the UMWA.
1903 Mother Jones leads the march of the mill children from Philadelphia to President Roosevelt on Long Island protesting child labor. At the annual AFL convention, blue collar and middle class women unite to form the National Women's Trade Union League. The Department of Commerce and Labor is formed.
1903 The Harwick Mine explosion in Cheswick kills 179. 100,000 anthracite coal miners in northeastern Pennsylvania go on strike and the federal government takes action that leads to a wage increase and shorter work week.
1907 The Darr Mine explosion in Jacobs Creek kills 239 miners in the worst mine disaster in Pennsylvania history
1908 Rachel and Agnes Mine explosion kills 154 miners in Marianna, Pennsylvania.
1909 1909 Southern and eastern European immigrant workers strike in McKees Rocks against the Pressed Steel Car Company. In August, 11 people are killed in a violent clash between state constabulary and the strikers. After more than five weeks, the company’s agreement to meet with worker representatives enhances the reputation of the International Workers of the World.
1910 Bethlehem Steel Strike; publication of Crystal Eastman's classic Work Accidents and the Law, which documents 526 industrial fatalities in Allegheny County in a one-year period from 1906-7. A labor dispute between workers and the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company leads to a city-wide general strike.
1913 Establishment of the U.S. Department of Labor
1914 The Allegheny Congenial Industrial Union strikes the Westinghouse Electric and Union Switch and Signal plants, demanding union recognition and protesting against the work organization imposed under the "scientific management" theories of Frederick Taylor.
1916 Electrical workers from the Westinghouse plants in the Turtle Creek Valley march on the Edgar Thompson steel works, where two workers are killed by company guards; federal passage of a child labor law, later declared unconstitutional.
1919 American steel workers stage the largest industrial strike to this point in American history in what becomes known as the Great Steel Strike of 1919. Brutal repression in the Pittsburgh district including the importation of black strike breakers from the South breaks the strike. United Mine Workers strike, then earn a 27 percent wage increase during arbitration with a presidential commission.
1922 UMW strikes occur in the Central Pennsylvania anthracite and bituminous coal fields.
1926 The Railway Labor Act requires employers to bargain collectively and not discriminate against employees who want to join a union.
1929 The stock market crash in October begins the worst and longest economic collapse in American history.
1931 The Davis-Bacon Act provides for the payment of the prevailing wages to employees of contractors and subcontractors on federally funded construction projects.
1932 The Norris-LaGuardia Act limits use of injunctions against unions.
1933 Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins meets with workers in the federal post office after the mayor of Homestead refuses her permission to meet elsewhere in the town.
1935 The Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) establishes the first national labor policy of protecting the right of workers to organize and to elect their representatives for collective bargaining. Passage of the Social Security Act. The Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) is formed in Pittsburgh to foster industrial unionism.
1937 US Steel recognizes the Steel Workers Organizing Committee as the official bargaining agent of its steel workers. A five-week strike fails, however, to force "Little Steel" companies to permit union representation. The CIO is expelled from the AFL over charges of "dual unionism."
1938 The first Public Sector Strike, initiated in Philadelphia, is followed by formation of Local 222 of AFSCME to build public sector unionism.
1941 The United Auto Workers is recognized by Ford Motor Company, which signs a union-shop agreement- the first in the auto industry. After United States entry in World War II the AFL and the CIO announce a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war.
1942 The United Steelworkers of America is created to replace the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Creation of the National War Labor Board, which establishes the "Little Steel Formula" for wartime wage adjustments.
1943 President Roosevelt issues an executive order creating a Committee on Fair Employment Practices to eliminate discrimination in war industries based on race, creed, color or national origin.
1944 President Roosevelt sends federal troops to run the streetcars after white Philadelphia Transit Company workers strike to prevent the hiring of African Americans as trolley operators.
1946 The largest strike wave in American history breaks out as pent up worker demands are unleashed by the end of war-time controls. Successful job actions in steel, electrical, and auto bring substantial wage increases, which fuel post-war prosperity for blue-collar workers and their families.
1947 Congress passes the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricts union activities and permits the states to pass "right-to-work" laws. The Supreme Court strikes down the Norris-La Guardia Act’s prohibition against injunctions in labor disputes in Government in U.S. v. John L. Lewis.
1949 A strike achieves first pension plan for steel workers; Anti-Communist union forces cause split of United Electrical Workers. Central battlegrounds include the East Pittsburgh Westinghouse plant, the Erie GE plant and the South Philadelphia plant.
1952 President Truman seizes the steel industry when companies reject the Wage Stabilization Board's recommendations. An eight-week strike follows when the Supreme Court finds the president's action unconstitutional.
1955 Merger of the AFL and CIO
1959 Steel strike lasts 119 days. A collapse at the Knox Mine in Luzerne County, PA, kills twelve miners.
1963 The Equal Pay Act prohibits wage differences for workers based on sex.
1964 The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
1965 Pennsylvania passes Black Lung legislation
1968 Pennsylvania Legislature passes Act 111, which establishes collective bargaining for police and firefighters.
1969 Murder of UMWA insurgent Jock Yablonski leads to founding of Miners for Democracy, in 1972. Black Monday demonstrations in Pittsburgh lead to the Pittsburgh Plan agreement, which increases minority participation in construction trade unions. The Department of Labor starts to actively promote minority placement in the Philadelphia construction industry.
1970 Postal Workers stage first nationwide strike of public employees.
1971 Passage of Act 195 gives public employees in Pennsylvania the right to bargain collectively. Federal passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
1972 30,000 construction workers march in Norristown to protest an injunction against the picketing of non-union construction sites.
1973 Congress passes the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, which regulates all private pension plans. Consent decree in steel opens many job categories to African-Americans and women.
1975 80,000 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) go on strike in the first legal, large-scale strike of public employees.
1978 U.S. Steel announces the closing of 16 facilities, including its American Bridge plant, and the loss of 13,000 jobs. Pittsburgh steelworkers join Youngstown Ohio steelworkers in two hour occupation of U.S. Steel’s Pittsburgh headquarters. Four-year strike against the Wilkes-Barre newspaper begins.
1980 - 1989 Pennsylvania is struck by a wave of plant and store closings: Kroger closes 54 stores, including Armstrong in Lancaster (600); Continental Rubber in Pottstown (1500); Two Guys department Store in Delaware Valley (1600)
1981 - 1982 1981-2 Bitter United Electrical Workers strike against American Standard's Westinghouse Airbrake and American Switch and Signal strike near Pittsburgh against concessions lasts six months and leads to American Standard's decision to move operations to Georgia.
1982 USWA accepts concession contract in effort to save jobs in the steel industry. Later in the year, U.S. Steel announces the closing of 28 facilities affecting 15,000 workers.
1986 Formation of the Steel Valley Authority unites eight communities including the cities of Pittsburgh and McKeesport in job retention and development effort. Shut down of historic US Steel Homestead mill, Westinghouse Electric East Pittsburgh plant, and Union Switch and Signal. 40,000 construction workers march in Pittsburgh protesting the use of a non-union contractor in renovation of former Pennsylvania Railroad station. USWA strike against U.S. Steel lasts six months and gains a continuous caster for the Edgar Thompson mill in Braddock.
1987 Midfield Terminal Agreement between Pittsburgh Building Trades Unions, Allegheny County, and U.S. Air guarantees labor peace during the massive rebuild of the Pittsburgh International Airport. This agreement becomes the model for the Heinz plant reconstruction, new sports stadiums and other Western Pennsylvania construction projects.
1989 United Mine Workers' Strike against Pittston Coal Company stimulates numerous solidarity activities in Pennsylvania.
1991 The United Food and Commercial Workers Union stages a successful strike against Giant Eagle stores in western Pennsylvania after UFCW workers mobilize broad community support.
1992 Canterbury Coal strike ends in defeat for the UMWA after the longest sustained strike in Pennsylvania history. The Canterbury mine closes in the mid-1990s.
1999 Closing of Nabisco plant in Pittsburgh thwarted a second time by labor and community activists. Steel Valley Authority and Pittsburgh's Building Trades' ERECT fund play key roles in launching of Atlantic Baking Co.
2000 Allegheny General Hospital successfully organized by 1199P SEIU.
2005 Seven major national unions, representing six million workers, disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO and, in September, form a new coalition called "Change to Win," devoted to organizing.
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