Historical Markers
William H. Sylvis Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

William H. Sylvis

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Keith Hall, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Dedication Date:
September 1, 1990

Behind the Marker

"Bound together by over-taxed labor, long suffering–common victims of injustice and oppression–who, of all God's creation, should act together, think together, and move together more than workingmen?"

Photograph of William H. Sylvis.
flip zoom
William H. Sylvis, founder of the National Molders Union, circa 1868.
William Sylvis believed fervently that workers must unite to oppose low wages, reform society and the economy, and improve worker's lot. He led the unionization of skilled iron molders in Pennsylvania and the nation during the late 1850s and 1860s, founding the National Labor Union, the first nationwide trade union, which sought to unite diverse occupations of workers across the country. In many ways he embodied the aspirations and efforts of skilled ironworkers.

Sylvis was born to a poor family in Armagh, Pennsylvania, in 1828. The Panic of 1837 forced his father out of work and led his parents to indenture him at age eleven. At eighteen he apprenticed as an iron molder, subsequently wandering through central and western Pennsylvania, earning money to support himself, his parents and ten younger siblings back home. He married in 1852 and soon moved to Philadelphia, where he and his family experienced sickness, and he suffered a painful accident in which molten iron was poured down his boot. At this time he began reading about political economy and became "a believer in organized resistance to the impositions so frequently perpetrated by capitalists upon their employes."

An 1857 strike led Sylvis to join and then head the iron molders' union movement. The Stove and Hollowware Molder's Union of Philadelphia walked out to oppose a wage cut. Sylvis joined the union and quickly took a leadership role. Although the union lost the strike, Sylvis went on to help establish the National Molders Union in 1860. The national union, however, staged frequent, unsuccessful strikes that eroded its power. Faced with having to rebuild the union, the 1863 union convention elected Sylvis president. He traveled over 10,000 miles, giving speeches, recruiting members, and founding union locals. He demonstrated keen organizing abilities; under his leadership iron molders' wages and the union's membership and power peaked between 1865 and 1867.

Employers, however, escalated their resistance, using blacklists, firing union members, and evicting employees from company housing. The defeats left the union greatly diminished and Sylvis disillusioned with the trade union movement. He turned to cooperatives as a way to eliminate the wage system and end class conflict. Cooperatives, he believed, would raise workers to the status of capitalist and turn capitalists into workers. The success of the first foundry cooperative in Troy, New York, spurred the organization of others. However, competition from other foundries and inadequate capitalization pushed many cooperative foundries into failure.

Amalgamated Association of the Iron, Steel, and Tin workers button.
Amalgamated Association of the Iron, Steel, and Tin workers button, circa 1935....
Although Sylvis became disillusioned with trade unions and disappointed with cooperatives, he remained committed to uniting workers nationwide. In 1866 he joined with others to form the National Labor Union, aimed at uniting workers across occupations and achieving economic and social reforms, including the eight-hour working day. As president of the union, Sylvis stressed monetary reform to increase the paper money supply, reduce banker's power, encourage opportunity for workers, and promote the establishment of cooperatives. He also pushed for a workingmen's political party, worker's access to free public land, and a federal labor agency. In addition, he supported women's rights. Under his leadership the National Labor Union grew in power. However, Sylvis died destitute in 1869 and the National Labor Union survived for only a few years, collapsing in 1873.

Sylvis was part of rising labor struggle in the iron industry that continued after his death. With the development of larger, urban ironworks after 1840, the paternalistic relationships between ironmasters and employees declined. Employers increasingly saw workers as a cost to be cut, and were quick to reduce wages or layoff workers when prices slumped or sales declined. Workers, in turn, struck and organized.

Skilled workers, including those whom Sylvis helped organize, were at the heart of strikes and unionization. By the 1850s jobs in ironworks became increasingly differentiated by skill Molders,founders, puddlers, and rollers, among others, were better skilled, higher paid, and more in demand. Common laborers were unskilled, lower paid, and often less in demand. Skilled workers were much less easily replaced, and, if acting together, could bring ironworks to a halt. At first non-unionized workers staged scattered strikes for better pay. In one of the iron industry's first strikes, Pittsburgh molders walked out in 1842 to protest wage cuts. In 1849 skilled workers in Pittsburgh's rolling mills struck against lower pay, but employers countered by hiring "scabs" or replacement workers and re-opened the mills at reduced rates. Early defeats led skilled ironworkers to form unions during the 1850s, including puddlers who organized the Sons of Vulcan.

The Sons of Vulcan led a growing union movement after the Civil War, achieving a sliding wage scale for puddlers, in which wages followed price changes, lessening the need for strikes when prices fell. With growing demand for iron products and the sliding scale, skilled ironworkers gained higher wages between 1866 and 1872. However, the Panic of 1873 threw unions on the defensive. In response, in 1876 the Sons of Vulcan and other iron and steel workers' unions joined together to form the national Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. The Amalgamated Association implemented the sliding scale and membership peaked in 1882 at 16,000.

Sylvis was in the vanguard of iron-industry labor organizers, demonstrating the feasibility of national unions and laying a foundation on which skilled ironworker's unions advanced worker's pay. Sylvis's accomplishments resonated for two decades. It was not until 1892, with the markerHomestead strike and lockout, that iron and steel worker's unions suffered a major and long-lasting defeat.
Back to Top