8 key moments in labor movement history

Rights, Money

If you’re enjoying an eight-hour work day, overtime pay or the minimum wage, you have the labor movement to thank. The movement was at its strongest from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th, and during that time, protesters and strikers around the country fought for better working conditions and better pay. In honor of Labor Day, here are eight key moments in the history of the labor movement.

1866: The first national labor union founded

The first labor union in the U.S., the National Labor Union, dissolved just seven years after its creation but paved the way for future labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor, established 1886; the Knights of Labor, established 1869; the Women’s Trade Union League, established 1903; and the Industrial Workers of the World, established 1905. It supported the eight-hour workday and discouraged strikes, promoting arbitration instead.  

1886: Unions take a step back after deaths in Haymarket Square riots

Labor Movement History_Haymarket Square Riot

“Eight-hour day with no cut in pay” was the rallying cry on May 1, 1886, in demonstrations throughout the country. Two days later in Chicago, police fired at workers on strike, killing at least two. In response, people came together for a rally at Haymarket Square on May 4, which ended in bloodshed when a bomb aimed at police killed seven officers. The ensuing riot led to the trial, convictions and deaths of four strikers. The aftermath was a blow to the unions.

Photo: Wikipedia

1902: The coal strike of 1902 ends in victory for labor unions

Labor Movement History_Coal Strike 1902

Coal strikes were common around the turn of the century, but the coal strike of 1902 is notable because it was the first time the federal government acted as a neutral party to settle the dispute. On May 12, thousands of Pennsylvania miners went on strike. Former President Theodore Roosevelt and financier J. P. Morgan separately intervened to settle the dispute, which ended months later on October 23. The settlement was seen as a victory for the strikers, and membership in unions increased.

Photo: Wikipedia

1911: Deadly fire at Triangle Shirtwaist factory leads to higher safety standards

Labor Movement History_Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

A fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York ended in the deaths of 146 workers, one of the largest industrial disaster death tolls in U.S. history. The workers had been locked inside the factory to prevent them from taking breaks, a common practice which, devastatingly, prevented them from escaping the fire. Some died from the flames, some from smoke and some from jumping to their deaths from the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the factory. After the fire, the Committee on Public Safety was formed and safety standards were improved across the country.

Photo: Wikipedia

1921: Coal miners arm themselves to fight in the Battle of Blair Mountain

Labor Movement History_Blair Mountain

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed civil insurrection in U.S. history. Approximately 10,000 West Virginia coal miners faced off against 3,000 strikebreakers and officers of the law in late August 1921. After five days and between 80 and 130 deaths, the battle ended on September 2 when federal troops arrived and the miners were ordered home by union leader Bill Blizzard, who did not want to lose his men in a fight with the troops. Nearly 1,000 miners were arrested and imprisoned in the months that followed, and membership in the coal union decreased significantly. At the time, the battle was not seen as a victory for the coal workers, but in the long run, it helped support labor unions during the New Deal of 1933.

Photo: Wikipedia

1938: FDR signs landmark bill establishing the minimum wage

Labor Movement History_Fair Labor Standards

Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which ended oppressive child labor, set a minimum wage, established a maximum workweek and introduced the concept of time-and-a-half pay for overtime work. Over 700,000 workers were affected by the passing of the act.

Photo: Wikipedia

1945 – 1946: Millions participate in wave of strikes, the largest in U.S. history

Labor Movement History_1946 Olaa Sugar Plantation Strike

The years after the end of World War II saw a flood of labor strikes across the country. Millions of workers across a variety of industries, including film, meatpacking, steel, coal, oil, railroad and autos, went on strike for higher wages and reforms to company policy.

Photo: ilwu.org

1947: Labor Relations Management Act

Labor Movement History_Taft Hartley Act

Also known as the Taft-Hartley Act, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 was a blow to the power of labor unions. Former president Harry S. Truman opposed the act and vetoed it, but his veto was overridden. Among other things, the act prohibited certain kinds of strikes that would harm the public.

Photo: Wikipedia

1955: Two large labor groups merge


Labor Movement History_AFL CIO

The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO. The two organizations were rivals for decades before merging in 1955. Today this labor group is the largest in the country, representing over 11 million workers.

Photo: Shutterstock