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Early Labor History
Updated On: May 13, 2015

Guilds Formed as Early as 1648

Labor organization came early to the America -- virtually as soon as working people stepped off the boats from Europe.

As early as 1648, a guild of coopers and shoemakers was formed in Boston, to maintain trade standards and to hold a monopoly of trade among an established, qualified workforce.

What is generally acknowledged as the first strike in American History occurred in 1741, when New York bakers protested the low prices established by city authorities by halting the baking of bread.

The first growth of organized labor took place throughout the early 1800s.

"In 1835," writes Howard Zinn in his book "A People's History of the United States," "... fifty different trades organized unions in Philadelphia, and there was a successful general strike of laborers, factory workers, book binders, jewelers, coal heavers, butchers, cabinet workers--for the ten hour day."

Many of the countries larger cities had locals of plumbers and steamfitters, among their newly emerging craft unions.

Much of this activity fell by the wayside when the Civil War erupted, as hundreds of thousands of workers either enlisted or were conscripted on both sides of the conflict.

The tide of labor was not stemmed for long, however. When the war ended armies poured into the cities looking for work, and almost immediately the labor movement took up where it left off.

In 1872 a three-month strike of more than 100,000 workers in New York won the eight-hour day. It was also during this time that the National Labor Union, the first nationwide federation of unions was formed.

The Knights of Labor, the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor, was also formed during this period.

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