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American Federation of Labor

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American Federation of Labor

The Beginning of American Federation of Labor

Organized labor in the United States, in the sense of men (and, later, women) joining together to further common interests, has a history as venerable as that of the republic.  The “Indians” of the Boston Tea Party (1773) that jettisoned cargos of taxable tea into the waters of Boston harbor were journeymen carpenters.  The Continental Congress that issued the Declaration of Independence in 1776 convened in Philadelphia’s Carpenters Hall, a meeting and hiring venue.  In the first decade of an independent United States, skilled workers went on strike for higher pay and shorter hours in New York (printers in 1794, cabinet makers in 1796) and Philadelphia (carpenters in 1797, cordwainers in 1799).

American Federation of Labor and Labor Markets

In following decades there were sporadic union efforts to reduce daily working hours from twelve to ten, as well achieve other improvements in working conditions.  However, these efforts, essentially efforts at resolving differences between relatively small numbers of journeymen (skilled craftsmen) and employers, were overtaken by the following events: 

  • Industrial developments (e.g., the steam engine) contributed to a shift of industrial effort from small workshops to larger factories. 
  • The same factories were more likely to employ the unskilled immigrants whose arrival in increasing numbers had already become a feature of American life by the 1830s. 
  • While efforts at organization never ceased, the actual coercive power of such organizations was in large part vitiated by the continuing availability of new, unskilled immigrants. 

In any event, pre-Civil War unions in the United States remained local affairs, subject to the vagaries of changing labor markets.

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