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The Labor Movement in the United States has a Turbulent History

From the time that the American Colonies were established (in the early 1600s) there were labor struggles between workers and land owners. Indentured servants as well as slaves were used to make the rich richer. The United States of America was founded by Revolutionists who fought for their independence against an Imperialistic Power. Similarly, the stories of American Labor struggles have a sometimes radical and turbulent history that pitted working class people against Industrialists, Corporate Management and “Robber Barons” who used industrial spies, hired goons, police (local, state and federal), judges, a sometimes hostile press, propaganda and politicians (including mayors, governors and even some Presidents of the United States) to fight against worker rights.

Despite incredible odds against the American workers who engaged in labor struggles - their efforts won many benefits most people have no idea of, or simply take for granted today. Some of the notable benefits that have been earned during the history of American Labor struggles are:

Fair Wages, Seniority Rights, Union Recognition, Anti-Child Labor Laws, the Labor Day Holiday, Unemployment Compensation, Workplace Safety and Health Laws (OSHA), Minimum Wage, the 40 Hour Workweek, Pension Plans…

The following papers, links to stories and videos are here for you to learn about the sometimes turbulent history of American Labor struggles. New items are continually being added…and if you have any comments, questions or contributions – just contact me…

United States Labor History

Indentured Servitude in Colonial America

First of all it is important to define what an indentured servant was during the Colonial America era.

Indentured servants first arrived in America in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607.

The idea of indentured servitude was born of a need for cheap labor. The earliest settlers soon realized that they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the colonial economy.

The timing of the Virginia colony was ideal. The Thirty Year's War had left Europe's economy depressed, and many skilled and unskilled laborers were without work. A new life in the New World offered a glimmer of hope; this explains how one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants.

Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.

For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year's worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a burgeoning colonial economy.

In 1619 the first black Africans came to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away.

As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery had begun.


The Southern Colonies

Punishments for Disobedient Indentured Servants and Their Masters in Colonial Courts

Indentured Servants In The U.S.

Indentured Servitude in Colonial America

Black Legion

During the 1930’s a political organization called the Black Legion splintered from the Ku Klux Klan. Their membership numbers were estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000. They were active in the Michigan and Ohio areas of the United States.

The Associated Press described the organization on May 31, 1936, as a group of loosely federated night-riding bands operating in several States without central discipline or common purpose beyond the enforcement by lash and pistol of individual leaders' notions of "Americanism."

Twelve men associated with the Black Legion kidnapped and murdered Charles Poole, a Works Progress Administration worker. Their arrests and convictions led to the disbanding of the organization and its reign of terror.


The Black Legion - Where Vets and the Klan Met

The Black Legion Rides - by George Morris - 1936

Great Sit-Down Strike in Flint, Michigan

The Great Sit-Down Strike in Flint, Michigan (December 30, 1936 thru February 11, 1937) was a very important event in American history. Worker determination and community mobilization forced major corporations to address worker rights. Solidarity brought workers together to the point that they were not acting as individuals - they were part of an organization. One of the doctrines of the times was “Get Wise Organize!” Read the following paper that explores various aspects of this historical event and find out how workers took on the government, police, corporate thugs and negative propaganda and won one of the most important struggles in American Labor History.


Sit-Down For Dignity


With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade (1979)

Flint Sit Down Strike – Part 1

Flint Sit Down Strike – Part 2

The Great Sit-Down – Yesterday’s Witness in America

Bold Flint Sit-Down Strike Has Lessons for Today

Flint Sit Down Strike (1936-37) - UAW History

Molly Maguires

The Molly Maguires were a secret society in 19th century Ireland and were active in the United States (although that has been debated for over 100 years.) The "Mollies" are mostly known for their activism against the repression of coal mine industry management and ownership in the Pennsylvania coal region area. After a series of often violent conflicts, twenty suspected members of the Molly Maguires were convicted of murder and other crimes and were executed by hanging in 1877 and 1878. The history surrounding the Molly Maguires remains mysterious and is part of local Pennsylvania lore.


The Legend of the Molly Maguires

The Molly Maguires - Engaged in Violence Eclipsing the West’s Gunslingers?


The Molly Maguires: The Life Of A Tragic History

Molly Maguires history project

Jail in Jim Thorpe, PA with 'ghost' hand – The Molly Maguires

Polish artisans strike for the right to vote in Jamestown, Virginia - (1619)

Philadelphia Printers Strike - (1786)

The African Slave Trade is Abolished by Congress - (1807)

Commonwealth v. Hunt - (1842)

First State 10 Hour Work Day Law - New Hampshire - (1847)

Labor’s Struggle for the 8 hour work day – (Starting in the 1860s)

National Labor Union Founded - (1866)

Reconstruction Policy in Former Slave States - (1867)

Knights of Labor Founded - (1869)

The Molly Maguires - (1877)

Atlanta’s Washerwomen Strike - (1881)

First Labor Day Holiday - New York City - (1882)

Labor Day becomes a National Holiday - (1894)

American Federation of Labor (AFL) Founded - (1886)

The Haymarket Square Bombing and Riot - (1887)

Sherman Anti-Trust Act - (1890)

Homestead Strike - (1892)

The Battle of Cripple Creek - (1894)

Industrial Workers of the World Founded - (1905)

McKees Rocks Strike - (1909)

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire - (1911)

Bread and Roses Strike - Lawrence, Mass. - (1912)

U.S. Department of Labor is Created - (1913)

First Secretary of Labor (William B. Wilson) Appointed - (1913)

Ludlow Massacre in Colorado - Coal Miners Strike - (1914)
Clayton Anti-Trust Act - (1914)
Council of National Defense - (1916)
19th Amendment gives Women the Right to Vote - (1920)

United States Labor History - Additional Information (Links, Papers & Videos)

Black Legion

Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution

Great Sit-Down Strike in Flint, Michigan

Indentured Servitude in Colonial America

Molly Maguires

Five Ways Bosses Fight Labor

Historic Labor Movement Posters


8 Hours for What We Will ABC of Organizing After the Welcome Home - A Job Agitate, Educate and Organize American Industry - The Heart of the Nation Discriminate Against - Inferior, Unclean Sweat-Shop Clothing Don't Kid Yourself - It's Up to You - Our Work will Win or Lose this War America Was Built By Labor Everytime you twist a nut think of Hitler Happy Labor Day - Now Don't Complain About That Desk Job FDR - If I Went to work in a factory the first thing I would do is join a union General Strike - Liberate Oakland He Fought For Your Freedom - Support Your Local Union I Don't Want to Strike - But I Will Knock Him Out - Labor Can Do It L.A. Should Work for Everyone Labor Defender No Thanks to the Rich - The Working Class Built the Nation Solidarity - International Union of Panters and Allied Trades The I.W.W. is Coming Labor Creates All Wealth Labor Stands for all who Work Let's Work Together  Make a Difference Solidarity Forever We Can Do It Which is Correct - It Pays to Organize Women Support Labor The Labor Movement - The Folks That Brought You... Union Labor Built the American Dream Union Labor

Andrew Carnegie

César Estrada Chávez
Nelson Hale Cruikshank
Eugene Victor Debs
Thomas Reilly Donahue
Henry M. Flagler
Henry Ford
Henry Clay Frick
Arthur Joseph Goldberg
Samuel Gompers
Jay Gould
William Green
Fred A. Hartley Jr.
Joe Hill
Sidney Hillman
Hubert H. Humphrey
Mother Jones

Denis Kearney

Lane Kirkland
John L. Lewis

Acronyms, Definitions and Terminology related to the Labor Movement in the United States

Definitions of Common Labor Terms

Definition of Labor

Glossary of the United States Department of Labor

Labor Union Terms

Battle of Blair Mountain - (1921)

Davis-Bacon and Related Acts - (1931)

Norris-LaGuardia Act - (1932)

Franklin D. Roosevelt Proposes New Deal Programs - (1933)

National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933

Congress of Industrial Organizations Founded - (1935)

National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) - (1935)

Social Security Act - (1935)

Byrnes Act, also known as the Antistrikebreaker Law - (1936)

Great Sit-Down Strike - Flint, Michigan - (1936-37)

Remington Rand Stike (Mohawk Valley Formula) - (1936-37)

Fair Labor Standards Act - minimum wage and 40-hour week - (1938)

Post WWII Strike Wave - (1946)

Taft-Hartley Act restricts union members' activities - (1947)

AFL and CIO merge - (1955)

Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender - (1963)

Civil Right Act - (1964)

Great Postal Strike - (1970)

Occupational Safety and Health Act - (1970)

Air Traffic Controller’s Strike - (1981)

Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - (2009)

Women make up nearly half of union members - (2014)

The number of workers on strike hits the highest since the 1980s - (2019)

2019 Year in Review: Workers Strike Back

UAW strike cost GM up to $4 billion for 2019

Significant Events in United States Labor History

Recent and Current Events in the United States Labor Movement

The New York Times - Organized Labor (Frequent News Stories about Labor)

* Why Aren’t Wages Rising Faster Now That Unemployment Is Lower? (Published: 10/7/2017)

* et Wronged Workers Join Together for Justice (Published: 10/2/2017)

* A New Type of Labor Law for a New Type of Worker (Published: 9/4/2017)

* Federal labor officials are going after Tesla over alleged workers' rights violations (Published: 8/31/2017)
* One Effort to Close the Gender Pay Gap Won’t Get a Try (Published: 8/31/2017)
* Labor movement may be down, but it’s not out (Published: 8/30/2017)
* 10 facts about American workers
* LaborPress - National News
* LaborNotes
* News about Organized Labor, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times
* The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions In The U.S.

* The Origin of the 8 Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It

* Slave Labor in America today

* Child Labor in the USA today

* Academic Articles about Emma Tenayuca

* Union Membership Statistics - 2016

* 2017 Labor & Employment Laws: New Year, New Government, New Challenges

* Acosta Confirmed As Labor Secretary, First Latino Member Of Trump Cabinet

* Workers Independent News

* Good News in the Labor Market (Published: 5/6/2018)

* Supreme Court deals blow to unions, rules against forced fees for government workers (Published: 6/27/2018)

* The U.S. labor shortage is reaching a critical point (Published: 7/5/2018)

* ‘Not your father’s labor market’: Hiring is strong, but workers still aren’t seeing big raises (Published: 7/6/2018)

* Employment Situation Summary - Bureau of Labor Statistics (Published: 7/6/2018)

* Labor and Technology Reporting: Two Concentric Circles (Published: 7/11/2018)

* Ending the Dead-End-Job Trap (Published: 7/12/2018)
* Guatemalan Immigrant Luisa Moreno Was Expelled From the U.S. for Her Groundbreaking Labor Activism - The little-known story of an early champion of workers’ rights receives new recognition (Published: 7/26/2018)

* The number of workers on strike hits the highest since the 1980s - (October 21, 2019)

* ‘Google is no longer listening’: four fired workers file charges against tech giant - (December 3, 2019)

* Death on the Job: Why do so many US workers fall to their deaths?  - (January 20, 2020)

* Actors' union creates 'landmark' rules for filming sex scenes - (January 30, 2020)

* Neuro-Surveillance and the Right to be Human at Work - (February 15, 2020)

* UAW leader who likely died of COVID-19 helped create middle class, friend says - April 2020

Luisa Moreno
Matthew Maguire
Lucy Randolph Mason
Peter J. McGuire
George Meany
Philip Murray
Frances Perkins
Esther Eggertsen Peterson
Allen, Robert & William (Pinkerton)
James Rand, Jr.
A. Philip Randolph
Florence Reece
Walter Reuther
John D. Rockefeller
Franklin D. Roosevelt
August Spies
Uriah Stephens
William Sylvis
Robert A. Taft
Emma Tenayuca
Cornelius Vanderbilt

Notable People in United States Labor History

Child Labor in the Industrial Revolution

Child labor refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful. During the Industrial Revolution (19th and 20th centuries) many children aged 5 through 14 mainly from poorer families worked in agriculture, home-based assembly operations, factories, mining and in services such as news boys. Some worked night shifts lasting 12 hours.


Child Labor


The Fight to End Child Labor

Labor Buttons

Labor-influenced buttons over the years use solidarity, public outcry, civil rights, worker rights, safety, political power and miscellaneous other causes, techniques and slogans to gain members and advertise the goals of individuals, unions and the work force as a whole. These buttons are numerous and have been used for over 100 years.


Miscellaneous Labor Buttons Exhibit

Give Work - Buy American Made Goods Women in WWII - We Can't Do it Without You