History of Labor Unions Timeline
How It All Went Down
Knights of Labor Founded
Uriah Stephens forms the Knights of Labor in Philadelphia. Initially a secret society, the Knights are able to organize workers around the country under the radar of management. They will become an important force in the early days of labor organizing.
Railway Strike of 1877
A strike against the Baltimore & Ohio railroad ignites a series of strikes across the northeast. The violence and disturbances that follow result in Federal troops being called out for the first time in a labor dispute. The strike is crushed, but it gives evidence of the deep conflict between workers and business owners.
A labor rally at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, called in support of the eight-hour day, erupts into chaos when an unknown party tosses a bomb at police, who then fire into the crowd. The incident stains labor's image and creates turmoil within the movement.
Gompers Founds AFL
In the wake of the Haymarket incident, labor organizer Samuel Gompers sets up the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a collection of trade unions that will play a major role in the labor movement throughout the century to come.
Sherman Anti-Trust Act
Congress passes the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Intended to block business monopolies, it will be used effectively by employers against unions.
A lockout at the Homestead Steel Works turns violent as 300 Pinkerton detectives hired by the company arrive at the mills by barge. Workers picketing the plant greet the Pinkerton's with violence and the confrontation soon becomes a full-scale pitched battle, with seven Pinkertons and eleven union members killed. Court injunctions help to crush the union, safeguarding the steel industry from organized labor for decades.
A federal court issues the first injunction against a union under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The case, brought against the Workingman's Amalgamated Council of New Orleans for interfering with the movement of commerce, hands managers a potent legal weapon.
Union workers walk out of the factory of the Pullman Company in Pullman, Illinois, in spite of the paternalistic treatment the company had afforded to workers. The strike, organized by Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union, will end in total defeat.
Western miners and other activists form the Industrial Workers of the World at a convention in Chicago. The IWW, or Wobblies, is one of the most radical of all organized labor groups. Though they will achieve only limited success in moving their agenda forward, they will inspire generations of labor activists with their militant spirit.
LA Times Bombing
A bomb explodes at the headquarters of the stridently anti-union Los Angeles Times, killing twenty people. Eventually two men connected with the Iron Workers Union, which has been implicated in other bombings, will confess to dynamiting the Times.
The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) calls a strike in New York, demanding a 20-percent pay raise and a 52-hour workweek. Within two days, more than 20,000 workers from 500 factories walk off the job. This largely successful "Uprising of 20,000" is the largest labor action by women in the nation's history.
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
A fire in lower Manhattan kills 146 women workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The tragedy highlights the harsh conditions under which the young women had to work, evoking public sympathy for reform.
First State Minimum Wage Law
Massachusetts adopts the first minimum wage law, setting a floor under the pay of women and minors. Other states will pass similar laws beginning the same year.
Federal Department of Labor Established
The United States Department of Labor is established as a cabinet-level agency. Though established under President Taft, he signs the law after his defeat in the 1912 election. The Department will mostly emphasize the pro-labor stance of the incoming president, Woodrow Wilson, who appoints a United Mine Workers official as the first Secretary of Labor.
Violence breaks out in a camp housing striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado. National Guardsmen machinegun strikers and set fire to their tents, killing five miners, two women, and twelve children. More than 75 people will be killed over the full course of the industrial dispute.
President Wilson, a friend of labor unions, signs the Clayton Act, which exempts unions from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In coming years, the new law will prove toothless, as courts void many of its union protections.
The Adamson Act establishes an 8-hour workday for employees of interstate railroads, with overtime for working longer hours.
Postwar Strike Wave
A wave of strikes breaks out after World War I. More than 40,000 coal workers and 120,000 textile workers walk off the job. In Boston, police strike, causing chaos in the city. The labor unrest is answered by a "Red scare," in which agitators are rounded up and the public turns suspicious of labor radicals.
Samuel Gompers, the most influential of the early labor leaders, dies at age 74.
Sacco and Vanzetti
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for their alleged participation in a murderous payroll heist in 1920. The two men are anarchists and labor activists, and their case generates tremendous passion on all sides during the 1920s.
The Davis-Bacon Act requires that federal contractors pay their workers the wages and benefits prevailing in the local market when working on a public works project. The law keeps employers from importing cheaper workers from outside the region.
Norris-La Guardia Act
The Norris-La Guardia Act proclaims that yellow-dog contracts, which require a worker to promise not to join a union, are unenforceable, settling a long-standing dispute between management and labor. The law also limits courts' power to issue injunctions against strikes.
Perkins Named Secretary of Labor
Frances Perkins becomes Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, the first woman in U.S. history to hold a cabinet post. She favors a comprehensive, pro-labor agenda including minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and abolition of child labor. Her influence on labor policy in the New Deal will be huge.
President Roosevelt signs into law the National Labor Relations Act, known as the Wagner Act. The law safeguards union organizing efforts and authorizes the National Labor Relations Board to assure fairness in union elections and during collective bargaining with employers. The new law tilts the playing field significantly in labor's favor, prompting a huge unionization drive throughout the late 1930s.
CIO Splits from AFL
The Congress of Industrial Organizations splits from the American Federation of Labor over disputes about methods of organizing large industries. The two groups will remain rivals until merging back together as the AFL-CIO in 1955.
Fair Labor Standards Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act sets a 40-hour workweek with time-and-a-half for additional hours. It also establishes a national minimum wage and puts severe restrictions on child labor.
Congress passes the Smith-Connally Act to allow the government to take over critical industries hit by strikes. Enacted over President Roosevelt's veto, it is the first anti-union legislation to be enacted since the early 1930s. It also prevents unions from contributing to political campaigns.
Post-World War II Strike Wave
Workers strike to win wage increases in the face of postwar inflation. The wave of strikes is the worst since 1919 and includes general strikes in Hartford, Houston, Oakland, and other cities.
Truman Breaks Railroad Strike
President Truman ends a strike against the nation's railroads by threatening to take them over and draft workers into the army. His hard line is a harbinger that the nation's sympathy for unions is running out.
Congress overrides President Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley bill, a landmark piece of legislation that rolls back many of the advantages labor gained in the 1935 Wagner Act. Many Democrats join with Republican lawmakers to curb the power of unions.
CIO Expels Red Unions
The CIO votes to expel eleven unions, with almost 1 million members, because of their association with communism.
Representatives of the AFL and CIO sign an agreement to merge, beginning a long period of unity within organized labor. George Meany will lead the organization for two decades, taking labor in a generally conservative direction. "We do not seek to recast American society," Meany says. "We seek an ever rising standard of living."2 Big Labor gradually becomes a complacent interest group rather than a social movement.
The Teamsters, along with Bakery Workers and Laundry Workers, are expelled from the AFL-CIO for corruption. That same year, Jimmy Hoffa is elected president of the Teamsters. He becomes a lightning rod for additional charges of mob influence and criminality.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, also known as the Landrum-Griffith Act. The law addresses the union corruption uncovered by Senator John L. McClellan. It holds labor leaders to stricter standards in handling union funds and requires them to file annual reports.
Kennedy Legalizes Public Employee Unions
An order by President Kennedy allows federal employees to organize, join unions, and bargain collectively with the government. It does not give them the right to strike. The move begins an era of public employee unionization.
Equal Pay Act
The Equal Pay Act prohibits discrimination in wages on the basis of sex. The result: women's earnings will climb from 62% of men's in 1970 to 80% in 2004.
New York Teachers Strike
A New York City teachers strike ends after depriving more than a million public school students of an education during 36 school days. Pitting union power against the public interest, the strike adds to the distrust of organized labor and exacerbates racial tensions.
UAW Splits from AFL
The United Auto Workers under leader Walter Reuther leave the AFL, in part because of personal disputes between Reuther and AFL president George Meany. Reuther will die in a plane crash in 1970, but the UAW will not rejoin the AFL until 1981.
More than 200,000 Post Office workers walk off the job in the first national strike of public employees. Though the action is illegal and President Nixon calls on the Army and National Guard to keep the mail moving, the two-week strike proves largely successful and ultimately leads to a modernization of the postal service.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) sets minimum standards for most private-sector pension and health plans. It provides key safeguards for employees.
Major League Baseball Strike
Major League Baseball players strike. Team owners want to restore their own prerogatives by requiring a team to pay compensation to another when hiring a free agent. Players fight the move in a strike that wipes out almost 40% of the season before being settled by compromise in August, just in time to save the World Series from cancellation.
Air Traffic Controllers Strike
President Ronald Reagan fires the striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), calling the work stoppage illegal. Reagan's action and the demise of the union sets a new tone for labor-management relations across the country. Employers begin to take tough stands against unions and do not hesitate to replace strikers with replacements. The decline in union membership accelerates.
Hormel Foods Strike
Members of a local of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union in Austin, Minnesota, go on strike against the Hormel Foods Corporation, ignoring the advice of their national union. Highlighting the confusion within the labor movement, the workers continue their action even after the company vows to reopen the plant with replacement workers. Some union members cross the picket lines and the strike drags on for ten months with no gains for union members. The futile action is emblematic of a labor movement in disarray.
After a 16-day walkout, United Parcel Service agrees to a contract with the Teamsters, marking labor's first successful nationwide strike in two decades. One of the main issues leading to the strike is the company's practice of using part-time workers to avoid paying benefits.
UAW Loses Nissan Plant Election
The United Automobile Workers loses an election to represent the workers in a Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. It is one of a series of defeats in attempts to organize the plants of foreign car makers in the U.S. UAW membership will continue to slide.
Change To Win
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, and other activist unions leave the AFL-CIO to form a new labor coalition called Change to Win. The move represents a new emphasis on organizing workers to bring them into a labor movement starved for members.