The history of organized labor in the United States is one of struggle against seemingly hopeless odds, with victories often decades in the making. It’s a history in which Baltimore plays a proud part. In fact, the city can lay some claim as the birthplace of the national organized labor movement, almost precisely 150 years ago. We recount the tale, a Labor Day tradition, in honor of the many essential workers who gave the rest of us some measure of comfort amid the pandemic, by simply going to work.
‘Welcome, Sons of Toil’
In the 1860s, local trades unions were common throughout the United States, but they were far from a unified force in national politics. Nothing like the AFL-CIO existed at the time — an early attempt at such an entity fizzled in the 1830s — but after the Civil War, some leaders in the movement began discussing the need for an organization that would speak not on behalf of workers in one industry or another but for the needs of laborers in general. Out of those discussions came the Labor Congress, an unprecedented gathering of union officials from various trades in Baltimore for five days in August of 1866.
According to The Sun's extensive reporting on the meeting, carpenters, ship builders, wood turners, harness makers, house painters, patternmakers, can makers, coach makers, railroad workers, miners, mechanics, masons, marble cutters, bookbinders and more gathered under a banner that read "Welcome, Sons of Toil — From North, South, East and West." The delegates had closely watched the labor movement flourish in England and win success in Parliament, and they were determined to achieve the same here.
The interests of the assembly were broad. Delegates considered issues related to the disposition of public lands, convict labor, the creation of "lyceums and reading rooms" for workingmen throughout the land, the national debt, the endorsement of labor-friendly newspapers in various cities, the need to restore Southern cotton production after the Civil War and the ill effects of tenement housing. But the central issue was the effort to secure an eight-hour workday.
The eight-hour day
The first resolution adopted by the Congress read, "The first and grand consideration of the hour, in order to deliver the labor of the country from this thralldom, is the adoption of a law whereby eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work in every State of the American Union, and that they are determined never to relax their efforts until this glorious result is consummated." Delegates couched the demand as one essential to the self-improvement of the nation's laborers. The committee dedicated to pursuing the issue considered it necessary for workers to have "more time for moral, intellectual and social culture … believing that this demand is the result of that condition of progress in which the workingmen of this nation are prepared to take a step higher in the scale of moral and intellectual life."
The big question was how to go about it. In general — at least as The Sun's reports have it — the delegates didn't express particular antipathy toward employers. Though they made various references to the superiority of labor over capital, they imagined the possibility of unionization bringing about more harmonious relations between management and workers, and they eschewed strikes as a tactic. The committee studying the issue of strikes concluded "that as a rule they are productive of great injury to the laboring classes; that many have been injudicious and ill advised, and a result of impulse rather than principle; that those who have been fiercest in their advocacy have been the first to advocate submission; and would therefore discountenance them, except as a dernier resort, and when all means of amicable adjustment had been exhausted."
Instead, they set their attentions on achieving progress through the political arena, with a divide between those who wished to see the labor movement work within existing political structures and those who thought it necessary to create a new laborers' party.
A new party
The latter idea had strong proponents. The eight-hour committee's recommended resolution observed that "the history and legislation of the past have demonstrated the fact that no dependence whatever can be placed on the pledges or professions of the representatives of either existing political party, so far as the interests of the industrial classes are concerned; therefore, resolved, that the time has come when the workingmen of the United States should cut themselves from party ties and predilections, and organize themselves into a 'National Labor Party.'" Even then, money talked when it came to politics. The committee also called for "every friend of the movement to vote for no candidate not unequivocally pledged to vote for a law making eight hours a legal day's work and favor all measures of labor reform," and for workers to vote for fellow workingmen whenever possible.
The committee's report provoked what The Sun called an "earnest and able" discussion with strong sentiments on both sides. Critics said pursuing the creation of a national labor party would make the movement a "laughing stock" and result in "a war of labor against capital," which labor would lose.
On the third day of the convention, it was adopted, 35-24, but delegates, led by Marylanders, moved the next day for it to be reconsidered on the grounds that the formation of a national labor party so soon after the Civil War and its consequent abridgments of political and civil rights would be a mistake. "When we acquire our rights, we are with you," said a Mr. Cather of Baltimore. Later that afternoon, the resolution was revised to call for creation of such a party "as soon as practicable," which all but silenced the dissent.
The Sun editorial at the conclusion of the Congress, at least as read at the remove of 150 years, comes across as more than a bit patronizing toward the delegates' efforts. It includes various paeans to the "curse" that "every man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow" and the notion that "no true republican can be insensible to every effort which is made to separate labor from degradation and ignorance and to crown its other rewards with all the happiness and moral and intellectual advancement of which our nature is capable."
But as to the proceedings itself, The Sun noted that it was no surprise that such an assembly wrestling with the relation of labor and capital would not "devise more than a few general propositions" that would in turn require "modification before they are finally accepted as representing the universal interest of the working classes." The most it would say about the eight-hour day that animated the convention, and indeed the whole labor movement of the day, was that "discussion is likely to ensue in legislative bodies on the subject, bringing out facts and argument on both sides, by which to determine whether it is practicable or wise."
The Sun was, however, enthusiastic about the idea of opposing strikes and that the labor movement should encourage workers to abandon the factories and take up agriculture instead. “Many of our cities are overcrowded with laboring men who engage in ruinous competition with each other, and nevertheless are unable properly to provide for their wives and children, whereas if they were to turn their efforts to agriculture, they would prosper, maintain their families in discomfort, and add materially to the wealth and development of our country.” In other words, good riddance to the riffraff.
Success and downfall
The movement had early success, of a sort, when Congress passed a law in 1868 calling for an eight hour day for federal workers. A year later, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation decreeing that such workers wages should not be cut as a result, but it was often ignored. Local and state eight-hour laws also proved to be compromised by loopholes. Nonetheless, for a time, the National Labor Union flourished, reportedly boasting some hundreds of thousands of members.
But the critics of the idea of forming a labor party proved prophetic. In 1872, the union nominated Supreme Court Justice David Davis, an Illinoisan, as its presidential candidate. Davis dropped out when it became clear that the party would get little support, and the union never recovered. Samuel Gompers, the great early leader of the American Federation of Labor, would later observe, "A candidate was placed in the field, but it was at the cost of the life of the organization."
Nevertheless, the idea of a national labor movement was now fully formed and would flourish briefly under the Knights of Labor and more enduringly in the form of the AFL. Even if the movement failed to bring labor and capital into perfect harmony, it did result in innumerable workplace reforms we now take for granted. That is the legacy we celebrate on Labor Day.