UNION 101: Timeline of Labor History

Building a New Nation

1600s  New England and Middle colonies settled by mix of free farmers and craftsmen, many indentured servants, and some African slaves; Skilled workers form first guilds

1607   English planters found Jamestown colony and complain about lack of laborers

1619   Slaves from Africa first imported to colonies

1660   Virginia passes slave codes making slavery perpetual and setting punishments for misbehavior

1664   First slavery codes begin trend of making African servants slaves for life

1676   Bacon’s Rebellion pits poor Virginia farmers, indentured servants and African slaves against wealthy English planters and Indians in a struggle over land; Leads to the substitution of slaves for indentured servants in the plantation economy

1677   First recorded prosecution against strikers in New York City

1765   Artisans and laborers in Sons of Liberty protest oppressive British taxes

1770   British troops kill five dock workers in Boston Massacre

1773   Boston Tea Party – working people with a few wealthy patriots dump a shipload of tea in Boston Harbor to protest British taxes and royal monopolies

1775   American Revolution begins

1786   Philadelphia printers conduct first successful strike for increased wages

1787   Constitution adopted

1791   First strike in building trades by Philadelphia carpenters for a 10-hour day bill of Rights adopted

Struggles for Freedom

1800   Gabriel Prosser’s slave insurrection in Virginia

1805   Philadelphia shoemakers found guilty of conspiracy

1808   Slave importation prohibited

1834   First turnout of “mill girls” in Lowell, Mass., to protect wage cuts

1835   General strike for 10-hour day in Philadelphia

1842   Commonwealth v. Hunt decision frees unions from some prosecutions

1843   Lowell Female Labor Reform Association begins public petitioning for 10-hour day

1847   New Hampshire enacts first state 10-hour-day law

1848   Seneca Falls women’s rights convention

1860   Great shoemaker’s strike in New England

1861   Abraham Lincoln takes office as president and Civil War begins

1863   President Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation

1865   13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery

Origins of Today’s Union Movement

1866   National Labor Union founded

1867   Congress begins reconstruction policy in former slave states

1869   Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor and Colored National Labor Union formed

1870   15th Amendment to the Constitution adopted; states the right to vote may not be abrogated by color

1877   National uprising of railroad workers Ten Irish coal miners (“Molly Maguires”) hanged in Pennsylvania; nine more subsequently were hanged

1881   Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed

1881   First Labor Day parade in New York City

1885   Knights of Labor on the Southwest (or Gould) System: the Missouri Pacific; the Missouri, Kansas and Texas; and the Wabash

1886   American Federation of Labor founded

1887   Seven “anarchists” charged with the bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and sentenced to death

1890   Carpenters President P.J. McGuire and the union strike and win the eight-hour day for some 28,000 members

1892   Iron and steel workers union defeated in lockout at Homestead, Pa.

1892   Integrated general strike in New Orleans succeeds

1894   Boycott of Pullman sleeping cars leads to general strike on railroads

1898   Erdman Act prohibits discrimination against railroad workers because of union membership and provides for mediation of railway labor disputes

The Progressive Era

1900   AFL and National Civic Federation promote trade agreements with employers

1900   U.S. Industrial Commission declares trade unions good for democracy.

1902   Anthracite strike arbitrated after President Theodore Roosevelt intervenes

1903   Women’s Trade Union League formed at AFL convention

1905   Industrial Workers of the World founded

1909   “Uprising of the 20,000” female shirtwaist makers in New York strike against sweatshop conditions

1909   Unorganized immigrant steel workers strike in McKees Rocks, Pa. and win all demands

1911   Triangle Shirtwaist factory in fire in New York kills nearly 150 workers

1912   Bread and Roses strike begun by immigrant women in Lawrence, Mass., ended with 23,000 men and women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line

1912   Bill creating Department of Labor passes at the end of congressional session

1913   Woodrow Wilson takes office as president and appoints the first secretary of labor, William B. Wilson of the Mine Workers

1914   Ludlow Massacre of 13 women and children and seven men in Colorado coal miners’ strike

1917   United States enters World War I

1918   Leadership of Industrial Workers of the World sentenced to federal prison on charges of disloyalty to the United States

1919   One of every five workers walked out in great strike wave, including national clothing coal and steel strikes; a general strike in Seattle; and a police strike in Boston

1919   International Labor Organization founded in France

Repression and Depression

1920   19th Amendment to the Constitution gives women the right to vote

1921    William Quesse led the merger of the Chicago Flat Janitor’s Union and six other small janitors unions to form the Building Service Employees International Union, which would later become SEIU

1924   Samuel Gompers dies; William Green becomes new AFL president

1925   A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

1926   Railway Labor Act sets up procedures to settle railway labor disputes and forbids discrimination against union members

1929   Stock market crashes as stocks fall 40 percent; Great Depression begins

1931   Davis-Bacon Act provides for prevailing wages on publicly funded construction projects

1932   Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibits federal injunctions in most labor disputes

1933   President Franklin Roosevelt proposes New Deal programs to Congress

Democratizing America

1934   Upsurge in strikes, including national textile strike, which fails

1935   National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act passed

1935   Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formed within AFL

1936   AFL and CIO create labor’s Non-Partisan League and help President Roosevelt win re-election to a second term

1937   Auto Workers win sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Mich.

1937   Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters wins contract with Pullman Co.

1938   Fair Labor Standards Act establishes first minimum wage and 40-hour week

1938   Congress of industrial Organizations forms as an independent federation

1940   John L. Lewis, who led a successful coal miner’s strike in 1919, resigns and Philip Murray becomes CIO president

1941   A. Philip Randolph threatens march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in defense jobs

1941   U.S. troops enter combat in World War II

1941   National War Labor Board created with union members

1943   CIO forms first political action committee to get out the union vote for President Roosevelt

The Fight for Economic and Social Justice

1946   Largest strike wave in U.S. history

1947   Taft-Hartley Act restricts union members’ activities

1949   First two of 11 unions with Communist leaders are purged from CIO

1952   William Green and Philip Murray die; George Meany and Walter Reuther become presidents of AFL and CIO, respectively

1955   AFL and CIO merge; George Meany becomes president

1959   Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin) passed

1962   President John Kennedy’s order gives federal workers the right to bargain

1963   March on Washington for jobs and Justice

1963   Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender

1964   Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination

1965   AFL-CIO forms A. Philip Randolph Institute

1965   César Chávez forms AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee

1968   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., during sanitation workers’ strike

Progress and New Challenges

1970   Occupational Safety and Health Act passed

1972   Coalition of Black Trade Unionists formed

1973   Labor Council for Latin American Advancement founded

1974   Coalition of Labor Union Women founded

1979   Lane Kirkland elected president of AFL-CIO

1981   President Reagan breaks air traffic controllers’s strike and decertifies their union, PATCO; This unleashes over a decade of union busting

1981   Half a million trade unionists and supporters rally in Washington for Solidarity Day against Reagan’s economic policies; It’s the largest labor rally in history

1989   Organizing Institute created

1990   United Mine Workers of America win strike against Pittston Coal

1990   United Steelworkers of America labor Alliance created within the AFL-CIO

1990   The “Justice for Janitors” Campaign gets underway in Los Angeles 

1997   AFL-CIO defeats legislation giving the president the ability to “Fast Track’ trade legislation without assured protection of workers’ rights and the environment

1997   Pride at Work, a national coalition of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender workers and their supporters, becomes an AFL-CIO constituency group AFL-CIO membership renewed growth

1999   More than 75,000 human service workers are unionized in Los Angeles County

1999   30,000 to 50,000 working family activists take to Seattle streets to tell the World Trade Organization and its allies, “If the Global Economy Doesn’t Work for Working Families, It Doesn’t Work”

1999   5,000 North Carolina textile workers gain a union after a 25-year struggle

1999   65,000 Puerto Rico public-sector workers join unions

1999   Broad Campaign for Global Fairness pushes for economic and social justice worldwide

1999   Union movement organizes biggest program of grassroots electoral politics ever

2004   70,000 Southern California grocery workers strike Safeway to protect their health benefits and stop imposition of a vicious two-tier wage system

2005   Seven major national unions, including SEIU, representing six million workers, disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO and, in September and form a new labor coalition called “Change to Win”

2009   President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored the rights of working women to sue over pay discrimination

2010   Several SEIU locals around Southern California decide to merge and form SEIU 721, which now represents more than 95,000 members


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