Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Reform Unionism: the National Labor Union

I

AT THE END of the Civil War the American labor movement was still divided along ideological lines. Despite these differences, however, there was near unanimity on the necessity for organization on a nationwide basis to strengthen labor's hand. The establishment of the national trade unions, commencing in the 1850's, was one manifestation of this belief. Equally significant was the movement to organize a national labor federation. This movement reached fruition in 1866 with the establishment of the National Labor Union, the first truly national federation of labor in the United States.

The germ of the idea for such a federation had been planted at the beginning of the Civil War when the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths adopted a resolution calling for the formation of a committee "to request the appointment of a similar committee from other national or grand bodies (of Trade Unions) to meet them, fully empowered to form a National Trades Assembly, to facilitate the advancement of the interests of labor."1 In 1864 the International Industrial Assembly of North America held its first convention, but the failure of the unions to send delegates was fatal, and no further meetings were held. There were also other proposals for national organization, none of which resulted in any concrete action.2

It was not until 1866 that plans were set in motion to organize a national labor federation. In February of that year William Harding, president of the Coachmakers International Union, met with William H. Sylvis, president of the Iron Molders International Union. Their conference led to a meeting the following month with other leaders, who decided to hold a national labor convention in Baltimore on August 20, 1866. Upon objection by the Workingmen's Union of New York City that

____________________
1
International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths, Proceedings, November 1861, reprinted in John R. Commons and others, eds., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society ( 10 vols: Cleveland, 1910- 1911), IX, 117 (hereinafter cited as Commons, Documentary History).
2
Fincher's Trades' Review, August 13, October 15, 1864, December 16, 1865.

-11-

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