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Labor History Timeline: 1607 – 1999


From the earliest days of the American colonies, when apprentice laborers in Charleston, S.C., went on strike for better pay in the 1700s, to the first formal union of workers in 1829 who sought to reduce their time on the job to 60 hours a week, our nation’s working people have recognized that joining together is the most effective means of improving their lives on and off the job.


Building a New Nation

1607English planters found Jamestown colony and complain about lack of laborers
1619Slaves from Africa first imported to colonies
1664First slavery codes begin trend of making African servants slaves for life
1676Bacon’s Rebellion of servants and slaves in Virginia
1677First recorded prosecution against strikers in New York City
1765Artisans and laborers in Sons of Liberty protest oppressive British taxes
1770British troops kill five dock workers in Boston Massacre
1773Laborers protest royal taxation in the Boston tea Party
1775American Revolution begins
1786Philadelphia printers conduct first successful strike for increased wages
1787Constitution adopted
1791First strike in building trades by Philadelphia carpenters for a 10-hour day bill of Rights adopted

Struggles for Freedom

1800Gabriel Prosser’s slave insurrection in Virginia
1805Philadelphia shoemakers found guilty of conspiracy
1808Slave importation prohibited
1834First turnout of “mill girls” in Lowell, Mass., to protect wage cuts
1835General strike for 10-hour day in Philadelphia
1842Commonwealth v. Hunt decision frees unions from some prosecutions
1843Lowell Female Labor Reform Association begins public petitioning for 10-hour day
1847New Hamsphire enacts first state 10-hour-day law
1848Seneca Falls women’s rights convention
1860Great shoemaker’s strike in New England
1861Abraham Lincoln takes office as president and Civil War begins
1863President Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation
186513th Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery

Origins of Today’s Union Movement

1866National Labor Union founded
1867Congress begins reconstruction policy in former slave states
1869Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor and Colored National Labor Union formed
187015th Amendment to the Constitution adopted; states the right to vote may not be abrogated by color
1877National uprising of railroad workers Ten Irish coal miners (“Molly Maguires”) hanged in Pennsylvania; nine more subsequently were hanged
1881Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed
First Labor Day parade in New York City
1885Knights of Labor on the Southwest (or Gould) System: the Missouri Pacific; the Missouri, Kansas and Texas; and the Wabash
1886American Federation of Labor founded
1887Seven “anarchists” charged with the bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square and sentenced to death
1890Carpenters President P.J. McGuire and the union strike and win the eight-hour day for some 28,000 members
1892Iron and steel workers union defeated in lockout at Homestead, Pa.
Integrated general strike in New Orleans succeeds
1894Boycott of Pullman sleeping cars leads to general strike on railroads
1898Erdman Act prohibits discrimination against railroad workers because of union membership and provides for mediation of railway labor disputes

The Progressive Era

1900AFL and National Civic Federation promote trade agreements with employers
U.S. Industrial Commission declares trade unions good for democracy.
1902Anthracite strike arbitrated after President Theodore Roosevelt intervenes
1903Women’s Trade Union League formed at AFL convention
1905Industrial Workers of the World founded
1908AFL endorses Democrat William Jennings Bryan for President
1909“Uprising of the 20,000” female shirtwaist makers in New York strike against sweatshop conditions
Unorganized immigrant steel workers strike in McKees Rocks, Pa. and win all demands
1911Triangle Shirtwaist factory in fire in New York kills nearly 150 workers
1912Bread 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
Bill creating Department of Labor passes at the end of congressional session
1913Woodrow Wilson takes office as president and appoints the first secretary of labor, William B. Wilson of the Mine Workers
1914Ludlow Massacre of 13 women and children and seven men in Colorado coal miners’ strike
1917United States enters World War I
1918Leadership of Industrial Workers of the World sentenced to federal prison on charges of disloyalty to the United States
1919One 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
International Labor Organization founded in France

Repression and Depression

192019th Amendment to the Constitution gives women the right to vote
1924Samuel Gompers dies; William Green becomes new AFL president
1925A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
1926Railway Labor Act sets up procedures to settle railway labor disputes and forbids discrimination against union members
1929Stock market crashes as stocks fall 40 percent; Great Depression begins
1931Davis-Bacon Act provides for prevailing wages on publicly funded construction projects
1932Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibits federal injunctions in most labor disputes
1933President Franklin Roosevelt proposes New Deal programs to Congress

Democratizing America

1934Upsurge in strikes, including national textile strike, which fails
1935National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act passed
Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formed within AFL
1936AFL and CIO create labor’s Non-Partisan League and help President Roosevelt win re-election to a second term
1937Auto Workers win sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Mich.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters wins contract with Pullman Co.
1938Fair Labor Standards Act establishes first minimum wage and 40-hour week
Congress of industrial Organizations forms as an independent federation
1940John L. Lewis resigns and Philip Murray becomes CIO president
1941A. Philip Randolph threatens march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in defense jobs
1941U.S. troops enter combat in World War II
National War Labor Board created with union members
1943CIO forms first political action committee to get out the union vote for President Roosevelt

The Fight for Economic and Social Justice

1946Largest strike wave in U.S. history
1947Taft-Hartley Act restricts union members’ activities
1949First two of 11 unions with Communist leaders are purged from CIO
1952William Green and Philip Murray die; George Meany and Walter Reuther become presidents of AFL and CIO, respectively
1955AFL and CIO merge; George Meany becomes president
1957AFL-CIO expels two affiliates for corruption
1959Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin) passed
1962President John Kennedy’s order gives federal workers the right to bargain
1963March on Washington for jobs and Justice
Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender
1964Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination
1965AFL-CIO forms A. Philip Randolph Institute
César Chávez forms AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee
1968Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., during sanitation workers’ strike

Progress and New Challenges

1970Occupational Safety and Health Act passed
1972Coalition of Black Trade Unionists formed
1973Labor Council for Latin American Advancement founded
1974Coalition of Labor Union Women founded
1979Lane Kirkland elected president of AFL-CIO
1981President Reagan breaks air traffic controllers’s strike
AFL-CIO rallies 400,000 in Washington on Solidarity Day
1989Organizing Institute created
1990United Mine Workers of America win strike against Pittston Coal
United Steelworkers of America labor Alliance created within the AFL-CIO
1992Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance created within AFL-CIO
1995Thomas Donahue replaces Lane Kirkland as interim head of AFL-CIO
John Sweeney president of AFL-CIO
1997AFL-CIO defeats legislation giving the president the ability to “Fast Track’ trade legislation without assured protection of workers’ rights and the environment
1997Pride 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
1999More than 75,000 human service workers are unionized in Los Angeles County
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”
5,000 North Carolina textile workers gain a union after a 25-year struggle
65,000 Puerto Rico public-sector workers join unions
Broad Campaign for Global Fairness pushes for economic and social justice worldwide
Union movement organizes biggest program of grassroots electoral politics ever


Source: AFL-CIO America’s Unions: (Accessed with Permission: October 20, 2015).

3 Replies to “Labor History Timeline: 1607 – 1999”

  1. allen says:

    This is a great website with lots of useful information that was useful on my essay!

  2. charlie says:

    i love this website. it helped me with my homework.

  3. Unions have come a long way since the industrial revolution. Thanks for taking the time to put this together.

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