Bureau of Labor Established

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Bureau of Labor Established

United States 1884


The fight for a federal department of labor began in the late 1800s and spanned almost 50 years. Shortly after the Civil War, William H. Sylvis and the National Labor Union lobbied for a Department of Labor, but Congress was unwilling to create any new cabinet-level departments. When Sylvis died in 1869 and the National Labor Union dissolved in 1873, the movement slumped. In response, a number of states created their own bureaus of labor. Under the leadership of Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor, some leaders changed their strategy and proposed a national Bureau of Labor, which was created in 1884 and placed under the Department of the Interior.


  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.
  • 1874: Gold is discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • 1877: Great Britain's Queen Victoria is proclaimed the empress of India.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 1884: At the Berlin Conference on African Affairs, 14 nations (including the United States) discuss colonial expansion in Africa and call for an end to slavery and the slave trade.
  • 1884: Due to isolationist policies, Japan's government had prohibited emigration, but this year it finally lifts the ban and allows citizens to immigrate to Hawaii, where many—having escaped the country illegally—already work as temporary laborers. Thereafter, Japanese will increasingly replace Chinese as workers in the United States, where a treaty limits Chinese immigration.
  • 1884: Chicago's Home Life Insurance Building, designed by William LeBaron Jenney, becomes the world's first sky scraper.
  • 1884: Fabian Society of socialist intellectuals is founded in London. Early members include George Bernard Shaw, London economist Sidney Webb, and writer Beatrice Potter. Webb and Potter later marry and become founding members of the British Labour Party in 1906.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1890: Congress passes the Sherman Antitrust Act, which in the years that follow will be used to break up large monopolies.
  • 1894: War breaks out between Japan and China. It will end with China's defeat the next year, marking yet another milestone in China's decline and Japan's rise.

Event and Its Context

The development of the Department of Labor can be divided into three periods that correspond with three different labor unions: the National Labor Union, Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor. As each union waned, it was replaced by another that carried on the struggle for a cabinet-level department to represent the worker. The main concerns for each of these included the expansion of competition through the development of the railroad, the influx of immigrants who worked for lower wages, and the use of labor-saving machinery. Labor leaders hoped that a cabinet-level Department of Labor would stand equally with the powerful business and commerce interests.

Early Efforts to Create a National Department of Labor

The struggle for an executive department of labor began shortly after the close of the Civil War. Although the exact chronology of events is uncertain, the man credited with beginning the movement is William H. Sylvis. Recognized as the nation's leading labor leader, Sylvis advocated the creation of a Department of Labor in speeches and in newspaper articles, such as his letter to the editor of the Evening Advocate. Sylvis also took the idea of a department of labor to the National Labor Union. He stressed that the existing government departments protected the wealthy businesses and companies and that there was no department to protect labor. Congress, however, was reluctant to create any new departments and was more concerned with the interests of powerful agriculture and business groups than with labor. Sylvis's leadership carried the movement; when he died in 1869, the movement was unable to continue on without his zeal and leadership.

Without their charismatic leader, labor leaders changed strategies and pushed for state and federal bureaus of labor statistics in the hopes that a bureau would eventually become a department. In 1869 Massachusetts became the first state to create a bureau of labor statistics. Almost immediately the bureau became involved in an argument over whether it was supposed to be a voice for labor or an impartial organization. Its first two directors, Henry K. Oliver and George McNeil, were ardent labor reformers, and their reports expressed their bias. Viewed as too radical by business owners, the new bureau was soon involved in a partisan struggle that severely hindered the organization.

In 1873 the governor of Massachusetts appointed a new director, Republican Carroll Davidson Wright, and instructed him to "make it or bust it." Although Wright had little experience with the labor movement, labor problems, or statistics, he was impartial. Wright changed the direction of the bureau and earned a reputation for objectivity. By 1883, 12 other states had followed Massachusetts' example and created their own bureaus of labor statistics.

The creation of the state bureaus coincided with the evolution of a national department. The depressions of 1868 and 1873 had weakened labor unions and had destroyed the National Labor Union. Realizing their position, labor leaders put aside the idea of a national department and focused on attaining a national bureau. As the economy recovered from the 1873 depression, the federal bureau movement began to gain strength and a new organization, the Knights of Labor, grew and filled the vacuum that had been left by the National Labor Union. As the Knights of Labor gained more power and influence and the election of 1884 approached, both Democrats and Republicans developed platforms that included the creation of a national labor bureau.

Bureau of Labor Created

In 1884 five different congressmen introduced five different bills for the creation of a national labor bureau. Pennsylvania Representative James Hopkins wrote the bill that was accepted by the House committee and finally sent to Congress. The bill passed the House by an impressive margin in a vote of 182 to 19. Most of the opposition to the bill came from the South, where labor was weak. The bill went on to pass easily in the Senate. President Chester Arthur signed the bill into law on 27 June 1884.

The new agency, called the Bureau of Labor, came under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. The president appointed the bureau's head, called a commissioner, for a term of four years with a yearly salary of $3,000. The commissioner's duties included gathering information on labor, its relation to capital, workday hours, wages, and providing for the well-being of workers.

Appointing the first commissioner was much more difficult. Unionists expected President Arthur to appoint a labor leader, and Terence Powderly of the Knights of Labor was the leading choice. When Powderly met with the president, Powderly brought more than 2,500 petitions from labor organizations as well as clippings of newspaper articles that had been published to show support for his candidacy. Pressured by manufacturers who felt Powderly was too radical, President Arthur submitted the name of labor leader John Jarrett for the position. Arthur withdrew Jarrett from consideration after learning that he had criticized Arthur's administration. After six months, Arthur finally settled on Carroll D. Wright of Massachusetts.

Wright and the bureau were immediately popular and successful. Early reports covered a wide range of topics, including convict labor, and were generally well received as was Wright himself. Organized labor supported the bureau and, although they were less enthusiastic about Wright, labor leaders argued for an increased budget. By 1888 the annual budget for the bureau had increased to nearly four times that of the original 1884 budget. Part of the budget increase provided for field agents who were needed to supplement the data gathered by questionnaires. President Grover Cleveland further recommended that the scope of the bureau be expanded to include investigation of labor disputes and arbitration; in 1888 Congress responded by adding these duties to the responsibilities of the bureau.

Efforts for a Cabinet-level Department

In 1888 Wright's term at the head of the bureau came to a close, so President Cleveland offered the job to Powderly. In 1884 Powderly had wanted the position, but by 1888 the Knights of Labor were at its peak and Powderly was unwilling to leave the organization. Instead, Powderly recommended that Cleveland make the existing bureau a cabinet-level department, with the department chief as a cabinet member. Powderly and the Knights of Labor sponsored a bill to create a Department of Labor with cabinet rank. The bill passed both houses, but the cabinet rank was again dropped. Instead of being given cabinet rank, the Department of Labor was made independent of the Department of the Interior. President Cleveland signed the bill on 21 March 1888.

Recognizing Carroll Wright's immense contribution to the Bureau of Labor, President Cleveland appointed him to head the new Department of Labor. The new department's budget was larger, and it had more personnel to support its functions. These functions remained the same as those of the former bureau except that Wright now submitted his reports, which addressed topics such as railroad labor, working women, liquor traffic, insurance, housing, and machinery's impact on labor, directly to the president. Wright also inaugurated a semimonthly bulletin to report the status and findings of the department's various efforts and projects.

During this time period, other interest groups clamored for recognition in the president's cabinet. For instance, business pressed for a Department of Commerce and Industry, and farmers wanted their Bureau of Agriculture to become a department. Interest in a cabinet-level Department of Labor, however, decreased. Wright was opposed to making his position a cabinet position because he wished to avoid partisan politics to promote stability; a cabinet-level commissioner would change with each new presidential administration. Labor organizations were occupied with other problems that were more immediately pressing than the cabinet issue. The Knights of Labor organization was falling apart because of internal and external pressures. The organization that would replace it, Samuel Gompers's American Federation of Labor (AFL), was too new.

In the 1890s business leaders began a movement to create a Department of Commerce and place the Department of Labor under Commerce, again making it a subordinate bureau. Labor had to respond. Gompers, then president of the AFL, made it clear that he would oppose any attempt to subordinate the Department of Labor. The AFL stood firm against any bill other than one for a cabinet-level Department of Labor. Gompers and the AFL, however, faced the very powerful business and industry interests and a conservative Republican Congress that was sympathetic to the proposal. President Theodore Roosevelt also called for the arrangement as put forth in the proposal in his 1901 speech to Congress.

Senator Knute Nelson introduced a commerce bill during the first session of the 57th Congress that proposed the formation of a Department of Commerce and Industries. Opposition from a Democratic minority argued that the independent Department of Labor would be lost. Labor organizations opposed the bill on the grounds that mistrust between labor and business would handicap the organization. President Roosevelt and Republicans, however, felt that labor and commerce had many things in common and that the Department of Labor would benefit from its association with other bureaus. The one concession made was to change the name from the Department of Commerce and Industries to the Department of Commerce and Labor. Despite stubborn opposition from a few, the bill passed easily, and President Roosevelt signed it in 1903.

Roosevelt appointed George B. Cortelyou as the first secretary of Commerce and Labor. Cortelyou proved to be impartial and even won over Gompers to an extent. In 1906 Oscar S. Straus replaced Cortelyou and clashed with Gompers over the issue of immigration. Gompers and the AFL were against immigration because the influx of workers willing to work for wages that were lower than U.S. norms held wages down; Straus opposed rigid restriction and tests for immigrants.

As a result, Gompers and the AFL increased their effort to separate commerce and labor. As early as 1903, the AFL convinced the Democratic Party to adopt a plank advocating the creation of a Department of Labor. From 1903 until 1909 Democrats introduced bills to create a separate Department of Labor, but their efforts met with little success as they were in the minority. In 1910, however, the Democrats won control of both the House and the White House. Further, congressman William B. Wilson, champion of an independent Department of Labor and a former officer of the United Mine Workers, became chairman of the House Committee on Labor. In 1912 a bill introduced by Representative William Sulzer of New York passed.

President William Howard Taft had reservations about the bill and did not want to sign it. Taft, however, knew that a veto would mean nothing because the incoming Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, had already selected William B. Wilson as the secretary of labor. So, Taft signed the bill creating the Department of Labor on 4 March 1913.

Key Players

Cortelyou, George B. (1862-1940): Cortelyou served as the first head of the Department of Commerce and Labor, postmaster general, and secretary of the treasury. During Cortleyou's term as secretary of treasury, the panic of 1907 brought business to a complete standstill. Cortelyou was an advocate of creating an elastic currency and a central banking system.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): President of the American Federation of Labor for nearly 40 years, Gompers started his career as a cigar maker. The nation's leading trade unionist and labor advocate, Gompers worked for shorter hours, higher wages, workplace safety, and collective bargaining. Gompers organized the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada.

Hopkins, James (1832-1904): Born in Pennsylvania, Hopkins practiced law for more than 20 years. He was also active in banking, mining, and manufacturing. He twice served as a Democrat in Congress (1875-1877 and 1883-1885). During his second term he was chairman of the Committee on Labor.

Powderly, Terence (1849-1924): Powderly began work on the railroad at age 13 and became a machinist in 1869. He joined the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' National Union and became its president in 1872. Two years later he joined the secretive Noble Order of the Knights of Labor and served as its president during the organization's peak from 1879 until 1893. Powderly also entered politics, joining the Greenback-Labor Party and serving as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 1878 to 1884, the federal immigration commissioner from 1897 to 1902, and head of the information department of the Bureau of Immigration from 1907 to 1921.

Sylvis, William (1828-1869): An iron molder, Sylvis joined the local the molder's union in 1857 and helped organized the Iron Molders' International Union. He founded the National Labor Union in 1866 and served as its president from 1868 to 1869. One of the most important labor leaders of his day, Sylvis was one of the first to lobby for the creation of a Department of Labor.

Wright, Carroll Davidson (1840-1909): Wright, a statistician, served in the Massachusetts senate from 1872 to 1873, and worked as president of Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts, from 1902 until 1909. As the U.S. commissioner of labor, he organized the Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted objective research on various labor problems. He also authored two books: The Industrial Evolution of the United States (1887) and Battles of Labor (1906).

See also: American Federation of Labor; Department of Labor; Knights of Labor; Panic of 1873.



Lombardi, John. Labor's Voice in the Cabinet. New York:AMS Press, 1968.


Grossman, Jonathan. "The Origin of the U.S. Department of Labor" [cited 17 October 2002]. <http://www.dol.gov/asp/programs/history/dolorigabridge.htm>.

Additional Resources


Powderly, Terence Vincent. The Path I Trod. New York:AMS Press, 1968.

—Lisa A. Ennis

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