Department of Labor

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Department of Labor

United States 1913


On 4 March 1913, only hours before he left office, President William H. Taft signed the legislation (Public Law 426-62) "to Create a Department of Labor" with cabinet status. The first attempts to form such an agency occurred after the Civil War when labor leader William Sylvis called for the creation of a Department of Labor with a secretary chosen from the ranks of working men. Between 1864 and 1900 more than 100 bills and resolutions related to a Department of Labor were introduced unsuccessfully. A Bureau of Labor, without cabinet status, was created on 27 June 1884 with Carroll D. Wright as its first commissioner. Labor leaders continued to lobby for a cabinet-rank department with mixed success. President Grover Cleveland signed a bill on 21 March 1888 that set up a toothless Department of Labor within the Department of Interior. This new department was subordinate again with a Department of Commerce and Labor (1903-1913), established by act on 14 February 1903, consolidating functions that previously had been scattered through several government departments and agencies. By the act of 4 March 1913, the Department of Commerce and Labor was divided into the Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor, which included the Bureau of Labor Statistics, formerly the Bureau of Labor; the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization; and the Children's Bureau. The secretary of labor had the power to "act as a mediator and to appoint commissioners of conciliation in labor disputes."


  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1911: In China, revolutionary forces led by Sun Yat-sen bring an end to more than 2,100 years of imperial rule.
  • 1913: In the month-long Second Balkan War, Bulgaria marches against Serbia and Greece but is defeated by an alliance of those two with Romania. A border dispute between Bulgaria and Turkey soon follows, resulting in the Turkish recapture of Adrianople.
  • 1913: Two incidents illustrate the increasingly controversial nature of the arts in the new century. Visitors to the 17 February Armory Show in New York City are scandalized by such works as Marcel Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which elicits vehement criticism, and theatergoers at the 29 May debut of Igor Stravinksy's ballet Le Sacré du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) are so horrified by the new work that a riot ensues.
  • 1913: In New York and Boston, striking garment workers win a pay raise and shorter hours.
  • 1913: Henry Ford develops the first moving assembly line.
  • 1913: Two new amendments are added to the U.S. Constitution: the Sixteenth (income tax) and Seventeenth (popular election of senators). Also, this year sees the passage of a bill creating the U.S. Federal Reserve System.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1919: With the formation of Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November, an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.

Event and Its Context

The creation of the U.S. Department of Labor with cabinet status came after a century in which the United States had remained a largely agricultural nation. Unskilled workers fared poorly in the early U.S. economy; they received as little as half the pay of skilled craftsmen, artisans, and mechanics. About 40 percent of the workers in the cities were low-wage laborers and seamstresses in clothing factories and often lived in dismal circumstances. With the rise of factories, children, women, and poor immigrants were commonly employed to run machines.

Rise of Industrialization

The late nineteenth century and the twentieth century witnessed a period of substantial industrial growth, as many Americans left farms and small towns to work in factories. The work-places were organized for mass production and characterized by a reliance on relatively unskilled labor and low wages. Against this background, the U.S. labor movement expanded, as labor unions gradually developed clout and a series of federal bureaus and agencies were created to deal with the complex issues it caused.

During the era of industrialization in America, between the Civil War and World War I, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions and frequent serious accidents with resulting economic and social losses prompted calls for the government to take action. The initial pressure for government remedies came primarily from labor groups. Investigations by state labor bureaus of dangers to workers' safety and health helped fuel a successful drive by labor for state factory acts in the industrial North, beginning with the Massachusetts Factory Act of 1877. The system of factory inspection that evolved produced significant improvements in the workplace. After 1900, middle-and upper-class Progressives added their support to the movement for government regulation of workers' safety and health. These reformers sought to overcome shortcomings that had developed in factory legislation and enforcement. They also introduced the twin innovations of workers' compensation and administrative rule-making by industrial commissions. To complement these new public initiatives, many corporations established voluntary safety programs. In addition, industrial health received special scientific and public attention in the so-called Progressive Era (1900-1917) and was the subject of several government and private investigations.

The first steps toward legislation and regulation were the investigation of conditions and publication of the results. In response to labor lobbying and public concern for the condition of the working classes, most states had established bureaus of labor statistics. Massachusetts set up the first such bureau in 1869. These bureaus conducted investigations into all facets of labor and industry and published the data in their annual reports. One of their primary concerns was the emerging problem of hazardous industrial working conditions. The bureaus sent questionnaires to employers; interviewed workers; collected descriptive and statistical data on deaths, injuries, and illnesses; and investigated unhealthy trades. The bureaus' reports also included examples of safe and healthful workplaces. These published accounts constituted a relatively unscientific but often shocking survey of the conditions under which millions of Americans worked. State bureaus helped arouse public opinion to rally behind labor's campaign for protective legislation.

After Massachusetts, states that followed with state inspection bureaus were Rhode Island, a textile manufacturing state, and its Bureau of Industrial Statistics; the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics, which published one of the first large-scale surveys of industrial accidents in a report on workers' compensation; the New Jersey Bureau of Statistics on Labor and Industry, which attempted to produce useful statistics on occupational health; and the Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Pennsylvania, which listed all reported victims of industrial accidents alphabetically by name, with brief descriptions of the cause and nature of the accident, especially those in sweat-shops. Ohio also published individual descriptions of serious accidents, some poignant, some repulsive, in the annual reports of its Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wisconsin did not require employers to report workplace accidents to its Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, though some volunteered the information anyway. Minnesota also lacked mandatory reporting of industrial accidents, but, like Pennsylvania, it did list known accidents individually in its reports.

As early as the 1830s, labor groups investigated shop safety and health conditions and published accounts of them but in the 1870s and in the early 1880s, labor groups such as the Knights of Labor were the driving force behind the establishment of state labor statistics bureaus and state factory legislation. Enforcement of the laws gradually came under close scrutiny from historians, social scientists, and even state legislatures. These groups traced the origins of workers' safety and health laws and the history of factory inspection and evaluated the system that had developed. Some looked closely at one state, and others surveyed the national picture. During the Progressive Era, there was considerable interest in investigation and amelioration of hazardous working conditions. President Theodore Roosevelt helped labor interests. He championed the conservation movement, one of his favorite causes; he broadened its scope to include human life. Social reformers helped Roosevelt's cause immeasurably by establishing settlement houses, assisting workers and their families, and entreating employers to eliminate dangerous working conditions and other abuses. Muckraking journalists and others gave nationwide publicity to accidents and unsafe conditions.

In 1884, when Germany became the first country to provide compensation to workers injured in accidents, other countries quickly followed suit. In the United States, however, workers still had to sue their employers for compensation for injuries. It was difficult or almost impossible, under common law principles, to prove to a jury that the employer was at fault, so the size of awards varied enormously. States started to change this, however, partly from pressure by organized labor. By the early 1900s a few states had passed rather weak workmen's compensation laws. These did not hold up in court or were too limited in coverage, such as the one in Maryland, whose 1902 law providing accident compensation regardless of fault was declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court in 1904.

In the early 1900s labor started to support workmen's compensation after years of opposition. Awards were sometimes very large, but workers wanted a safe workplace more than compensation for injuries. Then, in 1908 the U.S. government initiated a rather limited compensation system for its employees that sparked interest at the state level. In 1909 New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota set up commissions to investigate the question of employers' liability for accidents; eight states followed in 1910, and nine more came aboard in 1911. The reports of these commissions showed that most employers were in favor of workmen's compensation; in May 1911 Wisconsin became the first state to establish a workmen's compensation system. By 1921, 46 jurisdictions had workmen's compensation laws in force.

First Efforts for a Labor Bureau

The origin of the U.S. Department of Labor grew from these struggles, but its development was a long one. The idea for an actual labor bureau began after the Civil War when William Sylvis, the most important labor leader of his day, advocated the creation of a Department of Labor. He protested that there was no department whose "sole object the care and protection of labor." He and his followers petitioned President Andrew Johnson for a secretary of labor, chosen from the ranks of working men, to be labor's voice in the cabinet. Between 1864 and 1900 more than 100 bills and resolutions relating to a Department of Labor were introduced in Congress. In 1867 the House of Representatives created a standing committee on labor, marking the first federal recognition of labor's importance, but the campaign for a national Department of Labor died, temporarily, with the death of Sylvis in 1869.

After several state bureaus of labor were established, beginning in Massachusetts, labor refocused its strategy to create a federal labor department. By the late 1870s and early 1880s, the movement for a U.S. bureau grew as the American economy recovered from the 1873 depression and labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor expanded their political influence.

In the 48th Congress, a bill was introduced to establish a Bureau of Labor to collect information on the subject of working people and the "means of promoting their material, social, intellectual, and moral prosperity." The Senate approved, and President Chester Arthur signed the bill (27 June 1884). The new bureau was placed in the Department of the Interior and, after tense negotiations between labor leaders and President Arthur, Carroll D. Wright of the Massachusetts labor bureau became the first U.S. commissioner of labor, a position he was able to retain into the next administration.

The new Bureau of Labor was a success, and it was supported by organized labor, which lobbied Congress for larger appropriations. President Cleveland recommended a larger staff and budget for the new bureau to facilitate investigation and arbitration of labor disputes. Labor leaders continued to campaign for a more influential "National Department of Labor" with cabinet status. In 1888 a bill for such a purpose, with support from the Knights of Labor, went to committee, which dropped the idea of cabinet rank because the Bureau of Labor did not have enough support in Congress to gain cabinet status. Instead, the Department of Labor would be independent of the Department of Interior. The bill passed with only token opposition. On 21 March 1888 Cleveland signed the bill into law. Carroll Wright headed the new department; he held the post for many years.

The new Department of Labor, even without cabinet status, gained much-needed prestige. Its reports covered subjects ranging from railroad labor, industrial education, and working women to the effect of machinery on labor, labor legislation, compulsory insurance, and housing for working people. In addition, in 1895 the department inaugurated the Bulletin of Labor, now the Monthly Labor Review.

Beginning in the 1890s, congressmen introduced bills to establish a Department of Commerce in which the existing Department of Labor again would be reduced to a subordinate bureau. Labor leaders strongly opposed this and revived demands for their own "direct representative in the councils of the President." There was little chance of success with the growing power of business and industry against it. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he wanted a cabinet officer, to be designated secretary of commerce and industries, to deal with commerce in its broadest sense, including the concerns of labor. The 57th Congress introduced such a bill. The act to create a Department of Commerce and Labor passed with little opposition; President Roosevelt signed it on 14 February 1903 and appointed his private secretary, George B. Cortelyou, as the first secretary of commerce and labor.

Department of Labor Established

That same year, the American Federation of Labor persuaded the Democratic Party to adopt a plank in its platform that pledged "the enactment of a law creating a Department of Labor, represented separately in the President's Cabinet." The Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress in 1903, however, so the chances of such legislation were limited. Still, Democratic congressmen continued to introduce bills for a separate Department of Labor, but none gained sufficient support to pass. Then, in 1910 the Democrats won control of the House, and 15 union members won congressional seats. Congressman William B. Wilson, formerly an officer of the United Mine Workers, became chairman of the House Committee on Labor; he championed creating an independent department. Representative William Sulzer of New York introduced a Department of Labor bill in 1912, which passed the House with little opposition. It almost died in the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, but Senator William Borah (D-Idaho) rescued it and the Senate passed the bill without a record being kept of the votes.

President Taft did not like the bill, as he felt the new department would hinder efficient administration. As a lame duck president, however, Taft was in no position to oppose the legislation. Incoming president Woodrow Wilson had already selected former congressman William B. Wilson as the first secretary of labor, pending Senate confirmation, and his administration had enough support to reenact a similar measure over a last minute Taft "pocket veto." Instead, Taft tried to bargain for the use of antitrust laws against unions, a counterattack against organized labor's support of a "rider" to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill, which Taft opposed. The rider prevented money authorized for the Department of Justice from being used to prosecute organizations or individuals who combined for the purpose of bettering conditions of labor.

Taft signed the bill on 4 March 1913. That morning, the New York Times reported that the outgoing president might veto the bill, send his reasons to Congress, and give the advocates of the measure a chance to override his veto, if they could. After an early breakfast, with only a few hours before Woodrow Wilson took office, President Taft went to the executive office in the Senate, observed by the incoming president-elect, who arrived at the office before being received in the Senate. During the closing hours of his administration, Taft signed Public Law 426-62, "An Act to Create a Department of Labor." In his message to Congress on 4 March 1913, he wrote, "I sign this bill with considerable hesitation. … I forbear, however, to veto this bill, because my motive in doing so would be misunderstood. … The purpose of the Department of Labor shall be to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment."

The first headquarters of the new Department of Labor was across the street from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C.

Key Players

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): One of the most important figures in the U.S. labor movement, Gompers was founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor. He established the pattern of labor's struggles for improved working conditions. Beginning in the 1890s, he revived labor's demand for its own "direct representative in the councils of the President" and for an independent cabinet department. Gompers was the 1988 honoree in the Department of Labor's Hall of Fame.

Powderly, Terence Vincent (1849-1924): Powderly was a labor organizer and head of the Knights of Labor, the first successful trade union organization. He was a recognized spokesman for the "army of the discontented," an official in the Department of Commerce and Labor and, after its creation, a commissioner of conciliation in the Department of Labor. He advised President Cleveland to make the Bureau of Labor a cabinet department.

Sylvis, William H. (1828-1869): Sylvis was a Pennsylvania labor leader and president of the National Labor Union. He advocated the creation of a Department of Labor during the administration of President Andrew Johnson for the "sole object the care and protection of labor."

Wilson, William Bauchop (1862-1934): Wilson was a labor leader who helped organized the United Mine Workers of America, and U.S. congressman (D-Pennsylvania), in which capacity he was chairman of the House Committee on Labor. He was appointed the first secretary of labor by President Wilson shortly after the department's creation in early 1913.

Wright, Carroll Davidson (1840-1909): Wright was chief, Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, the first such organization in the world, and the first commissioner of the Department of Labor (without cabinet rank) in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

See also: Bureau of Labor; Department of Commerce and Labor; Knights of Labor.



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Lombardi, John. Labor's Voice in the Cabinet: A History of the Department of Labor from Its Origin to 1921. New York: Columbia University, 1942.

MacLaury, Judson. "Labor, Department of." In A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government, edited by George T. Kurian. New York and Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.

Morris, Richard B. Government and Labor in Early America.New York: Columbia University, 1946.

Powderly, Terence V. Thirty Years of Labor. Revised ed.Cleveland, OH: Excelsior, 1890.

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Grossman, Jonathan, "The Origin of the U.S. Department of Labor." Monthly Labor Review (March 1973): 3-7.

Weinstein, James. "Big Business and the Origins of Workmen's Compensation." Labor History (spring 1967): 159-160, 162-170.


MacLaury, Judson. Telephone interview by the author. 30August 2002.

Public Law No. 426, Chapter 141. "An Act to Create a Department of Labor." U.S. Statutes at Large. 62nd Congress, Session III. (1912-1913): 736-738.

U.S. Department of Labor. The Anvil and the Plow: A History of the United States Department of Labor, 1913-1963. Compiled and edited by O. L. Harvey. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Labor, Office of Information, Publications, and Reports; for sale by the Government Printing Office, 1963.

U.S. Department of Labor. Reports of the Department of Labor, 1913; Report of the Secretary of Labor [William B. Wilson] and Reports of the Bureaus. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1914.

U.S. Department of Labor Web site [cited 9 October 2002]. <>.

—Martin J. Manning

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