General Trades' Union

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General Trades' Union

United States 1833


From 1800 to 1840 dramatic changes occurred within the U.S. economy primarily in response to the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of skilled craftsmen and artisans, the bulk of nonfarm workers before the nineteenth century, were increasingly unemployed (or were given reduced wages) as industries became larger and more mechanized and used more unskilled and semiskilled workers. As factories became larger, employers became more detached from their greater numbers of employees. Employers, as a result, became less concerned with the individual worker. Because large-scale production of goods reduced the need for skilled artisans and craftsmen, these men joined unions so as to preserve their heritage and to join together to fight for their common good. As a result, trade union interest grew in popularity during this time.

The General Trades' Union formed in New York City in 1833 with the purpose of uniting under one organization all of the trade societies of New York. The goal of this central union was better coordination between the various trade unions in the New York City area, conflict resolution with employers, and maintenance of a fund for striking laborers.


  • 1809: Progressive British industrialist Robert Owen proposes an end to employment of children in his factories. When his partners reject the idea, he forms an alliance with others of like mind, including the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
  • 1813: Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
  • 1818: Donkin, Hall & Gamble "Preservatory" in London produces the first canned foods.
  • 1824: Ludwig van Beethoven composes his Ninth Symphony.
  • 1829: Greece wins its independence after a seven-year war with Turkey.
  • 1831: Unsuccessful Polish revolt takes place against Russian rule.
  • 1834: British mathematician Charles Babbage completes drawings for the "analytic engine," a forerunner of the modern computer that he never builds.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1835: American inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse constructs an experimental version of his telegraph, and American inventor Samuel Colt patents his revolver.
  • 1837: Coronation of Queen Victoria in England takes place.
  • 1841: Act of Union joins Upper Canada and Lower Canada, which consist of parts of the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively.
  • 1846: American inventor Elias Howe patents his sewing machine.

Event and Its Context

Before the 1830s, skilled artisans and craftsmen formed the majority of U.S. nonfarm workers. They were generally independent from the organizations that bought their finished goods and produced for a limited local market and for limited profits. These highly skilled people worked in small, independent shops and learned their trades by advancing from apprentice to journeyman to master artisan in such traditional occupations as butchers, carpenters, and tailors. These craftsmen were extremely independent and immensely proud of the quality of their finished products.

The Factory System

Beginning as early as the 1780s, and even more so after 1825, the system that had used artisans and craftsmen began to deteriorate. It eventually collapsed as a side effect of rapid industrial development in the New England states, especially in New York City. Equipped with new machinery, large supplies of raw materials, and increasing numbers of cheap immigrant and rural migrant laborers, many merchants performed assembly work of their finished goods in early "sweatshops." The beginning of the factory system resulted in skilled workers making smaller wages and being less in demand. With the labor market demanding ever-greater quantities of produced products, the result was a loss of status and independence for these artisans and craftsmen.

Larger consumer markets opened up as transportation systems such as railroads, waterways, and roadways expanded throughout the country. Technological advancements allowed more variety and quantity of goods to reach more customers from the East coast to the Ohio Valley. The New England states led this advancement. The steam engine contributed to the progress and encouraged factories to increase operations. Merchant and craft entrepreneurs bought large amounts of raw materials and hired out simpler jobs to low-skilled, low-paid workers who were mainly women and immigrants. The increased demand for finished goods could be met by hiring large numbers of unskilled workers for low wages, thus replacing the skilled worker. Low-skilled workers took over more and more of the skilled workers' activities during the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the 1830s the general factory worker began to outnumber the craftsmen and artisans. In addition, the craftsmen and artisans who had previously worked independently from home or from small, local shops were more likely required to work for a company outside the home, and were for the first time in their lives at the direction of a boss.

Interest in Trade Unions

Trade union interest in the United States grew in popularity in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. Unskilled and semiskilled workers who ran the new machinery and equipment inside the new factories and manufacturing facilities often replaced skilled craftsmen and tradesmen. The mass-produced finished goods that were manufactured by machines and unskilled laborers were rapidly replacing the hand-made articles once produced by skilled craftsmen.

The process was gradual as different products transferred from craft to factory production at different rates. In New York City that transition occurred mainly during the first half of the nineteenth century. For example, before the 1830s shoe craftsmen hand made a pair of shoes from start to finish. Beginning in the 1830s, low-skilled laborers began to make everything but the final shoe assembly. The displaced artisans fiercely opposed each transition, from the early ones in the 1830s, such as the bakers, printers, and cordwainers (artisans who dealt in goods such as shoes, hats, coats, and purses), to those several decades later, such as the butchers and luxury furniture makers.

Workers Organize in Response

Skilled workers who were disgruntled with the decreasing employment opportunities and declining wages began the first period of mass union-building in the United States during the early nineteenth century. These professionals tried to prevent the collapse of their craft system and to preserve their earlier status. In the early 1830s attempts at trade union activity occurred in the country's northern seaport cities, especially in large cities such as New York City and Philadelphia. This union activity often resulted in strikes over reductions of wages and job skills and sometimes culminated in violence and arrests. For instance, shoebinders in Massachusetts struck in 1831 and, because of their success, struck again in 1833. The Boston Ship Carpenters demanded a 10-hour workday when they struck in 1832.

By the mid-1830s workers in many industries and communities had organized. These precursors of the modern trade union were called trade guilds or societies. By 1828 many of these professionals had joined organizations that lobbied for reform and equality for employees. The rapid development of the unions led to a movement for a closer association so as to better promote their common aims. As employers became larger and more powerful, the small trade societies needed to do likewise and become larger trade unions for their mutual benefit and protection. When the U.S. labor movement began around 1830, three demands motivated workers to form unions: (1) the 10-hour workday, (2) education for workers, and (3) wages in legal tender, or coin money, instead of the banks' paper money.

The General Trades' Union

The first large trade union, the General Trades' Union (GTU), organized in New York City on 14 August 1833. The purpose of this central union was to encourage closer cooperation between the many trade unions already in existence in the New York City area, provide coordinated assistance during conflicts with employers, and create a fund to assist striking laborers. From the start the GTU was a very public organization. It celebrated its creation with a public parade displaying its new emblem, the GTU banner bearing a likeness of Archimedes lifting a mountain with a lever. The GTU made it known that it was a new type of organization dedicated solely to the advancement and protection of journeymen wage earners from various crafts.

The General Trades' Union linked all the trade societies of New York in one organization. Wage earners for the first time united as a "band of brothers" allied against the business capitalists and entrepreneur-owners. Ely Moore, a journeyman printer, was elected as its first president. Moore was a strong organizer, effective administrator, and eloquent speaker for union activities. John Commerford, a cabinet and chairmaker, became its second president, replacing Moore in 1834 (when he left to become president of the newly formed National Trades' Union). Commerford asserted that the skilled craftsmen were only seen as commodities to the employers. The GTU newspaper, The Union, declared that workers must "preserve the inheritance for which their fathers have fought."

The GTU spread across many cities along the eastern seaboard, including Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. By 1835 well-organized networks of trade unions developed in New York City and Philadelphia. One year later the number of unions in the network had grown to 13, with 52 local societies in New York, 53 in Philadelphia, 23 in Baltimore, and 16 in Boston. Together, these GTU chapters represented the beginning of an active industrial American laboring class that was organized against harsh employer conditions. These trade unions helped to bring about a dramatic social transformation for the working class.

New York City

The most important of these new central trade unions, the GTU in New York City, eventually unionized nearly two-thirds of the city's male artisans. GTU president Ely Moore spoke to the GTU in 1833 and emphasized the core beliefs of the trade union, with emphasis on words such as "artisans," "laborers," "workingmen," "producing classes," "journeymen," "mechanics," and "brothers."

The GTU of New York City initiated one of the first strikes in the United States. A fierce disagreement between journeymen and employers occurred over higher wages and quickly spread to other craftsmen. After a month of striking throughout New York City, the employers met the strikers' demands. In another strike, carpenters in New York struck to drive home their demand for wages to be set at $1.75 day (a 25-cent raise). Successful in their demands, they quickly struck again for $2 a day. This newfound power, eventually known as collective bargaining, became the motivation for craftsmen all over New York City to unite.

National Trades Union

Cooperation among various cities was clearly as advantageous as cooperation within one city. In 1834 the GTU of New York City issued an invitation to trade unions in other cities to form a national organization. Trade unions in New York City, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and Poughkeepsie met in New York City, sending a total of 30 delegates representing approximately 21,000 members.

The GTU founded the National Trades Union (NTU) in New York City on 3 December 1834. The delegates elected Ely Moore, the president of the New York City GTU, as its first president. The NTU was the first attempt at a national labor federation. Its major goals were to (1) suggest measures to the various unions to promote the moral and intellectual interests and welfare of the working classes, (2) publish and disseminate information to members, (3) promote the establishment of GTUs throughout the United States, and (4) unite the efforts of the country's working classes.

By 1836 membership of the NTU numbered 300,000, which represented between 20 and 33 percent of all urban workers in those areas. By 1837, however, the NTU was eliminated, likely a combination of the declining wages and unemployment caused by an economic downturn (called the "Panic of 1837") and friction between groups within the union. During this time the unions had less power because reduced demand for workers enabled employers to dictate wages. Workers fled the unions, fearing employer retaliation. Although short-lived, the NTU was the first concerted effort to establish a national federation of trade unions. It established the precedent for future national labor organizations and proved that the labor movement of the 1830s did have strength. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment was uniting labor leaders from various parts of the country and thus providing a sense of common purpose and support to the laboring community. The NTU basically encouraged workers in the belief that improvements, such as the change from the 12-to a 10-hour workday, were necessary in the workplace.

Impact on Subsequent Labor Organizing

The union activities of the GTU represented the beginning of an active industrial American working class. It was found to enable workers to stand up for their economic rights during a period of dramatic social reform. Even though the depression of 1837 eliminated the early advances of labor reform, the 1830s union movement in New York and other port cities was significant because of its concerted attack on the powerful industrial system. John Commerford summed up the thoughts of labor: "Men would be judged by their labor's worth, as productive citizens, and not be reduced to a dependent class, 'the willing tools of other men.'"

Key Players

Commerford, John (1830-1874): Commerford was a cabinet and chairmaker in Brooklyn, New York. He lived and worked in New York City for many years. Commerford was president of the New York Chairmakers' and Gilder' Union society. He was the leader of the United Working Men's Association in 1834, and the president of the Free Trade Association in 1842. Commerford ran for the U.S. Congress on the Lower East Side of New York on various third party tickets including the Republican in 1860.

Moore, Ely (1798-1861): Moore studied medicine and eventually became a printer. He was elected as a Jacksonian to the 24th Congress and was reelected as a Democrat to the 25th (1835-1839). Moore was the political editor of the New York Evening Post from 1838 to 1839 and president of the board of trade and surveyor of the port of New York City from 1839 to 1845. President James Polk appointed Moore as United States marshal for the southern district of New York in 1845. Moore became owner and editor of the Warren Journal of Belvidere, New Jersey, then agent for the Miami and other Native American tribes in Kansas in 1853. He was appointed register of the United States land office in Lecompton, Kansas, from 1855 to 1860.

See also: National Trades Union.



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—William Arthur Atkins

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