International Labor Union

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International Labor Union

United States 1878


The International Labor Union (ILU) was an alliance of U.S. radical labor activists with Marxist-influenced socialists. The ILU was seen as an attempted successor of the National Labor Union (1866-1872), but one that would avoid the diffuse reformism (particularly the allure of "greenback" monetary reform schemes and premature electoralism) that had contributed to the latter's decline. Although the ILU enjoyed only limited success, it was a direct forerunner of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which in turn was the first incarnation of the American Federation of Labor. The ILU differed from those organizations in that they consisted predominantly of skilled workers organized into craft unions, whereas the ILU was the first major labor organization in the U.S. to focus on organizing unskilled workers on an industrial basis.


  • 1858: British explorer John Hanning Speke locates Lake Victoria, which he correctly identifies as the source of the Nile.
  • 1863: The world's first subway opens, in London.
  • 1868: Congressional efforts to impeach President Andrew Johnson prove unsuccessful, but they do result in his removal from any direct influence on Reconstruction policy and ensure his replacement by Ulysses S. Grant as the Republican presidential candidate later that year.
  • 1871: Boss Tweed corruption scandal occurs in New York City.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1878: Russo-Turkish War, begun in 1877, ends with the defeat of Turkey, which ceases to be an important power in Europe. The Treaty of San Stefano concluding the war is revised by the Congress of Berlin, which realigns the balance of power in southeastern Europe.
  • 1878: First commercial telephone exchange opens, in New Haven, Connecticut.
  • 1878: Thomas Edison develops a means of cheaply producing and transmitting electric current, which he succeeds in subdividing so as to make it adaptable to household use. The value of shares in gas companies plummets as news of his breakthrough reaches Wall Street.
  • 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act, a treaty between the United States and China, provides for restrictions on immigration of Chinese workers.
  • 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.
  • 1888: With a series of murders in London's seedy Whitechapel district, Jack the Ripper—whose identity remains a subject of debate—becomes the first known serial murder.

Event and Its Context

The ILU was initiated by participants in the International Workingmen's Association (First International) who had been involved in the formation of the Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUS). In late 1877 the WPUS had changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and embarked on a course of electoral action. Believing this electoral course was premature, ILU organizers chose a path of union organizing for the purpose of building a more practical form of working-class action.

Radical Program for Labor Organizing

The radicalism of the ILU was written into its program, which declared, "The wage system is a despotism under which the wage-worker is forced to sell his labor at such price and under such conditions as the employer of labor shall dictate." This strategic orientation asserted that "as the wealth of the world is distributed through the wage system, its better distribution must come through higher wages and better opportunities, until wages shall represent the earnings and not the necessities of labor; thus melting profit upon labor out of existence, and making cooperation, or self-employed labor, the natural and logical step from wages slavery to free labor." The perspective was expressed in terms of revolutionary democracy: "The victory over 'divine-right' rulership must be supplemented by a victory over property-rights rulers; for there can be no government of the people, by the people, and for the people, where the many are dependent upon the few for an existence."

The practical objectives enumerated in the program included reduction of hours of labor, higher wages, workplace inspection, abolition of child and convict labor, occupational health and safety, establish labor bureaus, labor education (through labor press, lectures), employment of a general organizer, and the final abolition of the wage system. The ILU program concluded with an emphasis on the need to organize unions. As ILU President George McNeill asserted, the ILU offered "a plan by which the unorganized masses and local unions can become affiliated." Carl Speyer, who became ILU general secretary, later explained that the ILU should function "chiefly to organize the unskilled laborers," because "to induce mechanics [i.e., skilled workers] to join us would be interfering with the Trade Unions who regard the International Labor Union as an associate." As Samuel Gompers, who became involved in the ILU's organizing efforts, explained, its goal "was to get the yet unorganized into trade unions, thus build up trade organizations, and prepare the way for the national amalgamation of all organizations."

Vision and Reality

Within the labor movement the response to the ILU program was generally positive. The influential National Labor Tribune commented that "the consummation of this comprehensive plan will be pregnant with results of the most lasting importance to the wage-workers in America, particularly, and generally throughout the civilized world of manufacturers," and lauded the plan as "eminently practical."

SLP national secretary Philip Van Patten was less effusive. "The International Labor Union is far from perfect, and is unfortunately afflicted with a narrow-minded management," he wrote. He noted that "its plans and its platform, however, are good," and urged socialists to participate in, and help "purify" it. In fact, SLP members such as Albert Parsons and George Schilling were centrally involved and served on the ILU provisional central committee along with George Gunton, J. P. McDonnell (who edited the weekly Labor Standard, which became an ILU mainstay), George McNeill, Friedrich Sorge, Ira Steward, and Otto Weydemeyer.

In all, 18 states were represented on the provisional steering committee, and the ILU's breadth of vision was nothing if not expansive. As George McNeill put it, the organization sought "to band together Jew, Greek, Irishman, American, English and German, and all nationalities in a grand labor brotherhood" for the purpose of struggling "until freedom shall be achieved for all." Yet Gompers later noted that the ILU "failed of its national purpose and became an organization of textile workers … chiefly in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts."

Nonetheless, in its first year, the ILU's membership rose from 700 to 8,000. The efforts to organize the unskilled textile workers, however, was hampered by the fact, as Gompers put it, that "there was more spirit than organization or money," Strikes led by the ILU organizers were broken by hunger. The result was rapid decline. By 1880 the ILU had only eight branches with a total of 1,500 members, and by1881 it had collapsed into a single branch that lingered on until 1887, by which time most of those associated with the ILU had long departed for more fruitful organizing efforts.


The agitation of the ILU had an immediate effect of preparing the ground for the organization of a number of local assemblies of the Knights of Labor in some of the areas in which the trade union efforts had failed. The ideas, experience, and cadres of the ILU were also absorbed, to a large extent, in the later formation of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The failure to organize unskilled workers on an industrial basis also influenced future leaders of the AFL and contributed to making that body incline toward a more exclusive focus on skilled workers in craft unions.

Key Players

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Prominent in the Cigar Makers Union, Gompers became the long-time (1886-1924) and increasingly conservative president of the American Federation of Labor, a spokesman for the "pure and simple union" orientation initially developed by his colleague Adolph Strasser. In his later years he became an outright opponent of socialism (though never lost his admiration for Karl Marx, whose outlook he viewed as consistent with his own "pure and simple" unionism).

Gunton, George (1847-1919): British-born textile worker, Gunton became associated with Ira Steward's eight-hour movement and spent a number of years in labor reform efforts. He published Wealth and Progress (1887), based on Steward's unpublished writings, and then became editor of the magazine Social Economist, whose name was later changed to Gunton's Magazine. In later years he severed connections with the labor movement and, according to Selig Perlman, "became one of the best-known defenders of the trusts."

McDonnell, J. P. (1840-1906): An Irish revolutionary, ex-Fenian, and former secretary to Karl Marx in the First International, McDonnell became prominent in socialist and labor politics upon his arrival in the United States in the 1870s. He remained editor of the Labor Standard after it disaffiliated from the WPUS, was prominent in various labor reform efforts, and became the leader of the New Jersey Federation of Trades and Labor Unions from its founding in 1883 until his death in 1906.

McNeill, George E. (1837-1906): A lifelong labor activist, author, and editor of a number of works (including the 1887 classic, The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-Day), McNeill was a leading activist in the eight-hour leagues, the Knights of Labor (and was author of its declaration of principles), and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He lobbied for various labor reforms, served as deputy director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics (1869-1873), edited and served on the editorial staff of a number of labor newspapers, ran unsuccessfully for mayor on the United Labor Party ticket in 1886, and represented the AFL at the1897 British Trade Union Congress.

Parsons, Albert (1848-1887): Parsons was a Confederate war veteran in Texas who fell in love with and married a woman of color (Lucy Gonzales, at least partly African American, perhaps also Indian and Mexican). Parsons subsequently became a Radical Republican; with the collapse of Reconstruction in Texas, he fled with his wife to Chicago where they both become active in radical labor activities. Active in Typographical Workers Union, he was blacklisted after 1877, at which time he became a full-time labor and socialist activist. Editor of the revolutionary paper The Alarm in the 1880s and a leader of the radical wing of the eight-hour movement, he was victimized as one of the Haymarket martyrs and executed in 1887.

Schilling, George (1850-1938): Initially a cooper by trade, active in socialist politics for many years (running for mayor of Chicago on the Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1881), Schilling was also involved in the Knights of Labor, the eight-hour movement, and the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly. He was prominent in the defense of the Haymarket defendants. In the 1890s he became an aide to Democratic governor John Peter Altgeld (under whom he served as secretary of the Illinois Labor Department), and was active in Chicago's "single-tax" club.

Sorge, Friedrich (1827-1906): Sorge was a music teacher who emigrated to the United States after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution in Germany. He joined the Communist Club in New York City in 1858, conducted an extensive correspondence with Marx and Engels, and became a central figure in the North American sections of the First International. After its dissolution, he was a founder of the WPUS, then left it to help build the International Labor Union. In the 1890s Sorge wrote a classic history, Labor Movement in the United States, which was serialized in the German Marxist journal Neue Zeit.

Speyer, Carl (1845-?): German-born leader of the New York City furniture workers, Speyer was a member of the General Council of the First International and a founding member of the Workingmen's Party of the United States in 1876. In the same year he helped to reorganize the Trades and Labor Council in New York. In the 1880s he edited the journal of the Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Steward, Ira (1831-1883): A machinist and member of Machinists and Blacksmiths International Union, Steward was a pioneer in arguing and agitating for the eight-hour work-day. In his union he secured passage of a resolution for the eight-hour day in 1863 and became a tireless advocate of workday reduction. He gave speeches and lectures, wrote articles and pamphlets, and helped to organize 10-hour and eight-hour leagues dedicated to that goal. Sorge helped secure passage of an effective 10-hour law for women and children in Massachusetts. He believed that a reduction in hours of labor would ultimately bring about a redistribution of wealth and also allow workers more time to press for other reforms.

Otto, Weydemeyer: Son of Joseph Weydemeyer (a hero of the1848 Revolution in Germany and of the Civil War in the United States), and like his father close to Karl Marx, Otto Weydemeyer was a leading member of the International Workingmen's Association (the First International). He was the first to translate into English portions of Capital, which was initially published as a series of articles in the Labor Standard, then as a pamphlet for U.S. workers.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU); First International; Knights of Labor; Workingmen's Party of the United States.



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Commons, John R., et al. History of Labor in the United States, Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1918.

Fink, Gary, ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor.Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

Gompers, Samuel. Seventy Years of Life and Labor. New York: E. P. Dutton Co., 1925.

Kaufman, Stuart Bruce. Samuel Gompers and the Origins of the American Federation of Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.

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—Paul Le Blanc

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