National Labor Union

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National Labor Union

United States 1866


The first congress of the National Labor Union (NLU) was held in Baltimore, Maryland, on 20-23 August 1866. The purpose of the NLU was to bring together disparate labor unions to work for common goals important to all working men and women. Its primary concern was to reduce the 10-hour workday to eight hours.

One of the NLU's most outstanding accomplishments was the passage of labor reform for federal government workers, including attainment of the eight-hour day. The NLU was also largely responsible for the creation of the Department of Labor.


  • 1846: American inventor Elias Howe patents his sewing machine.
  • 1851: Britain's Amalgamated Society of Engineers applies innovative organizational concepts, including large contributions from, and benefits to, members, as well as vigorous use of direct action and collective bargaining.
  • 1856: British inventor Henry Bessemer introduces his process for producing steel cheaply and efficiently.
  • 1859: Building of the Suez Canal begins.
  • 1862: Though Great Britain depends on cotton from the American South, it is more dependent on grain from the North and therefore refuses to recognize the Confederacy.
  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 1866: Austrian monk Gregor Mendel presents his theories on the laws of heredity. Though his ideas will be forgotten for a time, they are destined to exert enormous influence on biological study in the twentieth century.
  • 1866: Dynamite and the Winchester repeating rifle are invented.
  • 1866: Prussia defeats Austria in the Seven Weeks' War.
  • 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.
  • 1872: The Crédit Mobilier affair, in which several officials in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are accused of receiving stock in exchange for favors, is the first of many scandals that are to plague Grant's second term.
  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell introduces the telephone.

Event and Its Context

William Sylvis was a labor organizer who believed that the best way to achieve common goals was to bring together as many unions as possible. Sylvis met with representatives of the New York coachmakers union and the printers union in February 1866 to begin the process of organizing the first National Labor Union (NLU) congress for August of that year.

The first congress convened on 20 August in the Front Street Theater in Baltimore. To welcome the delegates, organizers hung a banner on Baltimore Street that read, "Welcome Sons of Toil—From North and South, East and West." Sylvis was ill and unable to attend but sent in his place a trusted colleague, Isaac Neil. The congress was called to order by William Cather, president of the Trade Assembly of Maryland. Cather nominated John Hinchcliffe, who represented several unions in Illinois, for president and J. D. Ware of Pennsylvania as secretary. The motions passed, and the congress was officially under way. J. C. C. Whaley became president and C. W. Gibson assumed the post of secretary.

Mr. Rand of the Boston Bookbinders Union opened the day with a call for an eight-hour day, an issue of common interest to all attendees. Sylvis had laid out his personal belief about the ills of the 10-hour workday. His ideology was common among the delegates at the congress. The organizers considered the eight-hour workday crucial for workers' intellectual, social, and physical growth. Working all day bred ignorance because it left no time for reading or for education. Socially, an eight-hour day was important, as the extra hours in the day could be spent in pursuit of cultural enlightenment and with family and friends. Physically, the eight-hour day was crucial, because working too long took too much of a toll on the human body and shortened workers' life spans.

The congress also addressed the high rents that the companies charged the workers for company-owned housing. This burden ensured that the workers would have to work long days to meet their financial obligations. The delegates decided not to use strikes in the attempt to gain the eight-hour workday.

Rand spoke about his own commitment to the attainment of the eight-hour workday. He shared his views that the NLU should also work toward the implementation of year-round work for all workers rather than the seasonal work that left so many workers destitute for part of the year. Rand refered to the labor gains that had been made possible because of the strength of the labor movement in Great Britain. "As long as we are united we cease to be weak," Rand said to rally the crowd, according to the 21 August 1866 edition of the Baltimore Sun.

Harding, one of the organizers of the congress, urged workers to fight for the eight-hour day and, according the Baltimore Sun, stated his belief that the congress would "lay the foundation of future strength for the workingmen of America." Hinchcliffe said that although this congress was not as large as some that had been held, it was of great historical importance because it affected the well-being of millions of men and women workers. The organization would be the first national labor federation.

Additional Demands

As the congress went into its second and third days, the delegates voiced and voted on other demands. Hinchcliffe stated his hope that political affiliations would not get in the way of the larger, more important labor goals. This point would be reiterated several times over the remaining two days.

Sylvis believed that land monopoly was the source of great tyranny in the United States, and his opinion was circulated at the congress. The meeting also articulated demands for appropriate governmental disbursement of public lands. Public lands, the delegates held, should be given to settlers who would live on and work the land, rather than allocating large tracts of land and thus permitting the formation of monopolies among wealthy individuals and companies that had been accumulating these lands. The delegates were not satisfied by a simple statement of intent, however, and voted to include a demand that the government provide every man a farm and support until that farm was self-sufficient. Only in this way did the delegates and Sylvis believe that workers could gain control of their labor and their lives.

The delegates resolved that the government should create the demand for railroads by making the lands that were accessible to them available for settlers, fixing a minimal price for them, and then granting the proceeds of that land for the building of the railroads.

The congress also addressed the issue of taxes. The NLU voted to work toward the abolition of income taxes for everyone, which would free working men and women from the unfair burden that these taxes imposed on the working class. To compensate for the money lost, the NLU suggested that the government should tax landowners exclusively. Another issue of concern was the national debt, and the delegates agreed to demand that the wealthy should be taxed directly to pay it off.

The congress also protested the ill treatment of women who worked in factories. This was quite unusual, as women's rights in the workplace were of little concern to anyone besides the women themselves. The delegates passed a resolution to support the Sewing Women's Union and other working women in exchange for the women's support.

Women were not the only group that the 1866 NLU congress resolved to support. Although Sylvis was personally prejudiced against African Americans, he did allow them to join the NLU when the congress resolved that "all workingmen be included within its rank, without regard to race or nationality." Sylvis and the NLU recognized that to accomplish their agenda they must collaborate with all unions. This spirit would eventually lead the NLU to accept membership from all trade unionists, eight-hour champions, women's rights advocates, immigrants, African Americans, and farmers. Unity for many groups was achieved at a price. Each group wanted its own agenda to be considered, but that was not feasible, so compromises were made for the good of the NLU agenda, in particular the eight-hour day.

The congress closed with the committed delegates vowing to return to their homes and work toward the achievement of the agenda that had been set forth. They believed that with the combination of organization and agitation that they could change the lives of working men in the United States. Sylvis felt that although the congress was a step in the right direction, there was still not a strong organizational frame that would allow union members enough support to accomplish the agreed-upon agenda.

The Second Congress

The second NLU congress convened in Chicago in August 1867. Sylvis attended along with 71 delegates representing 64 organizations. Other notable union leaders present were A. C. Cameron of the Illinois State Workingmen's Convention, Richard Trevellick from the Detroit Trades' Assembly, John Bingham from the American Miners' Association, and Harding and Hinchliffe. Sylvis focused on the social reforms that he wanted to see implemented. He had a talent for organization, and he brought this to the NLU and to the second congress. An article in the women's labor journal, The Revolution, stated that skillful leadership had finally emerged to lead the union.

The NLU in Action

The NLU's agenda continued to expand under Sylvis's direction. Social reforms such as cooperative enterprise, decent housing to replace the squalor of tenements, the end of convict labor, labor reforms for working women, the establishment of mechanics institutes, and the creation of a central government agency (the Department of Labor) to oversee labor statistics and to regulate trade unions and other labor bodies were all credited to him.

Sylvis and other NLU speakers worked tirelessly to get their message out to working men and women throughout the country. They toured the South, lecturing and meeting members of southern trade unions to invite them to join forces with the NLU. They printed fliers and articles and disseminated them throughout the South. They also wrote to many organizations in cities and states. All of this activity increased the NLU's visibility and membership.

Women's Rights

The second congress solidified the NLU stand on the inclusion of working women, as it moved to include women's demands for equal pay for equal work. The delegates subsequently urged elected officials to support this item, and state conventions throughout New England and New York adopted this resolution. Men in the NLU did not adopt the notion of equal pay for equal work because they were inherently concerned with women achieving equal rights; rather, it was an act of self-preservation. If women received the same pay as men, companies, they theorized, would hire men instead.

The second congress also passed a resolution to encourage women to learn skills, get involved in business activities, join men's unions or form their own unions for protection, and use every reasonable method available to convince employers to give them fair wages for fair work. At the time, women's wages were approximately one-fourth of men's.

At the 1868 congress Sylvis emerged as prosuffrage. The NLU admitted four women as delegates: Susan B. Anthony and Mary Kellogg from the New York Working Women's Protective Labor Union of Mount Vernon, New York; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, secretary of the National Woman's Suffrage Association; and Kate Mullaney, head of the Troy Collar Laundresses Union. There was some controversy over whether Stanton should be seated because she was a delegate from the suffrage movement rather than from a labor union. In the end she was allowed to attend. Mullaney was elected second vice president of the NLU. Although she was later declared ineligible on a technicality, this does not change the fact that for the first time a national federation of labor unions admitted a woman to the upper ranks.


Sylvis believed that the surest route to achieving equity for working men and women was through politics. In the beginning he believed that the NLU should place labor candidates on political tickets, but in the election of 1868, only 1,500 votes were cast for labor. This changed Sylvis' strategy. He now prompted the NLU to seek to convince politicians from the two major parties to address labor needs. Richard Trevellick, an NLU member, proved to be an effective lobbyist and convinced many congressmen to make labor concerns their own. It was in part thanks to Trevellick's lobbying activities that the NLU attained its greatest victory. In 1868 the U.S. Congress passed a law that gave government employees an eight-hour day. This was the first eight-hour day legislation, and it was seen as a huge victory by the NLU.

Government officials were not pleased with the new law, and they reacted by threatening to reduce their employees' pay to reflect the two-hour differential between the eight-and 10-hour day. The two sides reached a compromise in which it was agreed that the workers would do 10 hours' worth of work in eight hours. The issue of pay reduction versus work increase remained a topic of dissent for several years.

In 1869 the NLU was dealt what came to be a fatal blow with the sudden death of Sylvis. With Sylvis gone, the men no longer tolerated female delegates from suffrage organizations. The organization asked Susan B. Anthony to leave the congress. The union had become splintered when the political faction began to break off from the reform faction. By 1870 the division was official, and in 1872 the political branch renamed itself the Labor Reform Party. The 1873 and 1875 NLU congresses saw the remaining members trying valiantly to save the badly fractured group. Without anyone who could replicate Sylvis' organizational genius, the NLU was dead.


The NLU advanced the cause of labor in several important ways. The adoption of the eight-hour day for governmental employees; the repeal of the Contract Labor Act, which outlawed the influx of immigrants who would work to repay their passage to America; and the organization of many trade unions that brought the labor movement closer to the creation of a permanent national federation of labor were all crucial gains, as were the inclusion of women and African Americans.

Key Players

Anthony, Susan B. (1820-1906): Anthony was a labor activist and served as a delegate to the NLU congress in 1868. She published a union newspaper, The Revolution, which in 1868 called for equal pay for equal work and for an eight-hour day. In 1870 Anthony became president of the Workingwomen's Central Association. In the 1890s she was elected president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In this position she sought the support of labor unions. She remained a labor and suffrage activist until her death.

Mullaney, Kate (1845-1906): Mullaney was the head of the Troy Collar Laundry Union, second vice president of the NLU, and the first woman to hold an office in a national labor union.

Sylvis, William (1828-1869): Sylvis was the primary force in the formation of the NLU. His visions for labor and political reform were merged into the NLU, and upon his death the union fragmented and soon was disbanded.

Trevellick, Richard (1830-1895): Trevellick was a member of the Detroit Trades' Assembly and an excellent lobbyist. He was instrumental in the passage of the eight-hour day for government employees and remained devoted to lobbying for the eight-hour day for all working men and women throughout his life.

See also: Act to Encourage Immigration; Department of Labor; Eight-hour Day Movement.



Commons, John R., et al., eds. History of Labour in the United States, Vol. 1. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921.

Grossman, Jonathan. William Sylvis, Pioneer of American Labor: A Study of the Labor Movement During the Civil War. New York: Octagon Books, 1973.

Powderly, Terence Vincent. Thirty Years of Labor,1859-1924, in Which the History of the Attempts to Form Organizations of Workingmen for the Discussion of Political, Social and Economic Questions Is Traced.Columbus, OH: Excelsior Publishing House, 1890.

Rayback, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

Todes, Charlotte. William H. Sylvis and the National Labor Union. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1975.


The Baltimore Sun, 20-24 August 1866.

Grob, Gerald N. "Reform Unionism: The National Labor Union." The Journal of Economic History 14, no. 2 (spring 1954): 126-142.


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—Beth Emmerling

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