National Typographical Union

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National Typographical Union

United States 1852


The groundwork for formation of the National Typographical Union was laid at a meeting in New York City on a chilly evening in early December 1850. Gathered together in Stoneall's Hotel on Fulton Street, 18 printers, representatives from local typographical associations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Kentucky, discussed standards of craftsmanship, union discipline, and apprenticeship guidelines. They also explored the possibility of a national union and formed a temporary national leadership panel, headed by John F. Keyser of Philadelphia, who acted as chairman. Before going their separate ways, the delegates agreed to meet again in convention in Baltimore in September 1851. At the Baltimore convention, delegates resolved to form a national union. That union, the National Typographical Union, was formally organized at yet another convention, this one held in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 3 May 1852. The first national labor organization to endure to the present, the National Typographical Union in 1869 was renamed the International Typographical Union (ITU). Although the ITU merged into the Communication Workers of America (CWA) in 1987, it survives as a distinct unit within the CWA called the Printing, Publishing, and Media Workers Sector.


  • 1831: Unsuccessful Polish revolt is waged against Russian rule.
  • 1837: British inventor Isaac Pitman devises his shorthand system.
  • 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.
  • 1847: Patenting of the first successful rotary press replaces the old flatbed press, in the United States.
  • 1848: Scottish mathematician and physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, introduces the concept of absolute zero, or the temperature at which molecular motion ceases. This value,-273°C, becomes 0K on his Kelvin scale of absolute temperature.
  • 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.
  • 1852: Emigration from Ireland to the United States reaches its peak.
  • 1852: France's Second Republic ends when Louis Napoleon declares himself Napoleon III, initiating the Second Empire.
  • 1852: American inventor Elisha Graves Otis introduces the "safety" elevator, which has a safety brake to keep it from falling even if the cable holding it is completely cut.
  • 1854: "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Walden by Henry David Thoreau are published.
  • 1858: British explorer John Hanning Speke locates Lake Victoria, which he correctly identifies as the source of the Nile.
  • 1862: American Richard Gatling invents the first practical machine gun.

Event and Its Context

Early Efforts at Organization

Workers in the printing trades were among the first American laborers to organize trade unions. Even before the end of the eighteenth century, a number of local unions had been formed within the printing industry, and in 1776 a group of New York City printers went on strike to press their demands for higher wages and better working conditions. In the wake of increased trade union activity during the 1820s and early 1830s, delegates from a handful of these local unions convened in Washington, D.C., in November 1836 to form a national union, the National Typographical Society (NTS).

The NTS, which had local unions in at least eight cities, was very short-lived, collapsing under the weight of the economic recession that followed the financial panic of 1837. Most of the local unions that had been members of the NTS survived, however. Once the economic contraction had ended in 1843, organizational activities within the print trades resumed with a vengeance. On 2 December 1850 delegates from local printing unions in Kentucky, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, met at Stoneall's Hotel on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan (New York City). The 18 printers present at the meeting discussed such common concerns as union discipline, apprenticeship regulations, and standards of craftsmanship. They also looked at the possibility of forming a national umbrella organization to link their individual unions. Unable to tackle the complex task of putting together a national organization in just one meeting, delegates voted to convene the first-ever national printers' convention the following year in Baltimore, Maryland, to continue their discussions. Before returning home, they also formed a temporary national organization, naming John F. Keyser of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as chairman and F. J. Ottarson of New York City as secretary.

Formation of National Union

Printers reconvened in Baltimore on 12 September 1851. Presiding over the convention were the president, John W. Peregoy of Baltimore; two vice presidents, George E. Green of Louisville, Kentucky, and M. C. Brown of Philadelphia; and two secretaries, F. J. Ottarson of New York and John Hartman of New Jersey. As one of the first orders of business, printers set up an executive committee composed of three delegates from each state represented. Members of the executive committee were responsible for enforcing all resolutions passed by the convention, gathering information on matters of interest to the printing trade, and making arrangements for the next convention. Among the resolutions passed at the Baltimore convention was one providing for the formation of a union local in every town or city where six or more journeymen printers were employed. However, by far the most important resolution to come out of Baltimore was one calling for the formation of a national union. Delegates also agreed to hold their next convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in May 1852.

The National Typographical Union was formally organized at the printers' national convention in Cincinnati on 3 May 1852. The initial membership of the new national union consisted of locals from 14 cities, most of them clustered in the eastern part of the United States. After a number of locals from Canada affiliated with the union during the following decade, the union's name was officially changed to the International Typographical Union (ITU) in 1869. Upon its formation, the national union represented workers from a number of crafts within the printing industry. These included pressmen, stereotypers and electrotypers, bookbinders, photoengravers, and compositors, the last of which dominated the membership. Over the years that followed, several of these specialized crafts broke away from the ITU in order to gain recognition for and better address their special needs.

Breakaway Groups from Within the ITU

The first of the special craftsmen to strike out on their own were the pressmen. Although the advance of technology had done little to change the work process of the compositors, who made up the largest segment of the ITU membership, half a century of mechanization had radically changed the nature of the pressmen's job. When the pressmen failed to convince the ITU leadership to recognize their specialized skills by adding "pressmen" to the union's name, they decided to establish a union of their own. That union, the International Printing Press-men's Union (IPPU), was formed in October 1889 but in 1896 changed its name to International Printing Pressmen and Assistants' Union (IPPAU). Next to leave the ITU fold were the bookbinders, whose jobs were being mechanized in the 1890s. Their separate union, the International Brotherhood of Book-binders (IBB), was formed in 1892.

Stereotypers and electrotypers, although relatively few in number, eventually grew unhappy within the ITU and in 1902 formed the International Stereotypers and Electrotypers Union (ISEU) in Cincinnati. Membership in the ISEU, representing a highly specialized trade, had reached only 5,400 by 1920. Last to quit the ITU were the photoengravers, most of whom worked in the newspaper industry. Trade-shop engravers had already formed their own independent unions. Both groups of engravers came together in 1904 to form the International Photoengravers Union (IPU), bringing an end to jurisdictional conflicts. These four craft unions that had broken away from the ITU, along with the Amalgamated Lithographers of America (ALA), were eventually united under the umbrella of the Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU), which received its charter on 1 July 1983.

Women in the ITU

Women had been employed in the printing industry since the second quarter of the nineteenth century, but the ITU at first was reluctant to admit women fully into the ranks of the union. In 1868 a separate local union of women typographers was established under a charter from the ITU in New York City. Augusta Lewis Troup, a typesetter with the New York Era and New York World, played a major role in establishing the Women's Typographical Union (WTU) No. 1 and served as its president for a decade. The following year Troup was also elected corresponding secretary of the ITU, the first woman to be elected to a national union office. From within the mostly male ITU, she worked tirelessly to bring women into full equality with men, while at the same time she helped swell the ranks of the WTU. Eventually the ITU agreed in 1878 to disband the WTU and admit rank and file women typographers to membership in the union. Another influential female leader in the ITU was Maud O'Farrell Swartz, who in 1913 joined ITU Local No. 6. She served as secretary of the Women's Trade Union League, New York, from 1917 to 1921 and as president of the National Women's Trade Union League from 1922 until 1926.

The ITU Gains Authority

When first organized, the ITU was little more than a loose confederation of local printing trade unions, all of which enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. That began to change in 1884 when the union's international leadership introduced a more centralized administration and hired a full-time organizer. Centralization advanced further in 1888 when the positions of international president and secretary-treasurer were made full-time, salaried jobs. That same year the ITU established a defense fund to assist striking locals. In the following years, the grip of the international organization over local unions was further strengthened. The international leadership won the right to withhold funds from dissident locals, and the union's growing corps of full-time representatives made it easier to monitor the activities of local unions. Although such steps greatly increased central control, collective bargaining continued to be conducted at the local level.

An early and passionate supporter of national labor unity, the ITU played a major role in the founding of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada in 1881. The federation was a predecessor to the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Ironically, it was the growing awareness of different crafts reflected in the formation of the AFL that promoted dissension within the ranks of the ITU. Many of the smaller crafts represented by the ITU began to chafe under the domination of the compositors. This growing discomfort eventually led many of the crafts to break away from the ITU and form their own unions. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the membership of the ITU had been trimmed down, leaving it basically a craft union of typesetters.

The ITU's "Union Bug"

The ITU first began using the union label in the final two decades of the nineteenth century. The purpose of the label, also known as a "union bug," was five-fold: (1) a protection against nonunion print shops that might claim to provide union working conditions; (2) a part of a campaign to persuade customers to buy union-made products; (3) a sign that the product was produced with quality standards and good workmanship; (4) a means of attracting new members; and (5) a warning against trespass by competing unions. The ITU adopted its first bug in 1886. One of its earliest appearances was atop an editorial column in the 15 October 1891 edition of the union's publication, Typographical Journal. In 1897 the ITU, now made up almost exclusively of compositors, reached an agreement with the breakaway pressmen and bookbinders on a design for a new Allied Printing Trades Council bug. By 1911 all five major unions in the printing trade (the ITU, IBB, ISEU, IPU, and IPPAU) came together to form the International Allied Printing Trades Council (IAPTC), an interunion agency designed to control and promote use of the union label. By 1939 the bug of the IAPTC enjoyed general use throughout the printing industry, largely replacing the individual labels of the five craft unions.

Not surprisingly, early opposition to the printing unions' use of the label came from management. Print shop owners in the late 1880s organized the United Typothetae of America (UTA) to represent their collective interests, particularly in management's dealings with labor. In 1899 the UTA passed a resolution opposing use of the label by its member shops, which were strongly urged to stop putting the union bug on work produced in their shops.

Social Services Provided by the ITU

In the late nineteenth century the ITU, along with a handful of other unions, began to show an interest in developing a safety net for members through such benefits as pension plans to see members through old age, as well as plans to cover the costs of funerals. In 1892 the union opened the Union Printers' Home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Originally planned as a home for aged and indigent union members, the facility was later expanded to encompass a hospital and a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients.

The early years of the ITU's existence were marred by conflict with rival unions. In 1873 a union of printers employed by German-language U.S. newspapers, active in several major cities of the United States, was established. Any threat that might have been posed by the German-American Typographia evaporated after 1894 when it agreed to amalgamate with the ITU under an agreement that preserved much of its autonomy. Less easily resolved was a jurisdictional dispute with the International Association of Machinists (IAM) that arose after the introduction of typesetting machinery. The IAM claimed that it should represent workers employed to operate such machinery, a claim the ITU bitterly contested. The printers union eventually prevailed, but only after a lengthy and bitter struggle with the IAM.

The ITU and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations

In the mid-1930s the ITU and its president, Charles Perry Howard, played a major role in the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization, which was later to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The ITU, with Howard at its helm, joined with seven other unions—United Mine Workers of America, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, United Textile Workers of America, Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America, United Hatters, Cap, and Millinery Workers International Union, and International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers—to form the committee. The Committee for Industrial Organization was originally conceived as part of the AFL but became an independent organization when most of the unions involved were expelled from the AFL in 1936. The ITU never affiliated with the CIO but continued to support the coalition of breakaway unions, a policy that eventually drew the wrath of the AFL leadership. In 1939 the AFL suspended the ITU for its opposition to a special AFL assessment to fund an organizing campaign to fight the CIO. The typographical union was not reinstated by the AFL until 1944. Despite their differences, the AFL and CIO eventually reached an understanding and merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO.

Opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act

The ITU was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted by Congress in 1947. The statute outlawed the closed shop and permitted union shops only when approved by a majority of a shop's employees. The act also prohibited jurisdictional disputes and secondary boycotts. The legislation was anathema to the ITU, which had long placed great emphasis on the closed shop and the strict enforcement of its seniority system. Led by Woodruff Randolph, the union's president at the time, the ITU directed much of its spending to a campaign to change what it considered the most undesirable features of the act.

Merger with the Communication Workers of America

In 1979 the International Mailers Union merged with the ITU. However, in the years that followed, dramatic changes in the printing industry greatly weakened the union. In 1987 the ITU affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Recognizing the unique nature of the work performed by its ITU members, the CWA created a new Printing, Publishing, and Media Workers Section (PPMWS), giving it a certain degree of autonomy within the CWA.

Key Players

Howard, Charles Perry (1879-1938) Born in Harvel, Illinois, Howard worked as a boy in the railroad and mining industries before finally becoming involved in the printing trade. He joined an ITU local in Tacoma, Washington, in 1907 and quickly became heavily involved in union affairs. In 1922 he was elected vice president of the ITU, succeeding to the presidency the following year. In the 1930s he aligned himself with the AFL industrial union splinter group led by John L. Lewis. After the formation of the CIO, Howard was named secretary, although the ITU never formally joined the CIO.

Swartz, Maud O'Farrell (1879-1937): Born in Ireland, MaudO'Farrell immigrated to the United States after spending some time in Germany and France, where she was educated in convent schools. In America she worked as a typesetter. She was married briefly to fellow printer Lee Swartz. She became active in the Women's Trade Union League, serving as its president from 1922 to 1926.

Troup, Augusta Lewis (1848-1920): Orphaned in infancy,"Gussie" Lewis went to work as a reporter and typesetter, eventually becoming involved in establishing the Women's Typographical Union (WTU) No. 1. She served as president of the WTU from its inception in 1868 until it was disbanded a decade later by the ITU. Troup also served as corresponding president of the ITU, becoming the first women elected to a national union office.

See also: Congress of Industrial Organizations; Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada; Taft-Hartley Act.



Fink, Gary M., ed. Labor Unions. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions Series. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Taylor, Paul F. The ABC-CLIO Companion to the American Labor Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1993.


Birth of the International Typographical Union. Discovery Press [cited 30 October 2002]. http:// .

The GCIU Story. Graphic Communications International Union [cited 30 October 2002]. <>.

Proposal for Inclusion of Union Label Description in Bibliographic and Archival Cataloging Guidelines.School of Information Management & Systems, University of California, Berkeley [cited 30 October 2002]. Bug.htm.

Additional Resources


Lipset, Seymour Martin, Martin A. Trow, and James S. Coleman. Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union. New York: Free Press, 1956.

—Don Amerman

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National Typographical Union