National Union of Iron Molders

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National Union of Iron Molders

United States 1859


In 1859 the National Union of Iron Molders (sometimes shortened to National Molders Union) was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a loose federation of existing local unions. William Howard Sylvis was the prominent leader of the union; some historians call him an important pioneer of the early American labor union movement. The unions of local iron molders retained nearly total independence and authority at the inception of the National Molders Union. In fact, the national body was only given authority in the areas of the "union card" and the collection of contributions for striking members. However, with the guidance and organizational abilities of Sylvis, the national union gained more central authority to direct the locals, and in the process gained the ability to finance its operations. The National Union of Iron Molders was eventually disbanded at the beginning of the Civil War but was reorganized two years later as the International Union of Iron Molders. Sylvis again was instrumental in its reformation and, ultimately, in its successful operation.


  • 1839: England launches the First Opium War against China. The war, which lasts three years, results in the British gaining a free hand to conduct a lucrative opium trade, despite opposition by the Chinese government.
  • 1844: American artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse successfully sends the first message via telegraph a series of dots and dashes that conveys the phrase, "What hath God wrought?," across a circuit between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
  • 1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. Over the next eight years, she will undertake at least 20 secret missions into Maryland and Virginia to free more than 300 slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad.
  • 1852: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, though far from a literary masterpiece, is a great commercial success, with over half a million sales on both sides of the Atlantic. More important, it has an enormous influ-ence on British sentiments with regard to slavery and the brewing American conflict between North and South.
  • 1855: Leaves of Grass is published by Walt Whitman.
  • 1859: Building of the Suez Canal begins.
  • 1859: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, sparking enormous controversy with an account of humankind's origins that differs markedly from the Bible.
  • 1859: Retired American railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake drills the first successful oil well in the United States, at Titusville, Pennsylvania.
  • 1861: Within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the U.S. Civil War begins with the shelling of Fort Sumter Six states secede from the Union, joining South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) and electing Jefferson Davis as president. The first major battle of the war, at Bull Run or Manassas in Virginia, is a Confederate victory.
  • 1865: U.S. Civil War ends with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. More than 600,000 men have died, and the South is in ruins, but the Union has been restored.
  • 1869: The first U.S. transcontinental railway is completed.

Event and Its Context

As early as the 1820s, iron molders (workers who build iron objects, called castings, by pouring molten iron into a hollow mold) in the United States were complaining of such problems as low wages, long working hours, and partial payments required to be made to company stores. Many tried to remedy their problems by forming fraternal and social organizations to help ailing members; buying and operating their own cooperative foundries; and other, mostly ineffectual, measures. The first real hint of organized activity that could rightfully be called an iron molders union was within a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, iron foundry (a workplace for casting metal such as iron) in 1833. Other local unions soon followed in that same year in the cities of Boston, Massachusetts, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

First Temporary Iron Molders Organizations

The industrial depression that occurred in 1837 had precipitated the reduction of wages of iron molders, along with other U.S. workers. Because work was scarce, employers possessed the upper hand with regards to employment. As a result, an ineffective society was formed in Philadelphia; it was composed of molders from several foundries. It survived for only a short period of time, and no unions were established for the next 10 years.

In 1847 the molders in the stove foundries of Cincinnati, Ohio, were organized to counter the attempt by management to reduce wages. The labor organization was successful in preventing the wage cut, but once the problem was solved, the organization disbanded. Other new organizations were later established in New York City, in Cincinnati, and, again, in Philadelphia. All of these unions were essentially social in nature, with only traces of economic interests. They disappeared as quickly as they were formed.

First Permanent Local Union

The iron molders of Philadelphia organized a union in 1853 called the Journeymen Iron Molders Association. Then, on 16 July 1855 the first permanent iron molders union was organized in Philadelphia: the Stove and Hollowware Molders Union of Philadelphia (commonly shortened to the Philadelphia Molders Union). The constitution of the new economic organization pledged members to secure employment for other union members in preference to nonmembers, prohibited members from undercutting a standard union wage of $10 a week, and provided benefits for men on authorized strikes.

Sylvis First Appears

The most prominent leader of iron molders during this time was William Howard Sylvis. He did not, however, join the Philadelphia Molders Union until 1857, when a strike to prevent a wage reduction occurred at the foundry where he worked. After his fiery temper caught the attention of union members, he joined on 5 December 1857 and was quickly elected recording secretary of the union. Sylvis soon became active in union activities, helping to strengthen the union with his aggressive participation. The panic of 1857 and the depression that followed eliminated many trade unions, while others survived only by combining with similar organizations in the same trade. The condition of the Philadelphia Molders Union, like others of that era, became desperate.

Iron Market Expands

The decade preceding the Civil War (1861-1865) was especially good for the Philadelphia Molders Union due primarily to the expansion of the iron market in the northeastern United States and the Ohio River area between Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio. The expansion was fueled by the railroad industry, which had recently quadrupled its number of rails to 30,000 miles. Because the growth in the railroads cheapened freight costs, iron products were in huge demand.

The good times for iron molders did not last, however, as foundries saw the opportunity to increase their profits by eliminating the competition through mass production. Consequently, skilled molders found themselves working alongside many unskilled workers in order to increase production. Additionally, ironworkers were often required to provide their own tools, purchase their family needs at company-owned stores, and sign contracts that withheld part of their wages until their contract was completed. As a result of these unfair conditions, unions rapidly grew during this period. As companies increased their shares of the national market, the leaders of the local unions felt bargaining powers shrink. They were ineffective in bringing about major reforms because most employers paid their workers the wage that was paid by the cheapest producer in the industry.

First National Union

Though he had only four months of union experience, Sylvis encouraged the Philadelphia union to coordinate activities with the other local unions. Sylvis himself communicated with the other molders' organizations about supporting each other in matters such as regulating their trade and preventing strikebreaking. On 14 December 1858 Sylvis introduced a resolution at the Philadelphia meeting to appoint a committee to investigate the organization of a national convention. Sylvis became the secretary of the committee. Support for a national organization developed primarily due to bitter strikes between molders and foundries. Soon a national convention, coordinated primarily by the efforts of Sylvis, met on 5 July 1859 in Philadelphia. The delegation was composed of 35 delegates representing 12 local unions. The convention formed a provisional organization and drew up a tentative constitution.

A second convention was held in Albany, New York, from 10 to 14 January 1860. The representatives of more than 1,000 molders—46 delegates from 18 unions—officially agreed to form the National Union of Iron Molders. The members elected Isaac J. Neall as the union president; Sylvis was subsequently elected as national treasurer and played the leading role at the convention. Sylvis voiced the words "Resolved, that this Convention do now resolve itself into a National Union." Because of his dedication in organizing the conventions and his carefully planned agenda at the convention, many labor historians regard Sylvis as actually having founded the National Union of Iron Molders.


The original constitution of the National Molders Union gave limited power to the president and executive committee. Only advice could be given to local unions out on strike. Little empowerment was given to the national union by the local unions; for instance, it could do little to prevent the numerous strikes that occurred annually within the local organizations. During the second convention in 1860 the national union recommended that all strikes be discontinued. The resolution was not approved, and the National Molders Union could only urge the locals to strike after all other remedies had been tried and failed.

The National Molders Union grew in members and financial strength over the next few years. In fact, by the beginning of the Civil War it was one of the best-organized and most powerful trade unions in the country. Much of the credit for this success goes to Sylvis, who worked unselfishly to promote the union's positions. Also during this time, control of union activities began to transfer from the local unions to the central National Molders Union. Sylvis is widely regarded as the person most responsible for initiating actions to transform the loosely knit federation of local unions into a powerful central body. Strikes for better wages and improved conditions of employment became more frequent, and the outcomes were more positive for the employees.

Disbanded in 1862

Important victories in 1859 and 1860 had increased the national union's power, and it used that power to instigate strikes to preserve the rights and dignity of its workers. The large numbers of strikes eventually depleted the union's financial reserves. The chaos created by the Civil War also caused deterioration to both the local and national unions as foundry owners were forced to cut back on production in order to survive.

In 1862 the national union was too weak to hold its scheduled convention in July. Sylvis no longer held a position within the union. He watched helplessly as the union he had so arduously worked for disintegrated, partially from the economic chaos and strikes during the Civil War, but also from a lack of effective management. Sylvis vowed he would rebuild an organization that would become strong enough to survive any crisis.

Recreated as an International Union

The National Molders Union became virtually extinct during the Civil War, though some local unions continued to communicate with one another, which led to talk of another national union. However, union leaders had either been killed in the war or were busy with other affairs. But Sylvis was still adamant about reviving the national union. With the endorsement of the Philadelphia molders, he called a Pittsburgh convention for 6 January 1863. Although turnout was light, with only 21 delegates from 15 cities, Sylvis was elected unanimously as president of the new union.

The organization's name was now the International Union of Iron Molders (commonly shortened to International Molders Union), acknowledging the Canadian locals that were now represented. From the start it was an upward battle for Sylvis because the new international union was a mere shell with little power. But Sylvis coordinated the organization of all the committees in order to make the union an active voice of the molders. During 1863 he visited more than 100 cities with foundries that were organized at the local level. He spoke at union meetings, explained the principles of trade unionism, sold subscriptions to the labor papers, and pleaded with local union members to support the common cause of the international union. The organizing tour increased membership and created new local unions. He also met with employers who were at odds with iron molder employees. He gained union recognition from many of these employers through a mixture of threats and conciliatory proposals.

Sylvis also established the Iron Molders Journal, a monthly newspaper containing such articles as synopses of communications between local unions and editorials. Sylvis contended that the publication provided a means for strengthening the International Molders Union and giving a voice to labor.

At this time Sylvis was widely recognized as the best-known labor leader in the country. At the 1866 convention, Sylvis reported that the International Molders Union consisted of 137 local unions with nearly 10,000 members, about nine-tenths of the journeymen iron molders in the United States. Because of this nearly absolute control of the iron molders trade, the International Molders Union was highly respected in the union community.


The period during which the National Molders Union (and subsequently the International Molders Union) served its iron molder members was a critical one in the history of American trade unionism. Accomplishments of the National Molders Union included higher wages, shorter working days, job security through elimination of cheap labor competition, and status in the community for the workingman commensurate with his importance to society. Under the leadership of Sylvis, the National Union of Iron Molders challenged the power of the iron foundry owners. In 1868 the New York Sun declared that because of his tireless efforts at directing and organizing a national labor union, and his abilities at bringing together labor leaders, the name of Sylvis "is familiar as a household word."

Before the National Molders Union, the activities of national unions had yet to be established, and the ideas of a centralized national trade union were still not known. Local unions had been largely self-governing, fearful of giving a national union any authority. The National Union of Iron Molders laid the foundation for a nationwide movement of centralized trade unions.

Key Players

Sylvis, William Howard (1828-1869): Organizer of the National Molders Union and the International Molders Union, Sylvis was also president of the National Labor Union (1868-1869). During his lifetime, Sylvis earned a reputation as a defender of the rights of laborers and as a devoted and capable leader of all working people. His determination and dedication made him a popular national labor leader during the Civil War period.



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Dulles, Foster Rhea, and Melvyn Dubofsky. Labor in America: A History. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1993.

Grossman, Jonathan. William Sylvis, Pioneer of American Labor: A Study of the Labor Movement During the Era of the Civil War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.

Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.


Images of Pittsburgh Historic Labor Sites [cited 19 October2002]. <>.

William H. Sylvis Collection. Special Collections and University Archives, Manuscript Collections, Indiana University of Pennsylvania [cited 19 October 2002]. <>.

—William Arthur Atkins

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