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U.S. Labor History Time Line
By, Judy Ancel, UMKC
Invasion of the Americas begins with Christopher Columbus’s
“discovery”. Genocide of native population begins. Many are enslaved
by Spanish to work in mining and agriculture.
First permanent English settlement in North America uses indentured
servants to grow tobacco and great fortunes for Virginia planters and their
English backers.
New England and Middle colonies settled by mix of free farmers and
craftsmen, many indentured servants, and some African slaves. Skilled
workers form first guilds.
Virginia passes slave codes making slavery perpetual and setting
punishments for misbehavior.
Bacon’s Rebellion pits poor Virginia farmers, indentured servants and
African slaves against wealthy English planters and Indians in a struggle
over land. Leads to the substitution of slaves for indentured servants in the
plantation economy.
Pre-Revolutionary movement launches first boycotts against British goods
and taxes. Artisans and laborers are majority of protest groups pushing for
economic and political rights.
Boston Massacre in which British troops open fire on Boston workers
killing five after many disputes over harassment and competition for jobs
by the occupying army.
Boston Tea Party – working people with a few wealthy patriots dump a
shipload of tea in Boston Harbor to protest British taxes and royal
Publication of Common Sense by Tom Paine, an immigrant craftsmen,
electrifies the movement for independence. It is followed by the
Declaration of Independence, which lays out the right of rebellion and
asserts that “all men are created equal” and have rights.
First unions organized by printers, carpenters, and shoemakers. They
bargain and strike for better wages and shorter hours.
U.S. Constitution establishes strong central government with unified
market and firm protections for rights of property, especially rights of slave
holders. Bill of Rights added on protecting civil liberties.
Invention of cotton gin gives dying institution of slavery a new lease on life
and leads to spread of cotton kingdom, eventually to Texas and extension
of plantation slavery.
Cordwainer Conspiracy trials find Philadelphia shoemakers guilty of
criminal conspiracy when they strike to raise wages.
 Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, organizes a slave revolt in
Charleston, South Carolina which is brutally repressed.
The first all-women’s union, The United Tailoresses of New York, forms in
New York City.
The Mechanics Union of Trade Associations, the first central labor union,
forms in Philadelphia made up of skilled craftsmen of different trades.
Demands 10-hour day.
First Workingman’s Parties formed in cities establish independent political
voice for labor, demand an end to imprisonment for debt, public education,
and rights for workers.
Beginnings of US industrial revolution in establishment of textile factories
in New England.
Nat Turner leads slave rebellion in Virginia brings down great repression
on slaves and growing anti-slavery agitation in the South.
The National Trades Union, first national labor federation, formed in New
The National Cooperative Association of Cordwainers, the first national
union of a specific craft, formed in New York City.
Panic of 1837 leads to depression and destruction of growing labor
President Martin Van Buren establishes 10-hour workday for federal
workers, but it is largely unenforced.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court In Commonwealth vs. Hunt, declares
that labor unions are not illegal conspiracies. Massachusetts and
Connecticut pass children’s 10-hour laws.
The U.S. provokes war with Mexico taking half of Mexican territory and
incorporating a large number of Mexicans into the U.S. workforce.
New Hampshire passes first state 10-hour law.
Growing anti-slavery movement in North opposes expansion of slavery.
Northern white workers see slavery as undercutting free labor although
they oppose equal rights for blacks.
The Typographical Union founded - first national union to endure to the
present day. Ohio passes first state 10-hour law for women. Economic
growth stimulates establishment of many stable unions.
Successful strike of 20,000 New England Shoemakers.
Abraham Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.
Civil War (1861-65) generates great wealth for growing corporations and
kicks off second industrial revolution which increases manufacturing
investment from $1 million to $12 million by 1900, and the number of
industrial workers grows from 23 to 79 million making the U.S. the world’s
number one manufacturing nation.
National Labor Union founded.
First federal 8-hour law passed, applied only to some federal employees.
First Knights of Labor local founded in Philadelphia open to all workers
regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.
Most severe depression in U.S. history partially caused by financial
corruption leads to great misery. Meanwhile, railway robber barons bribe
Congress and receive huge subsidies for railroad construction.
Conviction of "Molly Maguires" for anthracite coalfield murders, 10 were
Knights of Labor go national under Terrence Powderly's leadership as
Grand Master Workman.
Federal troops withdraw from south leaving freed slaves at the mercy of
resurgent white racism. Troops are sent North to repress labor unrest, then
West to fight the Indians.
Great railway strike leads to worker insurrections in many cities and great
repression. Begins period known as the labor wars which lasts for sixty
Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOOTALU,
predecessor of the American Federation of Labor) founded in Pittsburgh.
Congress passes 10-year ban on immigration of Chinese labor, extended
repeatedly. Racial violence against African-American and Mexican workers
on the rise. Jim Crow laws bring segregation to the South. Many craft
unions practice racial exclusion of non-whites.
Great Southwest (railway) Strike from Kansas City to Texas, led by Knights
of Labor which peaks at 700,000 members. The movement for an 8-hour
day leads to general strikes in many cities. Haymarket Affair in Chicago
provokes massive repression of unions and radicals. Seven innocent
leaders sentenced to death, 5 executed.
American Federation of Labor (AFL) founded in Columbus, Ohio, Samuel
Gompers as President.
United Mineworkers of America founded.
Labor Day established as a national holiday on the first Monday in
Homestead Strike. Andrew Carnegie, with the help of state militia drive
steelworkers union out of his mill at Homestead Pennsylvania.
Depression until 1897. Unemployment tops 18%. Coxey’s Army of
unemployed marches on Washington and attacked by police.
Pullman Strike and Boycott by Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union
becomes nationwide rail strike, defeated by use of injunction and federal
Congress passes Erdman Act providing mediation and voluntary
arbitration in rail disputes.
International Ladies Garment Workers formed
Progressive Era. Socialist Party formed.
Anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania end 5-month strike and agree to
arbitration by a presidential panel.
Department of Commerce and Labor founded by Congress.
Women's Trade Union League founded
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) founded in Chicago
Supreme Court in Lochner vs. New York rules bakery workers maximum
hours law unconstitutional.
Typographers win 8 hour day in printing industry.
Supreme Court in Danbury Hatters Case finds union boycott to be a
conspiracy in restraint of trade under Sherman Antitrust Act. In Muller vs.
Oregon upholds state law limiting women workers’ hours.
20,000 New York Garment workers strike and win union recognition in
many sweatshops.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People formed
IWW leads free speech fights for right to organize. Supreme Court upholds
injunction ordering AFL to remove Bucks Stove & Range Co. from its unfair
list and cease promoting a boycott (Gompers v. Bucks Stove). Triangle
Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City - 146 workers die. Leads to first
workplace safety laws.
Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike led by I.W.W. wins. Eugene Debs,
labor leader and Socialist, gets 6% of the presidential vote.
U.S. Department of Labor established.
Ludlow massacre of 39 at striking miners' tent colony in Colorado during
strike against Rockefeller-owned mine.
Clayton Act limits use of injunctions in labor disputes.
Henry Ford introduces assembly line.
Adamson Act provides basic 8-hour day for railroad workers.
US enters First World War.
I.W.W. copper strike leads to “deportation” of 1200 strikers into Arizona
Courts uphold Yellow Dog Contracts in Hitchman Coal & Coke vs. Mitchell.
National War Labor Board established by President Wilson. For the first
time, African Americans are recruited to leave the south and gain jobs in
basic industry.
Massive strike wave and intense government repression in the Red Scare
and Palmer Raids. IWW smashed. Seattle General Strike, Boston police
strike, and Great Steel Strike all defeated.
Supreme Court rules secondary boycotts illegal and allows use of
injunctions for union actions courts decide are illegal conspiracies in
restraint of trade in Duplex Printing Press vs. Deering.
Great Coalfield War in West Virginia. President Harding threatens to use
airforce against miners.
Railway Shop Craft's strike lost. Organized labor declines to 10% of the
workforce from wartime high of about 20%.
Samuel Gompers dies. William Green becomes president of AFL.
Railway Labor Act requires employers to bargain.
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded in 1925 with A. Philip
Randolph as President, threatens strike; over 7,000 are fired.
Stock-market crash signals beginning of Great Depression that will last
more than a decade.
Davis-Bacon Act provides for payment of prevailing wage rates to workers
on public construction projects.
Norris-LaGuardia Act outlaws antiunion injunctions and Yellow Dog
National Industrial Recovery Act guarantees right to organize and bargain
(later ruled unconstitutional).
First woman Cabinet member, Francis Perkins, appointed by President
Franklin Roosevelt as Secretary of Labor.
Major upsurge in militant recognition strikes: Toledo Autolite, Minneapolis
Teamster strike, San Francisco General Strike, and Southern and New
England Textile Strike.
The Wagner National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) passes establishing first
national labor policy protecting workers rights to organize and bargain.
CIO – Congress of Industrial Organizations forms out of split with AFL.
Social Security Act passed.
Wave of sit-down strikes for organization of workers first in auto and rubber
and then spreading to workers as far flung as shop clerks and elevator
Flint Sit-down strike – General Motors recognizes UAW.
First sit-down strike against Ford Motor Company occurs in Kansas City.
U.S. Steel recognizes Steelworkers Organizing Committee. Chicago
police kill ten strikers at Memorial Day Massacre during Little Steel Strike.
Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee organizes meatpacking
Supreme Court rules National Labor Relations Act is constitutional.
Fair Labor Standards Act establishes 40 hour week and minimum wage,
outlaws child labor.
CIO organizes as independent federation with John L. Lewis as President.
John L. Lewis resigns as CIO President, Philip Murray replaces him.
War production revives economy.
Ford recognizes the United Auto Workers.
US enters Second World War. AFL & CIO give no strike pledges for
duration of war.
President Roosevelt creates National War Labor Board which decrees that
wartime wage increases will be capped at 15% over 1941 levels. Corporate
profits soar. A Philip Randolph's threat of a March on Washington wins
Executive Order banning discrimination in war industries and establishing
Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Labor shortages prompt government to recruit women into wartime industry,
establish the bracero program for contract Mexican labor and repeal
Chinese exclusion.
19,370,000 women were working. 37% of all women of work age were
The war’s end generates the biggest strike-wave in US history - more than
4.5 million workers strike.
United Mineworkers win health and welfare fund.
Taft-Hartley Act passes aimed at containing labor expansion. It outlaws
solidarity strikes, purges radicals, and allows states to pass "right-to-work"
Beginning of McCarthy era results in purges of 11 left-wing unions and
leaders from CIO.
UAW wins 5-year contract from General Motors sign providing for pensions,
cost of living wage adjustments, and guaranteeing annual increases and
modified union shop.
William Green and Philip Murray die. George Meany becomes President of
AFL and Walter Reuther of CIO.
AFL and CIO agree to merge with George Meany as first President.
Unions represent 33% of workforce. UAW wins supplementary
unemployment benefits from Ford Motor Co.
AFL-CIO expels Teamsters, Bakery Workers and Laundry Workers for
Congress passes Labor-Management Reporting & Disclosure Act
(Landrum-Griffin) requiring unions to report finances to government,
regulating union internal affairs and providing Bill of Rights for union
Half a million Steelworkers strike for 116 days against U.S. Steel ends in
victory for union against take-backs from management
New York teachers win collective bargaining and a contract.
Presidential Executive Order gives federal employees right to bargain.
Upsurge in public employee organizing throughout 1960s.
Equal Pay Act passed.
Negro American Labor Council and other civil rights groups organize March
on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination in employment because
of race, color, religion, sex or national origin (age and disability later added)
Martin Luther King assassinated while supporting Memphis sanitation
workers who were striking for union recognition against a racist city
administration. They and their union, the American Federation of State,
County, & Municipal Employees win.
Department of Labor drive to open construction jobs to minorities begins in
Congress passes Occupational Safety & Health Act.
200,000 Postal Workers conduct wildcat strike in at least 200 cities which
lasts two weeks. Congress passes Postal Reorganization Act giving them
rights under the NLRA.
The United Steelworkers sign Experimental Negotiating Agreement
replacing the right to strike with binding arbitration of issues not resolved
in negotiations. It is abandoned in subsequent contracts.
Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) founded in Chicago.
Congress passes Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)
regulating all private pension plans.
AFL-CIO creates a public employee department in recognition of growth of
public employee unionism.
Union supported labor law reform legislation defeated in Congress.
80,000 Pennsylvania public employees conduct the first large, legal strike of
state workers.
The AFL-CIO appoints the first woman, Joyce Miller, of the ILGWU, to its
Executive Council
President Reagan fires 11,000 air traffic controllers and decertifies their
union, PATCO, during an illegal strike. This unleashes over a decade of
union busting.
Half a million trade unionists and supporters rally in Washington for
Solidarity Day against Reagan's economic policies. It’s the largest labor
rally in history.
Frank Lorenzo declares bankruptcy at Continental Airlines and voids union
Phelps Dodge Strike in Arizona breaks pattern bargaining in copper
AFL-CIO publishes report The Changing Situation of Workers & Their
United Food & Commercial Workers Local P-9 strikes Hormel in Austin
Minnesota defying union’s policy of accepting concessions in meat packing
industry. They lose.
United Mineworkers win 11 month strike against Pittston Coal Company.
Main issue is health benefits for retirees.
Eastern Airlines employees strike against union busting and demands for
massive concessions by CEO Frank Lorenzo. Eastern goes bankrupt,
shuts down.
Greyhound strike against concessions. Strikers replaced.
First Workers Memorial Day.
Solidarity Day 2 brings thousands to Washington to protest wave of union
Labor Party Advocates founded and a few years later forms new Labor
Justice for Janitors organizes thousands of low-paid, immigrant service
workers in LA and other cities. This is one of many innovative, communitybased
organizing strategies.
The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) is created as a
constituency group within the AFL-CIO.
Congress passes Family & Medical Leave Act and Americans with
Disabilities Act protecting the rights of new parents and seriously ill workers
to leave without losing their jobs and the rights of the permanently disabled
to accommodation in the workplace.
Workers at A.E. Staley locked out after they conduct and in-plant
campaign against deadly working conditions and company demands for
12-hour shifts. Union solidarity campaign reaches entire country.
Caterpillar and Bridgestone Firestone in 1992 and 94 provoked strikes after
demanding concessions. The Staley, Cat and Firestone disputes lasted
years and ended in victory for the companies clearly symbolizing the end of
the post-war era in which a labor-management truce provided for steadily
improving wages and working conditions for U.S. workers. The new era of
globalization meant a return to much more conflict in labor relations
reminiscent of previous eras.
Labor mobilizes strongest political campaign in years against North
American Free Trade Agreement.
Lane Kirkland announces retirement as AFL-CIO President. First contested
election in decades in which John Sweeney wins on New Voice platform
and first woman and Hispanic, Linda Chavez Thompson becomes Vice-
Detroit Newspaper Strike against two of largest newspaper chains in
nation: Gannet & Knight Ridder drags on to 1999 and ends in stalemate.
United Farm Workers, with help of AFL-CIO, launch nation-wide campaign
to organize strawberry workers which fails despite efforts to win over
The AFL-CIO defeats legislation giving the president the ability to “Fast
Track’ trade legislation without assured protection of workers’ rights and
the environment.
Pride at Work, a national coalition of lesbian, gay bisexual and
transgender workers and their supporters, becomes an AFL-CIO
constituency group.
In a big win for their members and all of organized labor, the Teamsters
reach a new five-year agreement with United Parcel Service (UPS) on
Aug. 18, ending a two-week strike over abuse of part-time workers and
health care for retirees.
More than 75,000 human service workers are unionized in Los Angeles
County 30,000 to 50,000 working family activists take to Seattle streets to
tell the World Trade Organization and its allies, “If the Global Economy
Doesn’t Work for Working Families, It Doesn’t Work.”
5,000 North Carolina textile workers gain a union after a 25-year struggle.
65,000 Puerto Rico public-sector workers join unions.
2001 April 5, 10,000 Public school teachers and 3000 state university faculty in
Hawaii shut down all public education in the State in the nation's first
state-wide education strike.
70,000 Southern California grocery workers strike Safeway to protect
their health benefits and stop imposition of a vicious two-tier wage
Seven major national unions, representing six million workers,
disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO and, in September and form a new labor
coalition called "Change to Win.”