Chronology of the Labor Movement

History of Labor

The following chronology documenting the history of the labor movement in the United States, with special focus on labor in the field of teaching, was created through the citation of a number of websites including wikipedia; www.socialstudieshelp.com; www.aft.org; www.uft.org; www.nysut.org; www.nytimes.com; www.npr.org

1829: George Henry Evans, printer and editor of the Workingman's Advocate writes "The Working Man's Declaration of Independence" which included the following:

1.  The laws for levying taxes are…operating most oppressively on one class of society.

2.  The laws for private incorporation are all partial…favoring one class of society to the expense of the other.

3.  The laws…have deprived nine tenths of the members of the body politics, who are not wealthy, of the equal means to enjoy 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'…

(From Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 222). 

1869: Uriah Stevens founds the Knights of Labor, which welcomes skilled and unskilled workers, and men and women of all races.  Its membership would reach 750,000, but it was disbanded after the Haymarket Square riots in which some of its members were accused of launching a bomb at the police.

1886: Samuel Gompers, previously a "reader" in a cigar shop, founds the American Federation of Labor to protect the rights of skilled laborers within an atmosphere in which "the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use of women's and children's labor, and the lack of an apprentice system-so that the skilled trades were rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor."

May 4, 1886:  At their convention in October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor, which joined the United States and Canada, declared that May 1 would be the day upon which the 8-hour work day would become law (the law was opposed by the Knights of Labor).  Massive rallies and strikes began on May 1, and on May 3 in Chicago, four striking workers were killed by police during a fight that broke out when replacement workers tried to cross a picket line.  On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago.  The rally proceeded peacefully until someone lobbed a bomb into a police line, killing an officer.  In the chaos, 7 police officers and 4 workers were killed.  Despite the fact that the thrower of the bomb was in dispute, some suggesting that it was an agent provocateur, perhaps a member of the Pinkerton agency, eight of the rally's organizers were charged with murder, were declared guilty, and seven received death sentences.  Ultimately, two of the seven had their sentences commuted to life in prison; one committed suicide the night before he was to be executed; and four were hung.  In 1893, the Illinois governor declared that all eight were innocent.        

1890: The Sherman Antitrust Act is passed by Congress.

1894: The Pullman strike, at the Pullman plant near Chicago.  It is led by the American Railroad Union, not affiliated with the AFL, and Eugene V. Debs, a prominent socialist.  In addition to striking at the plant, they call for a boycott of the handling of Pullman sleeping and parlor cars on the nation's railroads, and within a week, 125,000 railroad workers engage in a sympathy protest strike.  At the request of the railroad association, President Grover Cleveland moves in federal troops to break the strike, against the pleas of Governor Aitgeld of Illinois, who believed that such a move was unnecessary.  A sweeping federal court injunction forced an end to the sympathy strike, and many railroad workers were blacklisted.  The Pullman workers were starved into submissive defeat.  "The strike illustrated the increasing tendency of the government to offer moral support and military force to break strikes.  The injunction, issued usually and almost automatically by compliant judges on the request of government officials or corporations, became a prime legal weapon against union organizing and action." (www.socialstudieshelp.com)

1902: Led by the United Mine Workers, 100,000 anthracite coal miners strike in northeastern Pennsylvania on May 12, and keep the mines closed all summer.  When the mine owners refuse a UMW call for arbitration, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened on October 3, and on October 16 appointed a commission of mediation and arbitration.  5 days later, the miners returned to their jobs, and five months later the presidential commission awarded them a 10 percent wage increase and shorter work days, though not the formal union recognition they had sought.

1905: The Industrial Workers of the World is founded.

1911:  Fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. on Manhattan's lower east side.  About 150 workers, mostly young women, perished when fire swept through the upper floors in the loft building where they worked.  The safety exits had been locked, supposed to prevent the "loss of goods."  The tragedy provoked the formation of a state factory investigation committee headed by Frances Perkins, who would become Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of labor in 1933, the first woman cabinet member in history.  The committee paved the way for reforms in industrial safety and fire prevention measures.

1912: The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the "Wobblies," leads a strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  The strike was provoked when the mill owners responded to an action by the state legislature reducing the work week from 54 to 52 hours by reducing wages 3 ½ percent without prior notice.  50,000 textile workers go on strike, resulting in fiery speeches by the IWW, attacks by police and militias in peaceful meetings, and broad public support of the strike.  About 400 children of striking workers were "adopted" by sympathizers.  "When women strikers and their children were attacked at the railroad station by the police after authorities decided no more children could leave town, an enraged public protest finally forced the mill owners not only to restore the pay cuts but to increase the workers' wages to more reasonable levels." (www.socialstudieshelp.com)

1914: The Clayton Antitrust Act is passed by Congress to remedy deficiencies in the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the first federal law outlining practices harmful to consumers (monopolies and anti-competitive agreements).  It was introduced by Alabama Democrat Henry De Lamar Clayton, and passes the House by a vote of 277-54.  The act prohibits specific types of anti-competitive behavior.

1915: The American Association of University Professors is formed by Arthur Lovejoy and John Dewey.  The association is dedicated to the protection of academic freedom for professors.

April 15, 1916: AFT (American Federation of Teachers) is founded as a labor union (as opposed to a professional organization).  The union received a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) the same year.  The first 50 years were difficult, as teachers were pressured by school boards not to join unions.  One of the first unions to extend full membership to minorities.

1918: The AFT calls for equal pay for African-American teachers, the election of African-Americans to school boards, and compulsory school attendance for African-American children.

1919: The AFT calls for equal opportunity for African-American children.

1920-1923: Raising unemployment and loss of about a million union members.  Raising anti-union movement, fueled by the rise of open shops and fear of Bolshevism.  Anti-union tactics, often allied with so-called patriotism, multiply.

1928: The AFT calls for the teaching of the political, cultural, and economic contributions of African-Americans in the public schools.

1935: Congress forms the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer the National Labor Relations Act, the primary law governing the relation between unions and employers in the private sector.

November 1935: John L. Lewis founds the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), composed of about a dozen leaders from the AFL, to carry on the unionization of unskilled workers. 

1936: Teachers in Butte, Montana, negotiate the first AFT collective bargaining agreement.  Following bitter attacks by John L. Lewis on the AFL, the CIO was expelled from the AFL.

1938: The CIO holds its first constitutional convention and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.  Both the AFL and the CIO began to register large gains in membership, and the two organizations began to discover new areas of commonality.

1940's: The AFT slowly moves toward collective bargaining as official policy.

1941: Under pressure from the AFL-CIO, the AFT ejects Local 5 (New York City), Local 537 (City College of New York), and Local 192 (Philadelphia), for being communist-dominated.  This represents nearly a third of the union membership.

November 25, 1946: AFT Local, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, goes on strike.  It is the first AFT local to strike.  The local settled on January 1, 1947 after 38 days on the picket line. 

1948: The AFT stops chartering segregated schools.

1954: The AFT files an amicus brief in the historic U.S. Supreme Court desegregation case, Brown vs. the Board of Education.

December 5, 1955: The AFL and CIO were reunited at a convention in New York, and new effort is put on organizing workers in previously unorganized areas.

December 10, 1956: Local 89 (Atlanta, Georgia) leaves the AFT because it will not comply with the AFT directive that all locals integrate.  On the same day, the union won its first collective bargaining election in East St. Louis, Illinois.

1957: The AFT expels all locals that refuse to desegregate.

1960: The AFT has 150,000 members.  In New York City, Albert Shanker, a social studies teacher, and Charles Cogen, president of the Teacher's Guild (the sole remaining AFT affiliate in NYC after the communist purges of 1941), lead the NYC teachers on strike.  They demand better wages, the establishment of a grievance process, the reduction of workloads, and more funding for public education.  Shanker and Cogen argue that in order to win, the teachers need to form a single union, which was achieved through the merger of the Teacher's Guild and a splinter group from the High School Teachers Association.  The resulting union is the UFT.  At the time, NYC public school teachers were making an average of 66 dollars per week (about the equivalent of 21,000 per year in 2005). 

November 7, 1960: The UFT goes on strike.  More than 5,600 teachers walk the picket line, while 2,000 engage in a sick-out.  It is a fraction of the city's 45,000 teachers.  NYC mayor Robert Wagner is pressured to create a pro-labor committee to investigate conditions in the city schools and recommend a solution to the labor problem.  The committee recommended a collective bargaining law, which was achieved with the financial support of the AFT and the AFL-CIO on December 16, 1961.  The AFT's membership swelled by 30 percent.   

1962: According to the AFT website, "in 1962, the United Federation of College Teachers, Local 1460, was established and began organizing at various higher education institutions in New York City.  In 1966, Local 1460 was designated as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for the Fashion Institute of Technology, and in 1967 one of the first contracts in the country was signed.  By the early 1970's, the UFCT chapters at the City University of New York and at the Fashion Institute of Technology became their own locals, bargaining not only for full-time faculty, but also for part-time faculty and professional staff.

1963: The AFT convention votes to end the union's no-strike policy.  Unlike most unions, the AFT supports Martin Luther King's "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."  Busloads of AFT members came to Washington for the event.

1964: The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO pledges to match, dollar-for-dollar, the expenditure of AFT funds to organize teachers.

1965: The UFT puts its funds in a bank that refuses to have dealings with the apartheid regime in South Africa, about 20 years before other unions begin to campaign against apartheid.

1965-1966: According to the NYSUT website, "Higher ed unionism was spurred, initially in New York City, by a strike in 1965-66 at St. John's University, which dismissed 31 faculty without charges or hearings.  Faculty throughout the region were stirred to activism, and the union spirit quickly spread to other campuses throughout the state."

1967: Following costly transit strikes the previous year, the New York State legislature passes the Taylor Law, also known as the Public Employees Fair Employment Act (Article 14 of the New York State Civil Service Law).  The law is named for Charles W. Taylor, chairman of the commission appointed by Nelson Rockefeller to propose amendments to the Condon-Wadlin Law. 

The Taylor Law:

  • Grants public employees the right to organize and to be represented by the employee organizations of their own choice
  • Requires public employees to negotiate and enter into agreements with public employee organizations regarding their employees' terms and conditions of employment
  • Establishes impasse procedures for the resolution of collective bargaining disputes
  • Defines and prohibits improper practices by public employers and public employee organizations
  • Prohibits strikes by public employees.  Section 210 of the law prevents public employees from striking, compelling binding negotiation in the event of an impasse in negotiations.  The fine for striking is twice the employee's salary for each day the strike lasts.  The law was applied during transit strikes in 1980 and in 2005.
  • Establishes a state agency to administer the Law: The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).  The Board consists of 3 members nominated by the governor, each member of which must be approved by the Senate, and no more than 2 of which can be from the same political party. 

The AFT sees large increases in its membership.  The UFT holds a three-week strike for smaller classes, and Albert Shanker, UFT president, is jailed for three weeks in Sing-Sing state prison for violating the Taylor Law's prohibition on strikes by public employees.

May 8, 1968: The AFT holds a one-day strike in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn.  The district had been a part of an experiment whereby New York City established it as one of three decentralized districts with the intention of giving the minority community more voice in administration (little reform was ultimately possible because NYC did not provide funds).  The district operated with a community-elected governing board that had the power to hire administrators.  The crisis began when the board fired 13 teachers and 6 administrators for allegedly trying to sabotage the decentralization experiment.  Under the decentralization agreement, the teachers were returned to the NYC public school system, where they sat idle in school district offices.  UFT president Albert Shanker demanded due process for the fired teachers, and a conflict erupted between the supporters of the UFT's position and supporters of the board and the decentralization experiment.  A series of strikes take place between September 17, 1969 and November 17, 1968, during which racial and anti-Semitic invective comes to play a rhetorical role.  Shanker is jailed on February 3, 1969, for fifteen days, for supporting the strikes, but ultimately the UFT prevailed: the teachers were returned to their jobs and an agreement was worked out guaranteeing due process for NYC educators.  This event has a deep impact on the AFT, causing the organization to henceforth become less militant, more moderate.   

1969: The AFT wins the right to represent 10,000 pre-K-12 public school paraprofessionals in New York City.  In the following years, the AFT will organize more than 300,000 paraprofessionals and school-related personnel.

1970: The AFT has 400,000 members.

February 23, 1970: AFT president David Selden is jailed during the Newark, New Jersey's teachers' strike, making him the third AFT president to go to jail.  This would be the last major AFT strike.

1971: The LIU Faculty Federation (LIUFF) is established in 1971 as part of an effort on the part of faculty to save the Brooklyn campus, through an NLRB-directed election, established as a chapter of the United Federation of College Teachers (local 1460; AFT/AFL-CIO).  According to the LIUFF website, "the first collective bargaining agreement was signed on May 31, 1972.  At the time, there were fewer than 40 full-time faculty on campus.  This was the first collective bargaining agreement for faculty members at any private university."

March 30, 1972: Albert Shanker arranges a merger between the AFT and NEA (National Education Association) affiliates in New York to create the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). 

September 1, 1973: Pratt faculty and administration sign the first collective bargaining agreement.

1978: The AFT wins the right to represent SUNY faculty.

November 29, 1978: the AFT forms a new division, the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (FNHP, now known as AFT Healthcare).  By 2005, the division represents more than 70,000 registered nurses and healthcare workers, making the AFT the second-largest nurses' union in the AFL-CIO.

1980:  The U.S. Supreme Court rules that faculty at Yeshiva University, a private institution in New York City, are managers and therefore not entitled to bargain collectively, negatively affecting union organizing at other similar institutions.

August 3, 1981: Following the stalling of contract negotiations calling for a shorter work week, higher wages, and better benefits, more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walk off the job, setting off a chain of events that would redefine labor relations in America (www.npr.org).  In response to the walkout, President Ronald Reagan says that the striking workers are in violation of the law (the 1955 law that bans strikes by government unions), and that if they do not return to work within 48 hours they will be terminated.  On August 5, most of the striking workers are fired and banned from ever being hired again by the FAA.  On August 17, the FAA begins accepting applications for new controllers.  On October 22, the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertifies PATCO, but new controllers ultimately form a new union, the NATCA.  On August 12, 1993, President Clinton ends the ban on the FAA's hiring of PATCO strikers, and to date about 850 have been rehired.  On October 3, 1996, Congress passes the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act which codifies NATCA's right to bargain collectively with the FAA. 

1985: The AFT creates a separate division for public employees, the Federation of State Employees, now called AFT Public Employees.

1994: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is signed, allowing for free trade between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

1996: The NLRB votes to allow faculty at the private University of Great Falls in Montana to form a union, seeming to buck to post-Yeshiva trend (see 1980) against unionization in private universities and colleges.

February 22, 1997: Albert Shanker dies.

July 1998: Sandra Feldman is elected president of the AFT.

1999:  The NLRB votes to allow faculty at the private Manhattan College in New York to form a union, seeming to buck to post-Yeshiva trend (see 1980, 1996) against unionization in private universities and colleges.

2000: The AFT has 1.1 million members.

September 2003: The LIU faculty union (LIU Faculty Federation), representing both full and part-time faculty at both the Brooklyn and Long Island campuses, votes to go on strike.  The strike lasted 19 days at the C.W. Post campus, and ended in a settlement granting 3 percent raises the first year, and 4 percent raises the following two years, and established the standard workload as 9 contact hours, as opposed to the 12 that some were carrying.  Faculty members are required to pay more for health care in the second and third years of the contract.  During the strike, management threatens the docking of pay and layoffs.

September 18, 2005: Sandra Feldman dies and Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the AFT since 1992, is elected president.

December 20, 2005: The New York Supreme Court (Kings County-Brooklyn) declared the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 in violation of the Taylor Law and issued a fine of 1,000,000 dollars per day.