Our Labor History Timeline

Throughout our history, the labor movement has accomplished a lot. If you get weekends off or overtime pay, thank the union members who fought for those rights. None of our movement’s achievements would have happened without the effort, organization and advocacy of our brothers and sisters. But injustice still runs amok. We must look to the past not only for inspiration, but for the tools we need to continue the fight. The roots of the problems we face today can be found in our past. So can the beginnings of the solutions we need for our future.

The labor history timeline highlights the key events and the people who helped bring about radical changes in the workplace and society.

Power concedes nothing without demands.

Frederick Douglass

The Labor Movement and Gender Equality

Some of the earliest organizing efforts in the United States were young women working at mills. From that point forward, the labor movement has played a central role in the advancement of women’s rights.

1834 First turnout of “mill girls” in Lowell, Massachusetts, to protect wage cuts

1843 Lowell Female Labor Reform Association begins public petitioning for 10-hour day

1871 After her dress shop is destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones begins working as a labor organizer

1903 Women’s Trade Union League formed at the AFL convention

1909 “Uprising of the 20,000” female shirtwaist makers in New York strike against sweatshop conditions

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York kills nearly 150 workers

1912 Bread and Roses strike begun by immigrant women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ended with 23,000 men, women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line

1933 Frances Perkins becomes the U.S. secretary of labor, the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Cabinet

1963 Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender

1974 Coalition of Labor Union Women founded

2009  President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored the rights of working women to sue over pay discrimination

The Labor Movement and Immigrant Rights

One of the driving forces in immigration to the United States is the search for good jobs. Fighting for the rights of immigrant workers has long been part of the labor movement.

1877 National uprising of railroad workers 10 Irish coal miners ("Molly Maguires") hanged in Pennsylvania; nine more subsequently were hanged

1909 Unorganized immigrant steelworkers strike in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, and win all demands

1912 Bread and Roses strike begun by immigrant women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ended with 23,000 men, women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line

1973 Labor Council for Latin American Advancement founded

2000 AFL-CIO Executive Council calls for reform in the nation’s immigration laws for undocumented workers

2006 The AFL-CIO and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network form a partnership to collaborate with local worker centers on immigration reform and other issues

The Labor Movement and Workplace Safety

Much of the labor movement’s history is a response to dangerous work conditions. Making sure that workplaces are safe is one of the driving reasons that working people organize to express their voice.

1909 “Uprising of the 20,000” female shirtwaist makers in New York strike against sweatshop conditions

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory in fire in New York kills nearly 150 workers

1945 Frances Perkins ends her long tenure as secretary of labor, leaving behind a legacy that reduced workplace accidents, created laws against child labor and expanded workers' rights

1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act passed

The Labor Movement and Civil Rights

The civil rights movement and the labor movement have been intertwined from the beginning. Civil rights leaders have always been labor leaders, too. America's union movement champions those who lack a voice in our society. Union members played a critical role in the civil rights struggles of the past and that involvement continues today.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for civil disobedience, unions and union members frequently came to his aid with the legal and financial help he needed. Union members marched in Washington in 1963 and in countless cities around the country. King was killed while in Memphis to aid striking sanitation workers.

Today, the union movement is in the forefront of efforts to ensure that the gains of the past are maintained and to fight for those still denied opportunity and equality. From its struggles to ensure U.S. workplaces are free of discrimination to its battles to ensure that the hard-earned right to vote is secure for all, the union movement continues to fight for the poor and the oppressed.

1619 Slaves from Africa first imported to colonies

1664 First slavery codes begin trend of making African servants slaves for life

1676 Bacon’s Rebellion of servants and slaves in Virginia

1800 Gabriel Prosser’s slave insurrection in Virginia

1865 Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery

1869 Colored National Labor Union formed

1870 Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution adopted; states the right to vote may not be abrogated by color

1925 A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

1941 A. Philip Randolph threatens march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in defense jobs

1963 March on Washington for jobs and justice

1964 Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination

1965 AFL-CIO forms A. Philip Randolph Institute

1965 César Chávez forms AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee

1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, during sanitation workers' strike

1972 Coalition of Black Trade Unionists formed

1973 Labor Council for Latin American Advancement founded

1992 Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance created within AFL-CIO

1997 Pride At Work, a national coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers and their supporters, becomes an AFL-CIO constituency group; AFL-CIO membership renewed growth

The Labor Movement and Workplace Rights

Another key force behind working people organizing is so that they can earn enough to support their families. Good wages are part of that calculation, but so are health care, paid sick leave and other rights that make sure that working people can do their jobs and take care of their families.

1619 The first labor strike on American soil was organized and staged by Polish workers and artisans in Jamestown

1677 First recorded prosecution against strikers in New York City

1791 First strike in building trades by Philadelphia carpenters for a 10-hour day Bill of Rights adopted

1835 General strike for 10-hour day in Philadelphia

1843 Lowell Female Labor Reform Association begins public petitioning for 10-hour day

1847 New Hampshire enacts first state 10-hour-day law

1860 Great shoemaker’s strike in New England

1885 Successful strike by Knights of Labor on the Southwest (or Gould) System; the Missouri Pacific; the Missouri, Kansas and Texas; and the Wabash

1886 General strike in Chicago turns bloody in Haymarket Square; seven “anarchists” charged and sentenced to death

1890 Carpenters President Peter J. McGuire and the union strike and win the eight-hour day for some 28,000 members

1892  Iron and steelworkers union defeated in lockout at Homestead, Pennsylvania

1892 Integrated general strike in New Orleans succeeds

1894  Boycott of Pullman sleeping cars leads to general strike on railroads

1903 To improve enforcement of child labor laws, Mother Jones organizes a children's march from Philadelphia to New York

1912 Bread and Roses strike begun by immigrant women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ended with 23,000 men, women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line

1914 Ludlow Massacre of 13 women and children and seven men in Colorado coal miners’ strike

1919 One of every five workers walked out in wave of nationwide strikes, including national clothing, coal and steel strikes, a general strike in Seattle, and a police strike in Boston

1937 Auto Workers win sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan

1937 Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters win contract with Pullman Co.

1946 Largest strike wave in U.S. history

1981 President Ronald Reagan breaks air traffic controllers’ strike

1981 AFL-CIO rallies 400,000 in Washington on Solidarity Day

1990 United Mine Workers of America win strike against Pittston Coal

1997 The AFL-CIO defeats legislation giving the president the ability to “Fast Track” trade legislation without assured protection of workers’ rights and the environment

2001 Labor unions join with community allies to enact “living wage” ordinances in 76 communities across the nation

2003 The AFL-CIO establishes Working America to reach out to nonunion members and mobilize workers through door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods

The Labor Movement and Retirement

Working people don't work forever. A healthy and secure retirement should be an attainable goal for any worker who wants it. The labor movement has fought and still fights to make this dream true for as many as possible.

1935 Frances Perkins drafts the Social Security Act, greatly increasing retirement security for Americans

1944 Nelson Cruikshank begins working for the AFL and works hard to expand or establish Social Security, Medicare and national health care

2001 AFL-CIO launches Alliance for Retired Americans to recruit activists and mobilize older Americans

The Labor Movement and Shared Prosperity

The labor movement works to ensure working people receive a fair return on their work. Unions focus on raising wages and working standards and help moderate the excessive compensation of executives.

1765 Artisans and laborers in Sons of Liberty protest oppressive British taxes

1770 British troops kill five dock workers in Boston Massacre

1773 Laborers protest royal taxation in the Boston Tea Party

1786 Philadelphia printers conduct first successful strike for increased wages

1900 The AFL and National Civic Federation promote trade agreements with employers; U.S. Industrial Commission declares trade unions good for democracy

2001 Labor unions and community allies enact “living wage” ordinances in 76 communities across the nation

The Labor Movement and Labor Law

The labor movement has long advanced the rights of working people by advocating for progressive labor and employment laws.

1842 Commonwealth v. Hunt decision frees unions from some prosecutions

1847 New Hampshire enacts first state 10-hour-day law

1898 Erdman Act prohibits discrimination against railroad workers because of union membership and provides for mediation of railway labor disputes

1902  Anthracite strike arbitrated after President Theodore Roosevelt intervenes

1912 Bill creating Department of Labor passes at the end of congressional session

1913 Woodrow Wilson takes office as president and appoints the first secretary of labor, William B. Wilson of the Mine Workers

1926  Railway Labor Act sets up procedures to settle railway labor disputes and forbids discrimination against union members

1931 Davis-Bacon Act provides for prevailing wages on publicly funded construction projects

1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibits federal injunctions in most labor disputes

1935 National Labor Relations Act passed

1935 Social Security Act passed

1938 Fair Labor Standards Act establishes first minimum wage and 40-hour week

1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricts union members’ activities

1959 Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin) passed

1962 President John F. Kennedy’s order gives federal workers the right to bargain

1963  Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender

1964 Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination

2002 President George W. Bush pledges to strip collective bargaining rights from 170,000 civil servants in the new Transportation Security Administration and denies bargaining rights to airport-security screening personnel

2009 President Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored the rights of working women to sue over pay discrimination

Trade Unions and the AFL-CIO History Timeline

1866 National Labor Union founded

1869 Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor founded

1869 Colored National Labor Union founded

1881 Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions formed

1882 First Labor Day parade held in New York City

1886 American Federation of Labor founded

1903 Women’s Trade Union League formed at the AFL convention

1905 Industrial Workers of the World founded

1908 The AFL endorses Democrat William Jennings Bryan for U.S. president

1918 Leadership of IWW sentenced to federal prison charges of disloyalty to the United States

1919  International Labor Organization founded in France

1924 Samuel Gompers dies; William Green becomes AFL president

1925 A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

1935 Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formed within the AFL

1936 The AFL and the CIO create Non-Partisan League and help President Roosevelt win re-election to a second term

1938 The Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) forms as an independent federation; John L. Lewis president

1940 John L. Lewis resigns; Phillip Murray becomes CIO president

1943 The CIO forms first political action committee to get out the union vote for President Roosevelt

1949  The first two of 11 unions with Communist leaders are purged from the CIO

1952 William Green and Phillip Murray die; George Meany and Walter Reuther become presidents of the AFL and the CIO, respectively

1955 The AFL and the CIO merge; George Meany president

1957  The AFL-CIO expels two affiliates for corruption

1965 The AFL-CIO forms A. Philip Randolph Institute

1965 César Chávez forms AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee

1972 Coalition of Black Trade Unionists formed

1973 Labor Council for Latin American Advancement founded

1974 Coalition for Labor Union Women founded

1979 Lane Kirkland elected president of the AFL-CIO

1989 Organizing Institute created

1990 United Steelworkers of America Labor Alliance created within the AFL-CIO

1992 Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance created within the AFL-CIO

1995 Thomas Donahue becomes interim president of the AFL-CIO

1995 John Sweeney elected AFL-CIO president

1997 Pride At Work, a national coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers becomes an AFL-CIO constituency group

2002 The AFL-CIO forms the Industrial Union Council

2003 The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department launches the Helmets to Hardhats program

2003 The AFL-CIO establishes Working America to reach out to nonunion members and mobilize workers through door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods

2005 Change to Win holds its founding convention in St. Louis, created among seven unions previously members of the AFL-CIO

2006 The AFL-CIO and the National Day Laborer Organizing Networkform a partnership to collaborate with local worker centers on immigration reform and other issues

2008 The AFL-CIO establishes the Union Veterans Council

2009 Richard Trumka elected AFL-CIO president

2009 The first of three unions leave Change to Win to reaffiliate with the AFL-CIO

Resources

Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs

Labor History Societies

Visit these sites for an education in the proud history of the U.S. union movement.

Labor History Online

Major Labor History Sites

  • A. Philip Randolph
    An online exhibit, based on the 1992–2001 traveling exhibit, featuring photos from his early life and from his work in the civil rights and trade union movements.
  • American Labor Museum: Botto House National Landmark
    The American Labor Museum is housed in the Botto House National Landmark, a 1908 Victorian home and meeting place for more than 20,000 silk mill workers during the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. The museum includes a labor and immigrant library and changing exhibits.
  • The George Meany Memorial Archives
    Online exhibits, reference assistance and more at the archives established by the AFL-CIO to preserve its historical records and make them available for research. 
  • Mining Disasters
    Information about mining tragedies and the legislation they resulted in, from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
  • Mother Jones Museum
    A virtual museum and curricula about the labor agitator, Mother Jones.
  • The Samuel Gompers Papers
    A documentary history of the American working class, sponsored by the University of Maryland-College Park, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the George Meany Memorial Archives.
  • U.S. Department of Labor
    Selected U.S. labor history links.

Labor Education Sites

Alabama
University of Alabama—Center for Labor Education and Research

Arkansas
University of Arkansas at Little Rock—Institute for Economic Advancement

California
Laney College—Labor Studies Program
University of California at Berkeley—Labor Center
University of California, Los Angeles—Center for Labor Research and Education

Florida
Florida International University Center for Labor Research & Studies
United Association for Labor Education

Hawaii
University of Hawaii Center for Labor Education & Research

Illinois
School of Labor and Employment Relations
DePaul University Labor Education Center

Indiana 
Indiana University—Labor Studies Program

Iowa 
University of Iowa Labor Center

Maine 
University of Maine—Bureau of Labor Education

Maryland 
University of Maryland Labor History and Workplace Studies

Massachusetts 
University of Massachusetts (Amherst) Labor Relations Research Center

Michigan 
Michigan State University School of Human Resources and Labor Relations
Wayne State University Labor Studies Center

Minnesota 
University of Minnesota Labor Education Service

New Jersey 
Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations

New York 
Cornell University Industrial Labor Relations

Oregon 
University of Oregon Labor Education Research Center 
United Association for Labor Education—Union Women's Summer Schools

Pennsylvania 
Penn State University Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations

Rhode Island 
Institute for Labor Studies & Research

West Virginia 
West Virginia University Institute for Labor Studies and Research

Wisconsin 
University of Wisconsin-Extension/School for Workers

International Programs 
Centre for Labour Studies, Adelaide, Australia
Simon Fraser University Centre for Labour Studies (Burnaby, British Columbia)