The first labor unions in the United States appeared at the time of the Revolutionary War in cities along the East Coast. Isolated groups of craftsmen banded together to improve their wage and working conditions.
One of the first labor strikes took place in New York City in 1741. Bakers protested against the way the city controlled bread prices, and refused to work. The city tried and convicted them of "combining," but they were not sentenced.
Shoemakers in Philadelphia formed the first real local union in 1792.
The unions of the 1790s and 1800s bargained with their employers by putting up signs stating the conditions under which they would work. They then concealed themselves near the signs. If the employer rejected their demands, they went on strike by failing to appear for work.
Few of these early unions survived the opposition of their employers, the hostility of the courts and the pressure of hard times.
In the late 1820s, local unions started to form associations. In 1827, workers set up the first union association: the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations. The organization started in Philadelphia.
The early unions took much interest in local politics. One of the first labor parties was the Workingman's party, organized in Philadelphia in 1828 to protest lengthening the 10 hour working day.
The first national unions appeared in the 1850s. The International Typographical Union was founded in 1852 and the National Union of Iron Molders, now the Molders and Foundry Workers Union, appeared in 1859. Both unions still play important parts in organized labor.
The panic of 1857 dealt union organizations a severe blow, because many workers lost their jobs and unions lost their power to bargain.
The major formation of national unions came after the Civil War. The war greatly expanded factory production and railroad building.
By 1864, about 300 local unions operated in 20 northern states. City union groups increased in number and new national unions appeared.
A number of city union groups joined in 1865 to form the International Industrial Assembly of North America. In 1866, the group changed its name to the National Labor Union. It became the first important association of unions.
The National Labor Union consisted of local unions, national unions and trade union groups. Ira Stewart and William Sylvis headed the organization. They worked for an eight hour day, abolition of child labor and other reforms. But the organization became involved in various political reform movements and disappeared in 1872.
In 1912, Congress created the Department of Labor, separating the department from the Department of Commerce.