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Labor in America


Preamble and Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor of America
Preamble and Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor of America

In 1894, Labor Day, celebrated on the first Monday in September, was officially established and signed into law by President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) to recognize the contribution of American workers. The day is usually associated with trade unionism and its historic appeals for the right to organize in the workplace, the eight hour workday, the five day work week, workman’s compensation, the abolishment of night work without compensation, equal pay for equal work, and the abolishment of child labor. These hard fought for rights which are currently viewed as given conditions in the workplace were won through the organizational skills and spilled blood of labor leaders and the rank and file  The Smithsonian houses many volumes dealing with labor history; the following monographs are located in the American Art/National Portrait Gallery Library (AA/PG).

Modern academics have noted that laborers should include all who labored from the time of the first expeditions to the North American continent.  The AA/PG Library holds a two volume study identifying the workers who transformed the new world. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture & Society, was established as the American Social History Project at the City University of New York under the direction of Herbert G. Gutman. The two volumes cover the periods from conquest and colonization to the modern age. The authors write: “Revolutionary-era America expressed a profound tension between ideals of liberty and equality on the one hand, and, on the other, the plunder of Indian land, the enslavement of African peoples, the exploitation of European-born workers, and the political and social inequality suffered by women.”

The social fabric of the continent’s native population was disorganized though epidemics and the social and economic reorganization of their cultural systems.  After the Spanish crown legalized the sale of African slaves in the Americas in 1510, Spain, Holland, Portugal and England transferred over ten million slaves from Africa to the new world during the following three centuries, with most of them sent to Central and South American and the West Indies. The abuse of indentured servants in the colonies owes to the historical view that people without property were not really free. The view was codified in 1563, when the English Parliament past the Statute of Artificers compelling millions without property to work for low wages. The word “kidnaping” originates from the practice of rounding up the orphans who would be shipped to the colonies and the word “spinster” originates from the forced labor at the spinning wheel of unmarried women. Those unwilling to work could be punished by imprisonment or public whipping. By the time of American colonization, indentured servants were still held under the Artificers, and, although some servants were treated well by their masters, others were forced to work fourteen hours a day, six days a week, sometimes with physical abuse.

By the period of the industrial revolution more cheap labor was needed.  William Cahn writes in A Pictorial History of American Labor that Samuel Slater, called “the father of the American factory system” by President Jackson, memorized plans for a cotton spinning frame in England and reproduced it in America in 1790 using only child labor. The abuse of children, some as young as four years old, working in mines, sweatshops, mills, and farms continued for over one hundred years.  The abuse of the children born to slaves, and all adult slaves continued until the 1863 edict of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, two years later.

According to William Cahn, the first labor strike in the colonies can be traced back to Polish workers in a glass factory in Virginia Colony in 1619. Small fraternal societies and associations continued to organize, and  in 1866 the first national labor federation was formed through  the National Labor Union. In 1869 the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was organized by a group of Philadelphia garment workers. This popular organization’s motto was “An injury to one is the concern of all.” The following were the guiding principles outlined in the Preamble and Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor which took almost one hundred years to achieve:

  • Equal pay for equal work for both sexes (not enacted until the 1963 Equal Pay Act by President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)
  • Safeguards for the health and safety of those engaged in mining and manufacturing and building industries
  • Enactment of laws providing for arbitration between employers and employed
  • Prohibition by law of the employment of children under 15 in workshops, mines and factories
  • Graduated income tax
  • Universal brotherhood
  • Education in literacy for workers

It was not until the Clayton Act in 1914, the Norris-LaGuardia Act also known as the Anti-Injunction Bill in 1932, and the Wagner Act, popularly known as the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, that some of these goals were achieved. Later, these acts and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 became umbrella statutes setting the policies for the protection of workers.            

Cover of "Mother Jones: Fierce Fighter for Workers' Rights"
Cover of “Mother Jones: Fierce Fighter for Workers’ Rights” by Judith Pinkerton Josephson

There are many heroic labor leaders and organizers in American history, but one stands out in particular. Always dressed in black, barely five feet tall, with white hair framing a sweet face she appeared a kindly grandmother as she traveled throughout the country fighting for the rights of workers. That appearance belied the fierce persona of one who in 1903 would organize the March of the Mill Children from Pennsylvania to Sagamore Hill, New York, where President Theodore Roosevelt (1853-1919) resided on his summer vacations. Judith Pinkerton Josephson illustrates the plight of child laborers in Mother Jones Fierce Fighter for Workers’ Rights. The author quotes Mother Jones description of six and seven year olds working in southern cotton mills,  “…dragged out of bed at half past four in the morning when the task-master’s whistle blew.  They eat their scanty meals of black coffee and corn bread mixed with cottonseed oil in place of butter and then off trots the whole army of serfs, big and little.”  If they fell asleep on the job cold water was splashed at them. The pay was ten cents a day after an eight-hour shift.

In her autobiography Mother Jones (1837-1930) writes, “And who is responsible for this appalling child slavery?  Everyone. Alabama passed a child labor law, endeavoring to some extent to protect its children. And northern capitalists form Massachusetts and Rhode Island defeated the law. Whenever a southern state attempts reform, the mill owners, who are for the most part northerners, threaten to close the mills. They reach legislatures, they send lobbies to work against child labor reform, and money, northern money for the most part, secures the nullification of reform laws through control of the courts.” When in Philadelphia she asked why there wasn’t any coverage of the abuses of child labor and was told that mill owners held stock in the newspapers. Arriving at the “summer White House” on the shore of Long Island, she was told by the president’s secretary that he was not available. Later, she was informed that the president felt child labor was a problem for individual states to solve.

Mary Jane Harris was born in Cork, Ireland, raised and educated in Canada, and naturalized as an American citizen. She taught school and worked as a dressmaker before meeting and marrying George Jones, an iron worker.  It was though her husband’s membership in the International Iron Workers Union that she was introduced to the American labor movement. In 1867, while residing in Memphis her husband and all four children died in a yellow fever epidemic. Devastated she moved to Chicago and opened a dressmaker’s shop which burned down in the 1871 Chicago fire. After that loss she started attending the meetings of The Knights of Labor and went on to become a labor organizer with the skills of a spell-binding orator.

Author Dale Fetherling writes In Mother Jones the Miners’ Angel A Portrait that in 1913 while in her early eighties Mother Jones was categorized by a West Virginia prosecutor as the most dangerous woman in America, “…She crooks her finger – 20,000 contented men lay down their tools and walk out”. That year served as just another typical year in bringing a string of harassments, threats and arrests.  This time she was charged under a military tribunal without a hearing or a grand jury query. Among other things she was charged with inciting miners to murder, a charge which could have rendered her sentenced to death by firing squad. After a few months of confinement she still would not plea a deal, stating that they could chain her to a tree and riddle her body with bullets before she would give up her constitutional right to a trial by jury.  Elliot Gorn writes in Mother Jones, “What Mother Jones had been guilty of was flagrant disrespect for the governor, disdain for public officials, and contempt for property owners…She was an elderly lady who failed to observe social niceties in public places. Her characterization of West Virginia as a police state and her attacks on mine operators as rapacious murderers defied the national mythology of free enterprise, And worst of all, the miners listened.”

Fred Thompson, in his introduction to the Autobiography of Mother Jones, quotes folk-singer John Farrance: “I saw her one time in Monongahela. She was trying to organize the mines. She came down Pike Street in a buggy and horse. Two company thugs grabbed the horse by the bridle and told her to turn around and get back down the road. She wore a gingham apron and she reached under it and pulled out a special .38 pistol and told them to turn her horse loose, and they sure did. She continued on to the park and spoke to a large crowd of miners. She wasn’t afraid of the devil”.

Recognized throughout the country for her influence, even Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) wrote in his poem Memoir of a Proud Boy, from Poems for the People:

He had no mother but Mother Jones

                                                  Crying from a jail window of Trinidad:                                                 

“All I want is room enough to stand

      And shake my fist at the enemies of the human race”



Sources cited (click on titles to find a copy in a library near you!):

American Social History Productions, Inc., City University of New York, Who Built America? Working People & the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture & Society, Pantheon Books, New York, 1989

Cahn, William,  A Pictorial History of American Labor, Crown Publishers, New York, 1972

Fetherling, Dale, Mother Jones, the Miners’ Angel a Portrait, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1974

Gorn, Elliott, Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America, Hill and Wang a division of Farrar, Straus, and Girous, New York, 2001

Josephson, Judith Pinkerton, Mother Jones Fierce Fighter for Workers’ Rights, Lerner Publications, Minneapolis, 1997

Parton, Mary Field, ed. The Autobiography of Mother Jones; Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, Chicago, 1976

Sandburg, Carl, Poems for the People, Carl Sandburg Family Trust, Ivan, R. Dee, Chicago, 1999


  1. Hiya

    Unique article. keep writing

  2. I found this blog very informative and learned a lesson in history about labour day and equal pay and alot of other things surprised me i did not no. Keep this historic articles coming there awesome.

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