Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Working Men’s Party

Morris Iron Works

A black and white advertisement for the Morris Iron Works. Top image shows the interior of a factory with a foreman speaking to workers at machines, lower image depicts a worker operating a large smelter.

Life was difficult for working-class men in the early nineteenth century. Workdays were long and wages were slim, and they labored under the constant threat of imprisonment for minor debts. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia was in many ways the vanguard of the American labor movement. It was here that the first labor strike was executed in 1786. In 1806, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Court ruled that striking cordwainers were guilty of conspiring to force a wage increase. And in 1828, Philadelphia’s Working Men’s Party became the nation’s first labor party. As industrialization increased, workers were subjected to grueling workdays that could exceed fourteen hours for coal heavers. The Working Men’s Party campaigned for the rights of the working class by running reform candidates in the city’s elections. Their platform was not limited to labor policy, but extended to other concerns of the city’s poor. Though they were destroyed by factionalism after just three years, many of their platforms were passed shortly after their demise, including free public school for all children, the elimination of debtor’s prisons, and a ten-hour workday.

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