Trade Unions (1820s and 1830s)


As industrialization began changing the nature of work and society in the United States during the 1820s and 1830s, workers concerned with their low wages, long hours, and the growing power of employers organized to fight for what they believed to be the true ideals of the republic. During this period, Philadelphia workers organized trade unions and supported one of the most spectacular and successful labor demonstrations in the antebellum period, the General Strike of 1835. Although short-lived, their actions had a lasting impact on not only Philadelphia but also the nation.

A short news piece announcing the publication of The Mechanics' Free Press
This notice promoted the first newspaper to be printed specifically for the working class, the Mechanics’ Free Press, originating in Philadelphia. It was printed for three years and influenced a number of similar publications. (Google Books)

In the latter half of the 1820s social and economic changes within the United States created a degree of anxiety among free male workers. Questions arose over the direction of the nation, including whether the country had veered away from its founders’ true intentions. Numerous reform organizations attempted to address these concerns, including labor organizations. By the summer of 1827, journeymen in Philadelphia formed the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations (MUTA), which became the nation’s first citywide coalition of local unions. The guiding force for MUTA was the belief that the growing power and corruption of business owners and entrepreneurs was increasingly destroying the fabric of the republic. One of the association’s most pressing issues was the movement for a ten-hour work day.

In 1828 MUTA members formed a political organization, the Working Men’s Party, to fight for workers’ rights. The “Workies” polled well in Philadelphia in 1828 and 1829, but internal strife, conservative attacks, and political co-optation by city Democrats who made “workingman issues,” such as debtor relief and militia reform, part of their party platform, brought an end to the political organization by 1831. Its demise left the labor movement in Philadelphia weak, and the collapse of party politics left a bitter taste in the mouths of labor leaders.

Also in 1827, cordwainer William Heighton (1800-73) began publishing the Mechanics Free Press, one of the nation’s first labor papers, though it lasted just three years. Still, the labor movement of Philadelphia continued to use trade presses throughout the next decade to give voice to the plight of the workingman, focusing on such issues as debtor relief, militia reform, and public education reform.

Conditions Deteriorate

A political cartoon depicting Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren fighting a serpent with 20 heads. The heads are of bankers including Nicholas Biddle.
Massive inflation caused by President Andrew Jackson pulling federal funds out of the Second Bank of the United States brought new trade unions into creation. This 1836 political cartoon satirizes the battle between Jackson and the bankers. (Library of Congress)

Conditions for American laborers continued to deteriorate in the first years of the 1830s. A war on the Second Bank of the United States waged by President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) brought a deluge of paper money into the market, issued by a score of state banks, which led to massive inflation. In workplaces, division of labor and increased shop rules and regulations implemented by employers reduced both job security and autonomy to an all-time low. The combination of these forces brought resurgence to trade unionism. Veteran MUTA leaders, such as cordwainer William English, rebuilt Philadelphia’s trade organizations in 1833 by founding the Trades’ Union of Pennsylvania in August, followed by the Mechanic’s Union of Philadelphia in November.

In April 1834, after workers from nine trades in New York City combined to create a General Trades’ Union, labor leaders of Philadelphia organized the parallel General Trades’ Union (GTU) of the City and County of Philadelphia. Structured loosely like the federal government, the organization consisted of five executive officers elected semiannually and a bicameral legislature. Each affiliate union selected delegates to the GTU and had proportionate representation within the assembly, which met weekly and voted on admission of prospective affiliates. Determined not to follow the path of the earlier Working Men’s Party, the GTU steered clear from politics and instead focused on workshop grievances, especially the ten-hour day.

A color photograph of the Merchants' Exchange building showing Greek-style columns on a large front portico.
Hundreds of striking workers filled the Merchants’ Exchange building at Third and Walnuts Streets after the strike began in late May 1835. An estimated twenty thousand people joined the protest by the end of the week. (Library of Congress)

The era’s most impressive and successful general strike followed in 1835. In late May coal heavers at the Schuylkill docks walked off their jobs to protest long hours. Determined to prevent strike-breakers from unloading cargo, nearly three hundred coal heavers paraded on June 3. They were soon joined by cordwainers, carpenters, and other laborers throughout the city who eventually entered and filled the Merchants’ Exchange at Third and Walnut Streets. By the end of the week, more than twenty trades and nearly twenty thousand workers (estimated) were striking, inspired in part by the increasing trade unionism of the city and also by the “Ten-Hour Circular” published by Boston carpenter Seth Luther (1795-1863) during the earlier Boston Carpenters’ Strike.

Led by artisans, such as hand loom weaver John Ferral, workers paraded through the streets of the city accompanied by fife and drum corps and held rallies in Independence Square. They carried banners emblazed with the words “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” By June 10 the general strike had essentially shut down the city. Within days, the Common Council announced that workers employed by the city would be granted a ten-hour day. Master carpenters and employing cordwainers soon followed suit. By the end of the month, the ten-hour day, and in many cases increased wages, were granted to workers throughout Philadelphia. In the wake of the strike, interest in trade unionism increased and membership in the GTU soared from roughly two thousand in seventeen affiliates to nearly ten thousand from fifty affiliates.

a black and white vignetted illustration of Mayor John Smith
Mayor John Swift was leader of the pro-business Whig party. When the trade unions attempted a second strike in 1836, he had twelve of the strikers arrested. (New York Public Library)

Solidarity Rises, Then Falls

Trade union solidarity within Philadelphia carried over into 1836. Numerous strikes by such groups as bookbinders and hand loom weavers received guidance and economic support from the GTU. The Philadelphia GTU also became the first trades union in the nation to admit unskilled workers. This occurred in the spring of 1836 when Schuylkill dockers went on strike against coal merchants, who denied them a wage increase. The merchants ultimately won support from Mayor John Swift (1790-1873), who had twelve of the strikers arrested and set their bail at an exceedingly high $2,500. The GTU quickly supported the dockers, admitted them into the organization, and twice paid for their defense in court. The courts ultimately acquitted the workers on charges of breach of peace and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

By the latter half of 1836 the GTU, and trade unionism as whole, began to experience the internal divisiveness that tends to disrupt burgeoning movements. Conflicts over cooperative production, or worker-owned shops, and jurisdictional disputes among affiliates weakened the unity of the GTU. However, the organization’s demise came with the economic Panic of 1837. Trades unions throughout the city lost ground as inflation and unemployment quickened. As unemployment increased workers took whatever jobs that became available; and a staggering number of affiliate trade unions resigned from the GTU Assembly. By 1838, as many of these affiliate unions transitioned into becoming benevolent societies, the main body of the GTU had disappeared, and ultimately the organization dissolved.

Although relatively brief in duration, the labor movement that began in 1827 and climaxed with the General Strike of 1835 brought dramatic long-term changes to the city of Philadelphia. Demands made by laborers during this period raised wider interest in working and living conditions throughout the city, sparked labor presses, and impacted city, state, and national legislation, including the end of imprisonment for debt, Pennsylvania’s Free School Act of 1834, and Ten-Hour Executive Order of 1840 issued by President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862). The General Strike of 1835 and the Philadelphia GTU constituted one of most democratic, yet radical, movements of the Jacksonian Era.

Patrick Grubbs is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University who is writing his dissertation entitled “The Duty of the State: Policing the State of Pennsylvania from the Coal and Iron Police to the Establishment of the Pennsylvania State Police Force, 1866–1905.” He has been employed at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, since 2009 and has taught Pennsylvania history there since 2011. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Mechanic's Free Press

Google Books

The modern concept of trade unionism was born in Philadelphia in 1827. For the first time, the established labor organizations from several industries came together under one banner, the Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations. Alone, these organizations had little power, but as a combined force their much larger numbers allowed them to become a political force. In January of the next year, they began publishing the first newspaper printed specifically for the working class, the Mechanics' Free Press, advertised here in an 1828 issue of The Reformer, a monthly religious journal also originating in Philadelphia. Though the Mechanics' Free Press remained in publication for just three years, it influenced a number of similar publications in the 1820s and 1830s in both Philadelphia and New York.

General Jackson Slaying the Many Headed Monster

Library of Congress

An economic crisis triggered by the 1833 Bank War played an important role in the evolution of trade unions. The conflict began when the Second Bank of the United States' charter was due to expire. Philadelphia-based banker Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank, fought in favor of rechartering the institution and Congress initially voted to recharter. The decision was vetoed by President Andrew Jackson, who believed the bank to be unconstitutional.

This 1836 political cartoon satirizes the battle between Jackson, left, and Biddle, who is pictured in the center wearing a top hat.

On October 1, 1833, three years before the charter was to expire, Jackson had all federal funds pulled out of the bank and redistributed to “pet banks” selected by the Department of the Treasury. This allowed a large amount of paper currency to enter the economy at once, sparking massive inflation. Employers increased regulations and decreased job security for their workers in response. New trade unions were founded by former members of the Mechanics' Union Trade Association in response, the Trades' Union of Pennsylvania and the Mechanics' Union of Philadelphia, to promote workers' interests.

Martin van Buren

Library of Congress

Five years after the General Strike of 1835, President Martin Van Buren signed the first executive order mandating a ten-hour work day–at least for some laborers. Van Buren was elected in 1836 after promising to carry on the policies of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, but almost immediately after his inauguration the economy went into a steep decline.

Throughout the Panic of 1837, Van Buren made his belief in laissez faire economics clear, but feared losing working-class voters as the 1840 election approached. On March 31, 1840, Van Buren issued an executive order mandating a ten-hour maximum work day for laborers on federal public works, including the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It did not affect laborers in private businesses.

The mandate was not enough to save Van Buren's reputation and he lost the 1840 election to William Henry Harrison. It would not be until the 1916 Adamson Act that a federal law mandated work hours in private industry.

Merchants' Exchange

Library of Congress

The Merchants' Exchange building at Third and Walnut Streets was at the center of the General Strike of 1835. It was designed by William Strickland, who had also designed the Second Bank of the United States, and was completed in 1834, just a year before the General Strike.

The Merchants' Exchange was a brokerage house and the hub of Philadelphia's commerce. In late May 1835, frustrated coal heavers from the Schuylkill docks walked off the job to protest their long work hours. On June 3, nearly three hundred of them paraded and were quickly joined by members of other trades. Thousands of men entered and filled the Merchants' Exchange Building, until the protest grew too large and was moved to Statehouse Square (now part of Independence National Historical Park). The Merchants' Exchange still stands today and is the oldest stock exchange building in the United States.

Mayor John Swift

New York Public Library

Trade union protests did not immediately end following the General Strike of 1835. In 1836, Schuylkill dockers
were denied a pay increase and again they went on strike. This second strike was quashed early by Philadelphia Mayor John Swift, who sided with the coal merchants the dockers were striking against. Swift was a lawyer and leader of the pro-business Whig party in the city. Swift had twelve of the strikers arrested. The bail placed on three of them was $2,500, a
huge sum at the time.

The courts later determined that the strike did not constitute a disruption of the peace, and Swift lost the mayoral election the next year after the Trades Union led a popular movement against him. He returned to office in
1840, when he was the first person to be elected mayor of Philadelphia in a popular election after the law was changed to permit the general electorate to vote directly for mayor.

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Time Periods



Related Reading

Bernstein, Leonard. “The Working People of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the General Strike of 1835.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July 1950): 322-39.

Commons, John. “Labor Organization and Labor Politics, 1827 – 1837.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 21, No. 2 (February 1907): 323.

Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Laurie, Bruce. Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

_________. Artisans into Workers: Labor in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Nicholson, Philip. Labor’s Story in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991.

Rondinone, Troy. The Great Industrial War: Framing Class Conflict in the Media, 1865 – 1950. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788 – 1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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