A significant labor force developed during the 19th century in the United States as a result of the manufacturing boom brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The development of new machinery created a need for people to run the machines. In the first quarter of the century, companies were basically small, family-owned affairs, and a close relationship existed between employers and employees. The earliest labor organizations were not unions as we know them, but craft societies organized along the lines of the medieval European guilds. They functioned as social and educational vehicles. Their goals did not interfere with their work, rather they furthered it, as there was little conflict between employers and employees in this period.
Connecticut provides a good microcosmic view of the national labor movement in the 19th century, because events in Connecticut parallel events in the nation. The earliest factories in Connecticut were textile factories, constructed as almost independent villages. In 1806, the Pomfret Factory was established, and in 1810 Humphreysville was born. In these villages, the factory owners provided the workers with housing, a school, and a company store. They assumed a very paternalistic attitude toward the workers, regulating their activities outside, as well as inside, the factories. At the time, these were considered desirable employment situations, and although paternalistic, came to be the very factor that dissuaded workers from organizing. “Before the Civil War . . . unionization of factory operatives was virtually impossible. In the family-type mills of Connecticut . . . the operatives relied on their employers for jobs, housing, and . . . even for food. These workers were quite unable to combine to protect their interests.”
Often the laborers worked in what were nearly intolerable conditions. From the reports of the state factory inspectors and the legislation regarding factory conditions, inferences can be made about the conditions that prevailed. The fact that these laws were not enacted and enforced until the last two decades of the century does not necessarily mean that these conditions had not existed earlier.
It wasn’t until 1887 that a law was passed in Connecticut requiring factory inspections. Other laws passed called for better ventilation, lighting, sanitary conditions, provisions for bathrooms for the employees, fire escapes, and protection from dangerous machinery.
From the reports of the factory inspector, it seems that most of the violations involved these very conditions. Therefore, the conclusion can be drawn that by the mid—19th century many laborers in Connecticut worked in unsafe, unsanitary, poorly ventilated, ill-lit factories.
Early Stages of Labor Organizations
The earliest unions in Connecticut were formed for educational and social purposes. The first organization in Connecticut was the Mechanics’ Society of New Haven, founded in 1807. (The term “mechanic” was applied at that time to any sort of skilled factory or shop worker.) Other mechanics’ societies were founded after this. They generally sought to promote standardization of their products, provide opportunities for educational growth, aid younger members interested in pursuing the trade, and provide loans for members. They did not concern themselves with hours, wages, and working conditions. They were master craftsmen who took a great deal of pride in their work.
However, with increased industrialization, this attitude changed. “Instead of a price for his product, which the artisan received, he would have to accept a wage for his labor, thus selling himself rather than his handiwork.”
So the concern of the workingman shifted to matters directly regarding his labor. In the 1830s, Jacksonian democracy swept the country, and Connecticut labor was caught up in its tide. Connecticut laborers became much more active and militant. They organized, for instance, The New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen. They agitated for a ten hour day, abolition of imprisonment for debt, improved working conditions, reform of the tax system, universal manhood suffrage, and abolition of banks and monopolies. These goals were not limited to the state but were part of a national reform movement.
It was during this same period that labor first became politically active. In 1830, the state’s first labor candidate was elected to the state legislature from New London. The entire slate of town officers of New London, elected in 1831, was also a labor ticket. Political involvement by labor was not widespread at this point, but there were indications that labor represented a growing interest which politicians had better heed.
The flurry of labor activity in the 1830s was brought to a quick halt by the panic of 1837. High unemployment rates decreased the size of the labor force and its effectiveness in achieving reforms. Companies could always hire other workers willing to work for lower wages.
Difficulties of Organizing
In the pre-Civil War period, labor faced either indifference or opposition from the public, the press, and the law. The opinion prevailed that owner-worker relationships were a private affair and should not be subject to any outside interference. Of course, a general laissez-faire attitude was prevalent toward all business and social conditions and this did not change until the 20th century. This gave the management free rein. Although the 1840s and 1850s were characterized by dozens of strikes throughout the nation, most resulted in victories for the managers, who could employ scabs, use blacklists, and seek court injunctions to counter the actions of labor. The rare victories for labor were isolated incidents, because there was no labor organization on a national or even state-wide basis.
From this point until the Civil War, there is little activity on the part of organized labor in Connecticut. Although manufacturing in Connecticut increased steadily, by 1845, the value of Connecticut’s hay crop alone still exceeded the value of the cotton or woolen textile industries, Connecticut’s two largest industries.
And by 1850, only 10% of the state’s population worked in industries.
So organized labor was not a significant force at this point.
Conditions created by the Civil War provided an incentive for unionization. The War drained manpower resources, at the same time that it created a great demand for industrial labor. By 1880, 46.7% of the working population was employed in industries in Connecticut.
However, continued apathy and opposition on the part of the public, management, and the government forced labor to organize to Protect its interests.
As the Connecticut Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out in 1885,
The individual workman does not meet his employer on equal terms. When the law assumes that he does, the law makes a mistake. Sometimes he is stronger; generally he is far weaker. It may be true that it is for the interest of the employer to consult with the interest of the employee; but when he does not do so, the individual employee has no remedy. It is for this reason, more than any other, that he resorts to combination.
From 1850-1877 about fifty local unions were organized in Connecticut. Once again, though, hard times impaired the effectiveness of labor organizations. The panic of 1873 and the following depression again caused a glut on the labor market. But when they recovered from this economic setback, unions became very well-organized and established clear goals.
The Goals and Functions of Unions
In 1902, the Connecticut Bureau of Labor Statistics asked each union for a statement of its purpose and function. An examination of these statements reveals that most of the unions sought the same things. In general they sought shorter hours, better pay, improved working conditions, disability and insurance benefits, high standards for their trade, minimum wages, job security, equitable conditions between employer and employee, prohibition of child labor, equal pay for equal work by both sexes, closed shops, and others.
It is interesting to note that although labor has made enormous gains in the 20th century, these goals are still those for which labor strives.
Connecticut and the National Labor Movement
Connecticut first became part of the national labor movement in 1878 when the initial local association of the Knights of Labor was established in New Britain. Terence Powderly came to Connecticut in the winter of 1878 and helped to establish more locals. In 1885, the whole state was chartered as District No. 95 of the Knights of Labor. At its peak, the
Knights included about 12,000 members. It was involved in a great number of strikes. The power and influence of the Knights is also seen by its involvement in politics. In 1885-86, thirty-seven members of the legislature were Knights, and it is during this time that much legislation favorable to labor was enacted. “But for the most part, the impossible was tried and the possible was relegated to the rear.”
Due to its idealism, national events, internal dissension, and its inability to settle many Connecticut strikes favorably, the Knights of Labor in Connecticut began to decline.
The American Federation of Labor bridged the gap left by the fall of the Knights of Labor. Founded by Samuel Gompers, it pursued the “bread and butter” issues of wages and hours. The Connecticut branch of the American Federation of Labor was founded in March, 1887. It rose in proportion to the decline of the Knights of Labor. The Connecticut Federation of Labor continued the policy of strikes and boycotts, and aimed at the same goals as the Knights. However, it was better organized on both the state and national levels. It also focused its time and energy on the passage of labor legislation. The most important difference between the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor was the organization of the A.F. of L. along trade lines. The A.F. of L. was an association of independent trade unions, so its membership was limited to skilled workers.
Connecticut Labor Legislation
It was difficult for organized labor to get favorable legislation, because it was the policy in Connecticut “not to interfere in the matter of free contract between employers and their adult male employees.”
However, both the Knights of Labor and the Connecticut Federation of Labor were directly responsible for the passage of a great deal of labor legislation in the last twenty years of the 19th century. In 1887, a weekly payment law was passed. It had been the practice of the companies to pay their employees monthly. This often forced the workers to incur debts at the end of the month. Or employers would pay their employees early and charge them five percent for the early payment. The Knights of Labor worked for, and got, passage of the weekly payment law.
Regarding employer-employee relations, in 1899, the Connecticut Federation of Labor was instrumental in securing a piece of legislation that prohibited an employer from forcing an employee to sign a contract promising that he wouldn’t join a union—the infamous “yellow dog contracts. This was a very important victory for organized labor.
A matter of great concern to the organized workers was the union label. This certified that a product was made by union workers under conditions that met union standards in a union shop. It encouraged the consumer to buy union-made goods, and thereby pressured the manufacturers to hire union workers and maintain union standards. Unscrupulous manufacturers counterfeited the union labels, but they couldn’t be prosecuted because the labels were not legally recognized as official trademarks. In 1893, the Connecticut Federation of Labor secured the passage of a law requiring the registration of union labels as official trademarks, thereby making their counterfeiting illegal. From 1893 to 1905, twenty-five such labels were registered in Connecticut.
Another important area of legislation which the C. F. of L. worked to reform was laws regarding boycotts and blacklisting. Here they were not very successful. In 1878 a law was passed which essentially prohibited employees from combining to boycott a business. This law seemed directly designed to limit the power and tools of the unions, but, despite much agitation, it remained on the books into the 20th century.
One interesting case which met a negative precedent for labor was the Danbury Hatters’ case. Because of a reduction in wages, the workers boycotted the company. The company then sued them under the federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act, charging that they were a combination in restraint of trade. The union lost the case end was forced to pay the company three times the damages incurred by the boycott. This was a real setback for labor. The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act restricted the use of boycott by the unions, thereby depriving them of one of their most effective weapons.
Two important court cases clarified the rights of labor unions in Connecticut.
The decisions made it legal for unions to combine to raise wages or improve conditions and to strike if their demands were not met, but they made it illegal for workers to combine to injure the employer’s business. This restricted the methods available to labor for achieving its demands. Blacklisting by the employers was more difficult to prove. By its very nature, it is secret, though one employee was successful in a suit against his employer for blacklisting. This was the only such case in Connecticut and the first of its kind in the United States.
Although organized labor was not as successful in getting all the labor legislation as it might have liked, it was very instrumental in the passage of the legislation that did occur. In fact, a student of the Connecticut scene wrote in 1907,
. . . since 1885, organized labor has been the chief factor in securing labor legislation, either by direct legislative campaigns or by agitation outside the legislature, or by both.
It is safe to say that without the influence
exerted by organized labor, few of the labor
laws would have been passed when they were, and
, probably, many of them never would have been
On the whole, the laws have been of great benefit to the laboring classes and have improved their condition and the conditions under which they work very materially.
Thus the purpose for which labor originally organized was, to a great extent, achieved, at least for skilled workers.
It is in the 20th century that a true recognition and support of organized labor begins, but that is outside the scope of this paper.
The second section of this paper deals with a case study of the South Norwalk Hatters’ strike of 1884-85. This strike illustrates many of the problems of organized labor in Connecticut and in the United States in the 19th century.