Our country was founded on the premise of slavery, indentured servitude, child labor and deadly labor practices all in the name of profit. Children perished in an industrial fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Women were beaten, imprisoned and died during the work for Bread and Roses protests. Men, women and children died protesting unsafe coal mining conditions at the Ludlow Massacre. Multitudes of unnamed workers died or were permanently disabled on a daily basis in industrial and construction mishaps. People were paid only the minimum of what the market would bear and not what was required to feed a family.

What changed all this? The right to organize. Organizing led to striking. Striking built power. Small units of workers became statewide political forces to be reckoned with. And then, those state wide forces became National and International. With organized labor at the policy table, reform happened. Child labor became unlawful and school mandatory. Workplace safety standards changed, slowly at first but then with real momentum. State minimum wage legislation was enacted, Davis Bacon and the Fair Labor Standards Act became the law of the land. And all of this happened for moth union members and all working Americans because organized labor was at the table.

Partial History of American Workers

1770 British troops kill five dock workers in Boston Massacre

1773 Laborers protest royal taxation in the Boston Tea Party

1786 Philadelphia printers conduct first successful strike for increased wages

1845 The Female Labor Reform Association was created in Lowell, Massachusetts by Sarah Bagley, and other women cotton mill workers, to reduce the work day from 12-13 hours to10 hours, and to improve sanitation and safety in the mills 

1847 New Hampshire enacts first state 10-hour-day law

1868 The first 8-hour workday for federal workers took effect 

1881 In Atlanta, Georgia, 3,000 Black women laundry workers staged one of the largest and most effective strikes in the history of the south 

1886 200,000 workers went on strike against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads owned by Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the 'robber baron' industrialists of the day 

1886 in Chicago's Haymarket Square a bomb went off in the middle of a protest rally against the killing of 4 strikers who had been on strike for the 8-hour day. This began the international tradition of celebrating May Day for workers rights 

1886 American Federation of Labor founded

1877 National uprising of railroad workers 10 Irish coal miners ("Molly Maguires") hanged in Pennsylvania; nine more subsequently were hanged

1898 Erdman Act prohibits discrimination against railroad workers because of union membership and provides for mediation of railway labor disputes

1900 The AFL and National Civic Federation promote trade agreements with employers; U.S. Industrial Commission declares trade unions good for democracy

1902 Teamsters National Union is formed

1903 To improve enforcement of child labor laws, Mother Jones organizes a children's march from Philadelphia to New York

1903 The Department of Labor and Commerce was created by an act of Congress, and its Secretary was made a member of the President's Cabinet 

1905 Sympathy strikers join 4,600 Chicago Teamsters on strike against Montgomery Ward. The strike goes badly and 21 members are killed

1905 Industrial Workers of the World founded. They originally used the phrase “One Big Union”

1906 Members from Local 85 start the tradition of Teamsters as "first responders through their efforts of rescue and clean up after the massive earthquake hits the city

1909 Name of union is changed to International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Stablemen and Helpers of America to reflect the expanding membership

1909 “Uprising of the 20,000” female shirtwaist makers in New York strike against sweatshop conditions

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York kills nearly 150 workers

1912 Bread and Roses strike begun by immigrant women in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ended with 23,000 men, women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line

1913 Woodrow Wilson takes office as president and appoints the first secretary of labor, William B. Wilson of the Mine Workers

1914 Ludlow Massacre of 13 women and children and seven men in Colorado coal miners’ strike

1919 One of every five workers walked out in wave of nationwide strikes, including national clothing, coal and steel strikes, a general strike in Seattle, and a police strike in Boston

1926 Railway Labor Act sets up procedures to settle railway labor disputes and forbids discrimination against union members

1931 Congress passes the Davis Bacon Act guaranteeing that construction workers are paid prevailing wage on public works projects, thus ensuring fair pay for a hard day's work.

1935 Frances Perkins drafts the Social Security Act, greatly increasing retirement security for Americans

1935 National Labor Relations Act passed

1935 Social Security Act passed

1937 Auto Workers win sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan

1938 Fair Labor Standards Act establishes first minimum wage and 40-hour week

1943 Congress passed the Smith-Connally Act to restrict labor bargaining and organizing. It required a 30-day "cooling off" period before strike, criminal penalties for encouraging strikes, Presidential seizure of struck plants, prohibitions against union campaign contributions. It was vetoed by President Roosevelt 

1944 Nelson Cruikshank begins working for the AFL and works hard to expand or establish Social Security, Medicare and national health care

1945 Frances Perkins ends her long tenure as secretary of labor, leaving behind a legacy that reduced workplace accidents, created laws against child labor and expanded workers' rights

1946 Largest strike wave in U.S. history

1948 The campaign to organize Macy’s employees was overwhelming successful. The vote was 98% yes to join Teamsters Local 804

1955 Teamsters play an essential role in the nation-wide delivery of the new polio vaccine

1962 President John F. Kennedy’s order gives federal workers the right to bargain

1962 More than 15,000 women come to Washington D.C. between 1962 and 1968 to lobby for labor-related issues through the DRIVE groups

1963 Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender

1963 March on Washington for jobs and justice

1964 Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination

1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act passed

1990 United Mine Workers of America win strike against Pittston Coal

1993 The Family and Medical leave Act was passed 

1997 The AFL-CIO defeats legislation giving the president the ability to “Fast Track” trade legislation without assured protection of workers’ rights and the environment

1999 Unions and social justice activists came together to protest the World Trade Organization in Seattle. The meetings were shut down by the protests

2000 Canadian Teamsters stand on the front lines in the fight for public safety

2001 Local 890 Teamsters celebrate their victory at Basic Vegetable Products, ending a two-year strike

2001 Labor unions join with community allies to enact “living wage” ordinances in 76 communities across the nation

2002 President George W. Bush pledges to strip collective bargaining rights from 170,000 civil servants in the new Transportation Security Administration and denies bargaining rights to airport-security screening personnel

2005 The Coalition of Immokalee Workers won a major victory by getting Yum Foods, the parent company of Taco Bell, to agree to raise the rate they pay for tomatoes. This victory came after a three-year boycott of Taco Bell 

2009 President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored the rights of working women to sue over pay discrimination

2010 The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights went into effect in New York State thanks to the amazing work of Domestic Workers United. The bill reforms New York laws to guarantee basic work standards and protections for the nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers who keep New York families functioning and make all other work possible 

2011 In Wisconsin Union workers fought against legislation that would take away collective bargaining rights for public employees

2015 National Nurses United plan climate change action

2017 The Teamsters, working with the AFL-CIO, help defeat dangerous right to work legislation in New Hampshire


For a more complete history of labor in America visit: 

AFL CIO - Our labor History Timeline

Labor History Timeline from the Western States Center

Teamster History

The strongest bond of human sympathy outside the family relation should be one uniting working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds. - Abraham Lincoln

If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool. - Abraham Lincoln

It is one of the characteristics of a free and democratic nation that it have free and independent labor unions. - Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I want you to pledge to yourselves in this convention to stand as one solid army against the foes of human labor. Think of the thousands who are killed every year and there is no redress for it. We will fight until the mines are made secure and human life valued more than props. Look things in the face. Don't' fear a governor; don't fear anybody. You pay the governor; he has the right to protect you. You are the biggest part of the population in the state. You create its wealth, so I say, "let the fight go on; if nobody else will keep on, I will." - Mother Jones, 1913

Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice. - Dwight D. Eisenhower

History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them. - Martin Luther King Jr.

The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America. - John F. Kennedy

Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor. - John F. Kennedy

The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good. - Pope Paul VI

Every advance in this half-century: Social Security, civil rights, Medicare, aid to education... one after another- came with the support and leadership of American Labor. - Jimmy Carter

Today, although there are still sweatshops and other inhumane working conditions for many workers around the world, the labor movement has won numerous victories that many of us take for granted, such as the 5-day work week, 8-hour work day, paid holidays and the end of child labor. - Robert Alan

The best of wages will not compensate for excessively long working hours which undermine heath. - Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

The quality of employees will be directly proportional to the quality of life you maintain for them. - Charles E. Bryan

The history of America has been largely created by the deeds of its working people and their organizations-there is scarcely an issue that is not influenced by labors organized efforts or lack of them. - William Cahn, Labor historian

The only thing workers have to bargain with is their skill or their labor. Denied the right to withhold it as a last resort, they become powerless. The strike is therefore not a breakdown of collective bargaining-it is the indispensable cornerstone of that process. - Paul Clark

If you object to unfair treatment, you're an ingrate. If you seek equity and fair consideration, you're uppity. If you demand union security, you're un-American. If you rebel against repressive management tactics, they will lynch and scalp you. But if you are passive and patient, they will take advantage of both. - Congressman William Clay, Sr.

Never forget, people DIED for the eight hour workday. - Rebecca Gordon

Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts. - Molly Ivins

Trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism. - Pope Francis