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and the National Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths, both established in 1859.
The leading spirit in the moulders' union was William H. Sylvis, afterwards the first great figure in the American labour movement. His career was typical of the period. Born in the little village of Armagh, Pennsylvania, in 1828, his father's failure in the business of wagon maker in 1837 forced him early into apprenticeship in a foundry. First as journeyman, then part proprietor of a foundry, then again as journeyman in Philadelphia in 1852, he typified during this period in his life the easy shift between skilled mechanic and small master.1
The conditions which forced the moulders' union to the front and made Sylvis the recognised head, not only of his own union, but also of the entire movement of the sixties, are described by Sylvis himself. Speaking of the intense competition brought on by the extension of the railway to the West, and immediately preceding the formation of the national union of moulders in 1859, he said:
They [the employers] saw in the future a possibility of monopolizing almost the entire trade of the country, and set themselves about doing so. In the first place, it was necessary for them to mark out a line of policy, which, if closely followed, would insure this result. This they did, and the first act of the drama (I might, perhaps, more properly say tragedy, for it resulted in squeezing the blood and tears from its victims), was to reduce their margin of profits to the lowest possible standard, that they might go into the market below all others. Owing to fluctuations in the price of material, their profits would sometimes disappear entirely. This they used as an argument to their workmen, telling them that owing to the unfair competition of other manufacturers, they were unable to advance their selling prices, and that being unable to compete without loss they must either close up or reduce wages. The men being unorganised and supposing that they were being honestly dealt with, readily submitted to a reduction. This reduction of prices was small, but after being repeated two or three times, the inen became restive and disposed to complain. A few were bold enough to remonstrate, but a guillotine had been prepared, and their heads immediately dropped into the basket. . . . To effectually smother in its infancy any disposition the men might have to fraternize... they commenced to work upon their prejudices. They succeeded in a short time in arraigning the representatives of one
1 See J. C. Sylvis, The Life, Speeches, Labors and Essays of William H. Sylvie.
religion or one nation against those of another. . . . This accomplished, they found no difficulty in the further prosecution of the nefarious plans. Then commenced the contract system. . . Next, each man was required to furnish his own tools at their prices. Next came the Order System. . . . Simultaneous with is was introduced the helper system'. . . [and] the stove, were cut up, that is, each man made one piece.. Thus this system went on until it became customary for each man to have from one to five boys; and . . . prices became so low that men were obliged to increase the hours of labor, and work much harder; and then could scarcely obtain the plainest necessaries of life. . . .
The iron-moulders of Philadelphia organised their first trade union in 1855, but Sylvis did not join until 1857, after a strike in the foundry where he worked. He was soon elected recording secretary of the union and his career as a trade unionist had begun.
The conditions in the moulders' trade became so desperate that a strong sentiment developed among the various local unions in favour of a national organisation. The union in Philadelphia took the lead, and a national convention, composed of thirtyfive delegates representing twelve unions, met July 5, 1859, in Philadelphia, largely as a result of Sylvis' efforts. The convention established a national organisation with limited powers.
Although it could not levy an assessment, the national union conducted to a successful issue the strike which broke out in Albany at the time the convention was in session. The organisation made good progress and organised forty-four locals during 1860. Strikes, however, became so numerous and the demands upon National Treasurer Sylvis for assistance became so frequent that the third 3 national convention, which was held in Cincinnati, January 8, 1861, was obliged to adopt a stringent resolution against careless strikes by locals.
The other union which furnished the most consistent trade union leader of the sixties, Jonathan C. Fincher, was that of the machinists and blacksmiths. Here, again, the greatest leader of the organisation has described the development of his craft, and the reasons for the organisation of the union.
2 Fincher's Trades' Review, July 18, 1803. Cited hereafter as Fincher's.
3 The second convention was held in
Albany six months after the Philadelphia convention.
Fortunately, it is possible to give much of the story in Fincher's own words. Writing in 1872, he said:
"Still within the recollection of grey-headed machinists and blacksmiths [are] the days when a machinist was a compound of handiwork, a kind of cross between a millwright and a whitesmith, a fitter, finisher, locksmith, and so forth. But building of cotton machinery, steam engines, etc., required steady employment at what is now called machine work, and it soon led to the acknowledgment of the craft as a special trade or calling. . . . The machinists began to consider themselves a branch of the great industrial family of civilization. They took part in the struggle for the ten-hour system, and suffered in common with other mechanics in all the fluctuations of trade. Several attempts at organisation were made in the principal seaboard cities, but were short-lived and restricted in their sphere.
"Unfair dealing on the part of the employers had long been a grievance with the men. The baneful system of paying in orders was common. The taking on of as many apprentices as could possibly be worked was considered the indubitable right of every employer. . . . In dull times, men with families to support would find themselves out of work, while the shops were filled with apprentice boys. . . . The writer of this was one of some twenty young men kept at work after the great financial crash of 1857, while there were sixty apprentices employed. . . . Over one hundred and fifty journeymen had been discharged from the shop within two months.. A marked difference had come over the employers during the same In the early days of mechanism in this country but few shops employed many men. Generally the employer was head man; he knew his men personally; he instructed his apprentices and kept a general supervision of the business. By that means every workman knew his employer, and if aught went astray, there was no circumlocution office to go through to have an understanding about it. But as the business came to be more fully developed, it was found that more capital must be employed and the authority and supervision of the owner or owners must be delegated to superintendents and under foremen. In this manner men and masters became estranged and the gulf could only be bridged by a strike, when, perhaps, the representatives of the workingmen might be admitted to the office and allowed to state their case. It was to resist this combination of capital, which had so changed the character of the employers, that led to the formation of the union. . . . Competent journeymen counselled together ... in private parlors of the different members of the proposed union. Some favored embracing all forms of iron workers; others
4 Machinists' and Blacksmiths' International Journal, February and March, 1872.
desired to restrict it to only machinists; finally it was decided that the machinists and machine blacksmiths were the only trades whose interests were inseparable, hence the union of the M. & B's." 5
Beginning with 14 members, the first union of these combined crafts, formed after the panic, was established in Philadelphia, in April, 1858. During the following summer the membership grew to 300. One year later there were unions organised in 5 cities of three different States, which on March 3, 1859, sent 21 delegates to the first national convention in Philadelphia, where they established the national union. The number of local unions increased to 12 during 1859 and, at the time of the convention of November, 1860, there were 57 unions in the organisation, covering all sections of the country," with a total membership in good standing of 2,828.
In March, 1860, the union was forced to call a strike in the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, against a proposed reduction of wages and the payment of arrear wages in the company's stock at extortionate terms. The strike lasted four months and although the employers did not give in, the fruit of victory was with the men. The prestige of having combatted the greatest shop in the country to a drawn conclusion proved that the organisation was a power in the land and that its resources were not to be despised.
Secretary Fincher, who was to become one of the most influential figures in the whole labour movement in the later developments of the sixties, was ripening into confident trade union leadership. "Little dreamed that crew of the fearful gales they were to encounter, and the terrible shipwrecks they were to witness in their eventful voyage," wrote this same leader when looking back upon this period in later years.
Meanwhile, the political troubles of the country multiplied and so embarrassed the business of the nation that it was impossible to forecast the future for even a day. Following the breaking out of the War of the Rebellion in the spring of 1861, the union suffered severely in the loss of members who volunteered, as well as in the loss of all locals in the Southern States,
5 During the first year it was a secret organisation and the full name of the union was carefully suppressed.
6 Of these there were 7 in New York
State, 12 in Pennsylvania, 6 in Illinois, 5 in Massachusetts, 3 in New Jersey, 2 in Ohio, and 7 in States which later seceded from the Union.
so that the summer of that year was most gloomy. At one time the secretary reported 87 unions on the list of active working organisations; but the convulsions of this year brought the number down to about 30, with a greatly diminished membership, and the tendency was continually down. At the national convention in the fall of 1861 delegates were present from only 4 States, Massachusetts, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. So discouraging was the prospect that the president of the union declined to go to the convention as he did not believe that a session would be held.
Other national trade unions which came into existence be fore the War were the typographical, organised in 1850, with a membership of 2,182 in 1857; the stonecutters, organised with 13 locals and a total membership of 3,500 in 1853; and the national union of hat finishers, organised in 1854.
With only these few national trade unions in existence in 1860, the labour movement of the period had not really begun. The mass organisation of labour occurred later when the unprecedented prosperity during the War had forced up the cost of living.
UNEMPLOYMENT AND IMPENDING WAR
Lincoln's election was immediately followed by a period of severe unemployment, and wage-earners generally felt that their immediate interests were made to suffer by the prospective war. Open opposition began in the border States with the moulders of Louisville, Kentucky. A workingmen's mass meeting was called on December 28, 1860, which was addressed by William Llorian, Robert P. Gilchrist, and others, friends of W. H. Sylvis. A resolution was carried declaring the allegiance of the workingmen to the Union and the Constitution. It laid the blame for the present political crisis upon the politicians of both sides, affirming that workingmen had no real or vital interest in the mere abstract questions used to divide the masses. It also called for general organisation of the workingmen and for a national workingmen's convention to decide. what concerted action should be taken in order to avert the crisis.7
7 Sylvis, Life, Speeches, Labors and Essays, 42–46.