Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
National Labor Union
The National Labor Union was the first national labor federation in the United States. Founded in 1866 and dissolving in 1872, it paved the way for other organizations, such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor.
The National Labor Union followed the unsuccessful efforts of labor activists to form a national coalition of local trade unions. The National Labor Union sought instead to bring together all of the national labor organizations in existence, as well as the "eight hour leagues" established to press for the eight-hour workday, to create a national federation that could press for labor reforms and help found national unions in those areas where none existed. The new organization favored arbitration over strikes and called for the creation of a national labor party as an alternative to the two existing parties.
The NLU drew much of its support from construction unions and other groups of skilled employees, but also invited the unskilled and farmers to join. On the other hand, it campaigned for the exclusion of Chinese workers from the United States and made only halting, ineffective efforts to defend the rights of women and blacks. African-American workers established their own Colored National Labor Union as an adjunct, but their support of the Republican Party and the habitual racism of white unionists prevented the two from working together.
The NLU achieved an early success, but one that proved less significant in practice. In 1868 Congress passed the statute for which the Union had campaigned so hard, providing the eight-hour day for government workers. Many government agencies, however, reduced wages at the same time that they reduced hours. While President Grant ordered federal departments not to reduce wages, his order was ignored by many. The NLU also obtained similar legislation in a number of states, such as New York and California, but discoveered that loopholes in the statute made them unenforceable or ineffective.
The Union boasted 600,000 members at its height. It collapsed when it adopted the policy that electoral politics, with a particular emphasis on monetary reform, was the only means for advancing its agenda. The organization was spectacularly unsuccessful at the polls and lost virtually all of its union supporters, many of whom moved on to the newly formed Knights of Labor. The depression of the 1870s, which drove down union membership generally, was the final factor contributing to the end of the NLU.
- Foner, Philip S., History of the Labor Movement in the United States From Colonial Times to the Founding of the American Federation of Labor, ISBN 071780089.
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