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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

William H. Sylvis
(Nov. 26, 1828–July 27, 1869)

(25 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 53, 25 July 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Civil War nearly wrecked the union movement, decimating its membership, suspending its activities. Everywhere, bosses undertook an organized offensive against labor standards

Yet, out of this period of depression in the union movement grew the first great advance towards a national organization of labor. The man who accomplished this was William H. Sylvis, the first great leader of American labor. He, for example, saw the bosses’ game:

“To effectually smother in its infancy any disposition the men might have to fraternize ... they commenced to work on their prejudices, arraigning the representatives of one religion or one nation against those of another ...”

Sylvia had been born in Pennsylvania into a poor wagon-makers family. The Depression of 1837 had scattered his family and he had become an iron moulder, wandering for a time as a journeyman, then settling down in Philadelphia. Local strikes were frequent in the industry. In the course of a strike in 1857, Sylvis was elected shop secretary. After the strike, he was elected recording-secretary of the Iron Moulders union which had been organized in 1855 and which was destined to mirror the trend of the labor movement – from pure and simple trade union action, to political action, to economic action again, etc. Sylvis, almost on the heels of his election, introduced a resolution for a national convention of iron moulders. When the call for the founding convention of the Iron Moulders International Union (Philadelphia 1859) was issued, he was one of the two signers.

With the Civil War fast approaching, Sylvis was active in the anti-war movement which was then very widespread. In February of 1861 be presided at a national convention of workers who were opposed to the war. However, when the war had actually begun, Sylvis, as did most of the labor leaders, supported the war.

The union had virtually gone to pot with the outbreak of war. In 1863 it was reconvened, and Sylvis was elected president. Viewing trade union action as only a half-way measure, useful so long as the wage system lasted but incapable of solving the basic problems of the wage earners, he introduced into the union proposals which looked to the abolition of the profit system. In his 1864 report he, among other things, recommended cooperative foundries and a national trades assembly with an all-embracing program.

Such a body came into being in 1866 as the result of the “Labor Congress” which met in Baltimore as the first meeting of the National Labor Union. Sylvis two years later was elected president, and thus became the spokesman of 600,000 workers, the largest organized labor force in the country up to that time. The N.L.U. program favored the formation of a labor reform party, the 8-hour day, support of the “sewing-women and daughters of toil in this land”.

In the last days of the war and after, the iron industry made gigantic strides, the Iron Moulders union came to active life, winning wage increases for its men, enforcing trade rules, especially with reference to apprentices. To head off union action, the bosses tried to organize, but weren’t very successful. Sylvis, in theory opposed to strike action, nevertheless led some of the great battles of the American working class. In 1867 he led a nine month strike which was ended in defeat, the bosses at that particular time being able to organize their own forces, and the workers drained to exhaustion by the many financial assessments.

However, the union rallied and turned towards cooperation in a big way. “At last after years of earnest effort and patient waiting, and constant preaching, cooperation is taking hold upon the minds of our members, and in many places very little else is talked about.” Cooperative foundries which Sylvis hailed as the “beginning of a new era” were founded. The change effected was for example indicated in the union name which was changed to read, “Iron Moulders International Cooperative and Protective Association.

For International Action

Where he was particularly distinguished from the ordinary labor leaders of his day, was his interest in international organization. Very much interested in Marx’s First International, he for a long time carried on a detailed correspondence with the leaders of the International. For example, war between England and the United States was threatening in 1869. [1] The secretary of the International wrote him suggesting joint labor action for peace. In answer, Sylvis wrote:

“Our cause is a common one. It is war between poverty and wealth ... This monied power is fast eating op the substance of the people. We have made war upon it, and we mean to win it. If we can, we will win through the ballot box; if not, then we shall resort to sterner means. A little bloodletting is sometimes necessary in desperate cases.”

At his recommendation, A.C. Cameron was sent by the N.L.U. to the 1869 conference of the First International. And had he lived, it is quite possible the organization would have been affiliated to the International.

As it happened, Sylvis died in the middle of his career. He had led the first major attempt at the national organization of labor, and even aimed at international organization. Not very effective in actual practice (the first truly effective national organization was soon to be created in the Knights of Labor), it nevertheless prodded the awakening labor movement to a great goal.

Footnote by ETOL

1. In the printed version 1860, but this is obviously an error as the First International did not exist in 1860 and there was indeed a war scare in 1869.

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