Labor’s Struggle for Freedom
This map is a guide to many important labor history sites in southwest Pennsylvania, especially Allegheny and Fayette counties, that comprise the Area Labor Federation affiliated with the Allegheny County Labor Council. Since both the American Federation of Labor (1881) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (1937) were founded in Pittsburgh, the region is seen as the cradle of the American labor movement. However, the story of workers’ aspirations and struggles are not only about the unions and other organizations that represent them. From their formation, social and political forces have shaped Pittsburgh labor unions.
This map is based on a pamphlet Labor History Sites in the Pittsburgh Region, which was published by the Battle of Homestead Foundation and written by Charlie McCollester and Howard Scott.
Shoemakers called cordwainers were an important group of craftsmen as settlers gathered supplies in Pittsburgh on their way down the Ohio to settle the American heartland. The city’s first recorded strike was by cordwainers in 1804 and one of the founding cases of American labor law concerned the Pittsburgh Cordwainers Strike of 1814. Federalists argued that under English common law a strike was a violation of an owner’s property rights and constituted a “conspiracy in restraint of trade.” The Jeffersonian Democrats argued that the American Revolution had swept away English law and non-violent concerted activity was legal. The decision of the judge held that workers were not slaves and could quit individually, but if two or more withheld their labor together, such action was illegal.
The consciousness of Pittsburgh workers was deeply influenced by the struggle against slavery and other forms of servitude. Due to the Quakers, Pennsylvania in 1780 was the first state to declare that no child born in the state could be a slave. Strong abolitionist sentiment made Pennsylvania a magnet for escaped slaves and an important passage on the underground railway to Canada. Free blacks could vote in Allegheny County until a revision of the state constitution in 1838 limited voting rights to white males. Allegheny County voted against the revisions, but blacks were not able to vote until after the Civil War when the 15th Amendment restored the vote to black men.
Historians date the beginning of the American labor movement to the first Labor Council, the Mechanics Union of Trade Associations, in 1827. While many skilled workers had formed unions, this Philadelphia organization was the first to rise above the interests of a specific trade or craft and address the interests of workers as a class. Resisting “a depreciation of the intrinsic value of human labor,” workers demanded shorter hours so they could pursue their advancement. They strongly supported public education and libraries. The first labor council formed in Pittsburgh in 1836 warned about the growth of social classes and the accumulation of great wealth. “Such growth corrupts the legislature, gives security to monopolies and perverts the judiciary. The remedy is the ballot box.”