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What was the first labor union?

The labor movement in the United States began with a number of loosely connected organizations. Furniture, textile, clothing, carpentry and a variety of other workers created grassroots groups to defend their members from employers that threatened to continue unsafe work conditions, decrease wages or extend working hours.

Records show that The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was formed in Philadelphia in 1794, the same year that The Typographic Society was organized in New York. These organizations laid the groundwork for future unions but proved to be short-lived due to legal prosecution and internal disagreements.

Public opinion remained low until 1886, when a union called The Knights of Labor committed the organization to working toward an eight-hour day, prohibition of child labor, equal pay and graduated income tax. While the Knights of Labor did much to improve public perception of unions, the organization disbanded after they were singled out for their involvement in the Haymarket Riots, when a bomb at a worker rally prompted arrests and labor scapegoating.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers, and replaced the Knights of Labor as the most powerful union of the era. The Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) saw unions as needing to be organized by industry rather than skill, something that differed entirely from the AFL. The two organizations merged in 1955 in a united effort to combat new labor legislation that the organizations argued harmed workers. The AFL-CIO has been a single organization ever since, and still exists today as a cornerstone of American unions.

Specific to Minnesota, journeymen in the printing trade would band together to form Union No. 30, which was accepted into the National Typographical Union in 1858. This is the first record of an organized labor union in the state.

See more stories for examples of how the history of labor organizations in Minnesota has grown into a thriving union legacy.