New York: Home of the First Labor Unions

By Samuel Phineas Upham

The history of American labor unions isn’t something that’s easy to pinpoint, mostly because the timeline is somewhat muddled. There were disputes dating as far back as 1677, and much of American legislation on this subject draws inspiration from the English laws related to restraint of trade.


During the Civil War, New York faced a unique problem. As the financial center for much of the world, the impending and of the Southern slave economy was threatening to destabilize the financial giant.

There was another problem that was coming from the ports of New York, which were beginning to see increased activity to compensate for the lack of Southern-imported business goods. An influx of Irish immigrants had brought stable labor to the city, but that labor was increasingly feeling the pinch of no money and few opportunities. Journeymen workers, who were far from entrepreneurs, outnumbered masters in industry. With so few companies going around, people who held capital were able to play the market and pit the masters against one another, with the lowest paid workers being the biggest losers of all.

These workers began to band together with the intention of seeking better opportunities, which is which led to criminal cases brought against them. If that seems extreme, consider that the workers who lost these cases usually didn’t have fines against them, the cases were more to establish precedent for future disputes.

Strikes were broken up, often violently, and workers were hauled off to jail fighting for the 40-hour work week. New York even hosted the first mass strike of women, when 20,000 apparel workers walked out for three months in 1909.

Samuel Phineas Uphamis an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Samual Phineas Upham website or Facebook page.