WCH Contributor Patrick Murfin’s writing can be found regularly at the blog Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout
According to some sources the first labor unions in the English Colonies of North America were organized in Boston on Oct 18, 1648. Close but no cigar. In fact it is wrong on at least a couple of different accounts.
First, it was not the date that shoemakers and coopers, first organized. That had happened earlier. It was the first time any organizations of craftsmen were legally recognized with an official Charter to allow them to operate.
Second, these organizations were not, in the modern sense trade unions, which consist of employees organized to bargain with their employers for wages, benefits, and over conditions on the job like work rules and seniority.
These organizations mimicked the medieval guilds, “companies” of master craftsmen organized to “protect the craft”, set prices, and provide fraternal aid and benefits to their members. Guilds had played a powerful roll in transitioning from a feudal system to the emergence of cities, mercantile trade, and the burger class as a powerful new political force. They were organizations of master craftsmen, who in turn were often the employers of journeymen and apprentices.
Since its founding in 1630 as the capital and hub of the new colony of Massachusetts Bay by that “company of saints,” the Puritans, civic authorities had tried to suppress class distinction. But after only 18 years the city was a rapidly growing port city and the trade center for an expanding arch of settlements stretching along the coast and reaching inland by dozens of miles. Craftsmen had naturally emigrated from England and set up shops to make and sell goods that did not have to be imported at enormous costs across the Atlantic. These crafts included those related to ship building and supplies; smiths of various types; carpenters, masons, thatchers, shingle makers, and other in construction trades; and those provided needed personal items like tailors, hatters, drapers, and shoemakers.
These craftsmen, sometimes relatively wealthy, but universally recognized as below the status of gentlemen or free holding farmers, yearned for the respect and mutual support they had enjoyed in the mother country as members of guilds. And in some cases there were now enough shops that competition was driving down prices. They wanted to fix prices to preserve income, as well as to prevent others, not properly steeped in the traditions of the crafts and who had not completed training as apprentices and experience as journeymen.
The Puritan fathers on the General Court, the colony’s governing body, were highly suspicious.
The movement to gain official sanction with charters was led by the shoemakers and the coopers. Of all of the trades, shoemakers probably had the lowest status because they did not require much capital to open a shop. They were generally small shops where the craftsman did most or all of the work or employed only one or two journeyman and maybe an apprentice. Coopers, on the other hand, were essential for the colonies’ burgeoning trade. So many things, solids as well as liquids, were shipped in barrels in those days—grain from the countryside and beer, the universal beverage of choice where potable water was scarce, for instance. But perhaps most important—barrels made by coopers were essential for exporting what was becoming the number one export of the colony since local fur supplies had been depleted—salt cod.
What the shoemakers lacked in social standing they made up for in numbers—there were several shops in Boston and more in the surrounding villages—and a certain propensity to make themselves heard in Town meetings and elsewhere. The coopers had economic clout.
So it was to these two trades that the General Court granted the first charters to The Company of Shoemakers and The Company of Coopers. But they placed severe restrictions on the fledgling organizations, barring them from many of the privileges of English guilds. The Court approved the association solely “for the suppression of inferior workmanship.” They were stripped of the power to cooperate to provide education and fraternal benefits to their members. Most importantly, they were forbidden to act “contrary to the public interest” by fixing prices.
Despite the official limitations of the charters, once organized the “companies” informally and secretly compelled their members to adhere to agreed upon pricing. Within decades they were doing so openly.
Shoemakers would continue to press for more effective organization. Court suppressed an attempt by Philadelphia shoemakers to organize to fix prices and set wages for journeymen and apprentices in 1805.
About this time, those journeymen and apprentices began to organize trade unions separate from the associations of the master craftsmen, their employers. These were the first proto-union. In 1827, to protest debtor’s prison sentences in a time of financial panic, Philadelphia workers from several trades came together to launch the short lived Mechanics’ Union of Trade Association. Although crushed within two years, they are generally viewed at the beginning of a true trade union movement in the United States.