National Labor Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The goal of the National Labor Union was to improve working conditions by campaigning for and helping elect political candidates who promised to push for labor-reform legislation, including passage of laws mandating an eight-hour workday. In some state and national elections, the National Labor Union put forward its own candidates to run for public office.

The National Labor Union was the precursor to the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. Though in existence for only a short period, from 1866 to 1872, the National Labor Union did manage in 1868 to gain congressional passage of the eight-hour workday, its foremost issue. Employers retaliated, however, by cutting workers’ hourly wages. President Ulysses S. Grant issued an order that employers were forbidden to continue the practice of cutting wages, but his order was largely ignored by private industry and even by some government agencies.National Labor Union

Begun by William Sylvian, WilliamSylvian, leader of the Iron Molder’s International Union, the National Labor Union was open to all white male workers in skilled trades. Eventually, its membership expanded to include white male farmers and unskilled workers. Chinese and African American workers were excluded, as were women. African American workers formed the Colored National Labor Union, but it remained ineffective as a result of widespread racism in American politics. Rather than acting through strikes and collective bargaining, the National Labor Union attempted to improve working conditions through legislative reforms and third-party arbitrations, as well as by trying to form a third political party, the National Labor Party. This would permit the National Labor Union to run political candidates independently of both the Democratic and the Republican political parties.

Despite its significant victory in winning passage of the legislation mandating the eight-hour workday, the National Labor Union was not effective in the long run. Farmers and unskilled and skilled craftspeople did not share a united political agenda except on narrowly focused labor issues. The National Labor Union did help form several industry-specific national unions. Sylvian, however, died unexpectedly in 1869, just as the National Labor Union was increasing its political clout and gaining members.

At its zenith, the National Labor Union counted approximately 700,000 workers among its members. The union selected its own candidate, David Davis of Illinois, to run in the 1872 presidential election, but when the candidate dropped out of the race, the union members found that they had little in common with one another. The National Labor Union collapsed shortly thereafter. The Depression of 1873 caused many unions to back away from labor reforms in an attempt to preserve jobs. The National Labor Union’s ideas of progressive social policies and labor reforms were taken up by later labor organizations, especially the Knights of Labor. None of those organizations, however, agreed with the National Labor Union’s idea of labor reform via legislation or arbitration.

Further Reading
  • Leavitt, John McDowell. Kings of Capital and the Knights of Labor: For the People. Adamant, Vt.: Adamant Media, 2001.
  • Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.
  • Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor’s Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.


Eugene V. Debs

Knights of Labor

Labor history

Categories: History