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A Labor Day History of Philadelphia, Home of America’s First General Strike

Philadelphia. Yes, we've booed Santa Claus. But we've also had an incredibly rich history of labor militancy.

Child labor strike in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1902. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Philadelphia has always had an elevated stature in United States history. The long list of historical markers includes being the central location of the American Revolution, the city where the Constitution was drafted and signed, and home to some of the first thriving free black institutions like Mother Bethel AME Church.

However, Philadelphia’s role in the country’s most historic and epic labor struggles is rarely acknowledged. But it was here where workers broke ground and staged the country’s first general strike, as well as engineered the first labor party to represent working people’s interests.

The victorious General Strike of 1835 for the ten-hour day resonated with workers throughout the country and unleashed a wave of strikes that would establish new horizons for the kind of lives working-class people could live. Similarly, the attempt by working-class Philadelphians to engage in independent political action opened the door to new forms of organizing, as well as new conceptions of workers as a class for itself.

This activity demonstrates the potential of working-class insurgency over economic demands to spill over into broader class-wide political efforts such as the formation of parties and broad labor federations, as well as the incorporation of other demands that deeply affect working people.

Manayunk

The industrial development of the Manyunk neighborhood is representative of the transformations and new conflicts industrialization brought to Philadelphia and other cities around the country.

Before the textile industry boomed and transformed Manayunk into a hotbed of class conflict, Philadelphia already had groundbreaking labor conflicts. In 1786, printers on strike created the first strike benefit fund ever on record. In 1791, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers of Philadelphia organized and had three strikes by 1800. Eight of these cordwainers would be indicted by a grand jury on charges of “conspiring to raise wages,” with the prosecution’s witness being a confessed labor spy.

However, these isolated strikes weren’t broad and consistent enough to solidify a deep class consciousness among most workers in Philadelphia. The ravages of industrialization and capital accumulation would slowly achieve this.

Manayunk’s location along the Schuylkill River made it a great location for the establishment of flour, and eventually textile mills. Technical innovations and greater productivity solidified textiles as a major industry, producing a local milling elite that controlled workers through an intricate web of paternalism. In Manayunk mill owners especially made use of their positions at the head of congregations to police their workforce. They kept a watchful eye on textile workers to make sure they did not indulge in what they considered to be indecent behavior, such as drinking and dancing.

More upheaval was brought by the massive immigration of Irish and English people in the 1820s, many of whom got jobs in Manayunk’s textile mills. Unemployment rose, and mill owners took the opportunity to maximize profit by turning to child and women workers. Working conditions were so bad that Manayunk became known as the “Manchester of America.” Many workers who came from English textile mills even said that working in the Manayunk mills was much worse.

Children as young as nine years old worked twelve hours straight in unventilated mills, full of exposed gears and other machine parts. Workers of all ages suffered from swollen ankles, nervous headaches, lung disease, and stomach problems. For this toil, workers received seventy cents every week for wages, paid usually in depreciated notes. Workers lost days due to routine machine repairs or lack of water for powering the mill.

Resistance at first was dominated by isolated acts of violence. By the 1830s handloom weavers began breaking machines and burning mills to resist mechanization. The actions could have been encouraged by the writings of William Heighton in the Mechanics’ Free Press. This excerpt contains a dramatic depiction of the exploitation of textile workers and a radical critique of capitalist automation:

Look at some of our city machinery-young girls are earning a scanty pittance, by standing many hours in a day attending the monotonous motion, till their faculties of body and mind are in a fair way of being benumbed…Here, then, we have abundant evidence, so far, the effect machinery has been to impose burdens on sex and age, not necessary in former periods; whereas the effect of machinery to be truly beneficial to the productive classes, ought to be, diminished exertion and increased remuneration.

A string of recessions stimulated a new offensive by mill owners, which in turn galvanized a more forceful and organized response by Manayunk’s working-class. Major strikes in 1828, 1833, and 1834 were waged and were largely successful in raising wages. Immigrant workers from Lancashire with experience in union organizing played crucial roles pulling these strikes off. Arguably, these formative organizing experiences would greatly spur Manayunk workers’ eventual participation in the General Strike of 1835.

A Class for Itself

As Manayunk textile workers were cutting their teeth in successfully resisting aggressive mill owners, workers across Philadelphia were forging an identity as a class with new organizational expressions. Though ultimately short-lived, this feverish period of activity should still be of interest to those of us today who hope eventually for an independent political voice for labor. 

In the early nineteenth century, workers in the United States were not in much of a position to be demanding anything from anyone. The Depression of 1819-1822 wiped out most unions that had existed and brought about mass unemployment. By 1823 there was a slight recovery and some fairly stable unions were set up. Workers in Philadelphia were stimulated to action by an anonymous pamphlet addressed to all working people in the spring of 1827. 

The pamphlet recommended a political program that included universal suffrage, a free labor press, libraries for workers, and the ten-hour workday. Later that year workers were inspired to form the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations, the first city-wide federation of American workers that united all the trades. In the preamble to their union constitution, the Association described its aim as “to avert the desolating evils which must inevitably arise from a depreciation of the intrinsic value of human labor.”

These workers demonstrated a broad and sophisticated political understanding in the preamble, advancing essentially Keynesian arguments for higher wages. They claimed that higher wages would stimulate demand and the buying power of the products the employers manufactured. Pursuing the goals the anonymous pamphlet laid out, workers quickly moved on to form the Mechanics Library Company that published the Mechanics’ Free Press. This is an early example of the role the trade union movement has played in raising the cultural level of working people, not just economic improvement.

Labor Party Time

In the climate of this heightened political activity, it is perhaps not so surprising that workers in Philadelphia moved to form the first labor party in the country in the summer of 1828. The party had a comprehensive program of reform that touched on all the issues of the day that affected members of the working-class. This program, similar in kind to many Labor Party platforms that would be adopted around the world, shows that there has not been an inherent inability of American workers to make serious attempts at independent political organizing.

The program called for the abolition of the compulsory militia system that had a burdensome effect on workers. People had to show up three times a year to parade and drill, with a fine being levied for failing to report. Most workers got caught in a bind because they could neither afford to be absent from work nor pay the fine. Equally burdensome to workers was imprisonment for small debts, which they also called to be abolished. 

Workers demanded the end of payment in banknotes, for the values and therefore purchasing power changed from day-to-day. In the electoral realm, the Working Men’s Ticket program demanded the elimination of the property qualification to hold office. Other highlights include free public education, opposition to chartered monopolies, the abolition of the poll tax, and the ten-hour workday. Altogether this program represented a vision far beyond the narrow economic interests of the constituent unions’ memberships.

In the first round of elections in 1828, no actual wage earners were on the Working Men’s ticket because of property qualifications. In need of better organization, permanent political clubs were organized such as the Republican Political Association of the Working Men of the City of Philadelphia. Despite efforts by the ruling class to break up meetings and split the association through red-baiting, twenty of the fifty-four candidates won local elected offices in 1829. 

Though achieving success initially, the party failed in the 1830 and 1831 elections. The separate political associations were never united into a statewide party. However, like many defeats in the labor movement, many underlying gains had been made that would come into play later. Workers in Philadelphia had an elevated political awareness from the experience, evidenced by the inspiration they took from the July Revolution in France.

More importantly, the Philadelphia Trades’ Union was formed in 1833. The PTU claimed to make “no distinction between natives and foreigners. All are alike and welcome to its benefits. If he is a workingman in favor of the emancipation of all who labor from the thralldom of monied capital, he is welcome to our ranks.” The PTU helped unorganized workers set up locals, started their own newspapers, and assisted members during strikes and boycotts. The PTU was one more step forward in an astonishing period of advances the Philadelphia labor movement had made since 1827.

“From 6 to 6”

The issue of the ten-hour workday had long been in the forefront of the consciousness of workers across the country. In May of 1828 the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations convened a special meeting to discuss this question. Philadelphia workers would be inspired by the failed 1835 carpenters strike in Boston over the ten-hour day. The carpenters released a circular to explain their demands to other workers. This “Boston Circular” found its way to Philadelphia and had a galvanizing effect. 

The Circular framed their demand as a way in which they could properly fulfill their duties to the country, “We have rights and duties to perform as American citizens and members of society, which forbid us to dispose of more than ten hours for a day’s work.” William Thompson, President of the Carpenters’ Society of Philadelphia, said “The carpenters considered the Boston circular had broken their shackles, loosened their chains, and made them free from the galling yoke of excessive labor.” 

Irish workers on the Schuylkill River coal wharves first took the initiative and walked off the job in May of 1835. Three hundred workers paraded throughout the city, threatening any potential scabs with a sword. As usually happens with mass strikes, things escalated quicker than even those participating thought possible. Soon every union was out in solidarity, including painters, coal heavers, printers, masons, and city employees. Fife and drum corps were formed to parade down the streets with banners reading, “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” 

On June 6, a mass meeting of workers was held in the State House courtyard. They voted to support the demand for a ten-hour workday and boycott any businesses that refused to grant it. Workers were careful to establish enough broader support to ensure victory by taking out ads in the local newspaper explaining their plight. When city employees joined in the city government quickly convened a meeting to approve the ten-hour workday on June 22nd, 1835. A wage increase of 12.5 cents a day was also granted.

As we saw last year with the teachers’ strikes, the example of success was irresistible to workers elsewhere. Strikes swept the country afterward and by the end of 1835 the ten-hour workday was standard for most workers across the country. It would be another 51 years before the workday was shortened to eight hours, with the Haymarket Riots in 1886.

A History Worth Remembering

Philadelphia’s remarkable labor history is not just interesting, but also instructive and illuminating. This history counters the standard argument that workers in the United States have always been predisposed against developing a broader class consciousness that would support initiatives such as the formation of a labor party. In the minds of many academics and scholars, if this always was then it always shall be in the future.

But efforts like the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations, the Republican Political Association of the Working Men of the City of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Trades’ Union show the vigorous class-based political activity workers engaged in. Workers in Philadelphia didn’t just fight for their narrow economic interests, but as the Working Men’s Ticket platform demonstrates, were concerned with issues that impacted the whole society. These political activities were the crucial building blocks that allowed workers to eventually go on the offensive, culminating in the general strike for the ten-hour day. 

A labor party won’t be formed in this country overnight, or maybe not even soon. But unions today can still take on the dominant issues affecting the working-class majority in this country — Medicare for All, medical debt, public education, green jobs, and more.

If nothing else, the historic struggles of Philadelphia workers should be revived in our historical memory for future generations to come.