While trade guilds have existed since at least the era of ancient Rome, trade unions and labor movements as we know them today arose in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of labor unions was particularly noteworthy in Great Britain and the United States, where workers began to realize their only chance of successfully fighting abusive and exploitative employers — as well as inhumane working conditions — was in banding together.
On August 20, 1866, the first U.S. labor federation was founded in Baltimore, Maryland. Known as the National Labor Union, it sought to establish an eight-hour workday. This paved the way for other unions, such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. And within these organizations, leaders emerged — men and women who were particularly outspoken and who fought tirelessly for the rights of workers.
Here are 13 quotes from some of the most prominent union leaders in modern history, including Eugene V. Debs, Mother Jones, and Cesar Chavez.
Give men shorter hours in which to labor, and you give them more time to study and learn why bread is so scarce while wheat is so plenty.Terence V. Powderly
Terence V. Powderly was best known as the leader of the Knights of Labor, a labor federation that reached its peak in the 1880s. Powderly was a staunch proponent of the eight-hour workday.
To speak for labor; to plead the cause of the men and women and children who toil; to serve the working class, has always been to me a high privilege; a duty of love.Eugene V. Debs
Eugene V. Debs was a passionate and outspoken labor organizer who co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World. He ran for U.S. President as a Socialist Party candidate five times between 1900 and 1920, becoming arguably the most famous socialist in the nation.
If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I would shout, “Freedom for the working class!”Mother Jones
Mary G. Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was an Irish-born schoolteacher-turned-labor organizer who became a powerful voice — and a famously fiery agitator — for the union rights of coal miners and other workers in the U.S.
We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice … more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.Samuel Gompers
Samuel Gompers was a British-born cigar maker who became one of the architects of the labor movement as a labor union leader and founder of the American Federation of Labor (for which he served as president from 1886 to 1894 and then from 1895 to 1924).
Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons became an activist after the harsh repression of the Chicago railroad strike of 1877. She was a vocal and controversial proponent of labor organization who also called attention to class struggle, and her social anarchism often saw her clash with the authorities.
Unions were created to make living conditions just a little better than they were before they were created, and the union that does not manifest that kind of interest in human beings cannot endure, it cannot live.Philip Murray
Philip Murray was a talented negotiator whose leadership skills engendered his presidency of both the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the United Steelworkers of America.
Freedom is never granted: It is won. Justice is never given: It is exacted. Freedom and justice must be struggled for by the oppressed of all lands and races.A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph was a labor leader and civil rights activist who founded the first major U.S. Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925. He later helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Let the workers organize. Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.John L. Lewis
John L. Lewis was a major figure in the history of coal mining who helped organize millions of industrial workers in the 1930s. He served as president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960 and founded the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935.
There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow man. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.Walter Reuther
Walter Reuther was an American labor leader who served as president of the United Automobile Workers. His negotiation skills helped secure numerous gains for workers, including cost-of-living adjustments, unemployment benefits, and health and welfare benefits.
From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist who fought tirelessly for what he called “la causa” (the cause) — an effort to raise pay and improve working conditions for U.S. farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s. His nonviolent activism was recognized posthumously in 1994 when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The most important word in the language of the working class is “solidarity.”Harry Bridges
Harry Bridges was an Australian-born American labor leader who was president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union from 1937 to 1977. Despite continuous opposition from the U.S. government, he became one of the most influential labor leaders in the country’s history.
To the degree that a government can be challenged and workers can have the right to help to determine their hours of work, conditions of employment, redress of their grievances, it’s the labor movement that made this contribution on behalf of the working class. I remain a member of that class without apology.Maida Springer Kemp
Maida Springer Kemp was a pioneering international labor advocate who fought to improve working standards in the garment industry. In 1945, she became the first Black woman to represent U.S. labor overseas.
The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.Thomas R. Donahue
Thomas R. Donahue worked as a doorman and bus driver before becoming one of the most influential leaders of the trade union movement in America, serving as secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations from 1979 to 1995.
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