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This Day in Labor History: February 13, 1865


On February 13, 1865, the Sons of Vulcan, the first American union in iron and steel, ended its strike, leading to the first union contract in American history.

The Sons of Vulcan formed in 1858 in Pittsburgh, including workers laboring in the small but steadily growing steel industry that would explode after the Civil War. Most of these early iron and steel workers were immigrants who came over from the mills of England, Scotland, and Wales. The union consisted of puddlers, who stirred molten iron with iron bars in order to oxidize carbon in the iron and burn it off, as well as manufacturing rollers that shape the steel. Now I don’t know about you, but stirring molten iron with an iron bar and without any kind of workplace protection sounds pretty tough to me. As common at the time, this was really a union of puddlers alone, as they were committed to craft unionism.

When the Civil War began, the Sons of Vulcan found themselves with a lot of power. Their work was absolutely vital to the war effort and because it was skilled labor, employers did not want to fire them, even if they hated unionism. The Sons of Vulcan went out on strike in June 1864 because employers believed the war was winding down and lowered wages. They stayed on strike for 8 months, returning to work on February 13, 1865. Finally, the industry caved and employers agreed to wages based upon the price of iron, union recognition, and the first union contract in American history–quite a victory for 1865! The contract tied wage rates to market prices, ensuring workers a share of growing profit. In the case of a contracting market, the contract also froze wage rates before declining for 2 months to give workers some time, which provided some protections in the boom and bust economy of the Gilded Age.

This led to a rapid expansion for the Sons of Vulcan. Originally a Pennsylvania union, it soon organized locals from Kentucky to Maryland to New York, with widespread support in the steel forges. By 1867, the union had over 1500 members and by 1873, about 3300 members. The Sons of Vulcan’s peak of power was in the 1870s, when it was probably the strongest union in the United States. The Panic of 1873 caused widespread unemployment and union membership declined, but it was still the shining light of organized labor through this crisis.

That said, this is unionism in its infancy and they made a lot of mistakes that later unionists would learn from. First, financial contributions to the union were voluntary rather than dues-based. That made the economic basis of the union shaky even at its best. Second, when a group of people found it necessary to go on strike, union policy was that it was only those people who would strike. The rest of the production process would continue, even with other union members not touched by that particular grievance. This meant that employers could break these little strikes easily. Locals could easily collapse with the combination of these two policies and in fact membership fell by half in 1867 and 1868 after a number of failed strikes and lack of resources undermined over two dozen locals.

Like most unions at this time, the Sons of Vulcan banned black members, which allowed employers to use racism as a unionbusting force. With more African-Americans arriving in Pittsburgh to work in the city’s growing steel mills, employers used them to undermine organized labor. A Sons of Vulcan strike in 1874-75 was undermined by the importation of black labor from the South, specifically experienced puddlers from the steelworks in Richmond. It’s hardly surprising then that the African-American community held the American labor movement with such suspicion through much of the twentieth century. More broadly, the Anglo-Saxon membership of the steel mills would have great difficulty adjusting to the entrance of workers from eastern and southern Europe as well, and the story of how employers could take advantage of ethnic and racial tensions is well-known.

Ultimately, the need to think about steel through the process of industrial rather than craft unionism took hold, a lesson that many unions would not learn for a very long time (I’m looking at you American Federation of Labor). The difficulty of the 1874-75 strike that led to black strikebreakers really scared the puddlers and they began to believe they had to align their interests with other workers. Other craft unions had sprung up in the steel mills and all found themselves unable to halt production when striking. During the 1870s, the Sons of Vulcan began negotiating with these other unions, including the Associated Brotherhood of Iron and Steel Heaters, Rollers, and Roughers and the Iron and Steel Roll Hands of the United States, to merge. In August 1876, the three unions met in Pittsburgh, where they merged into the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, the first industrial union in American history. The old Sons of Vulcan locals made about 85% of the new union at its creation and continued to dominate it well into the 1890s. That union became the organization that represented workers at the Homestead Strike of 1892, which effectively ended the AA’s leading role in American labor, although it would hang around until the 1930s. The continued opposition in the AA to black labor allowed Carnegie to use African-Americans as strikebreakers during the Homestead strike; an 1884 riot against the importation of blacks as strikebreakers certainly did not leave those workers exactly feeling solidarity with whites.

This is the 52nd post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

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