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American Labor Pioneer - William H. Sylvis

William H. Sylvis - American labor pioneer. Born in Indiana County, 1828. Founder, National Union of Iron Molders, 1859. President, National Labor Union, 1868-1869. Sylvis strove for unity among working men and women regardless of race or nationality. He died, “labor’s champion,” 1869.


Although the beginning paragraph provides a very brief synopsis of the life of Armagh native William H. Sylvis, there was so much more to this local labor pioneer. Nationally, one might think of Samuel Gompers or John L. Lewis as the founding father of the American labor movement, but Sylvis preceded both in galvanizing labor efforts on a national level.


Born in Armagh on November 28, 1828, Sylvis was the second of at least a dozen children of Nicholas Sylvis, a wagonmaker, and Maria Mott. Nicholas soon took his family east to Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe, PA), where he worked for a boatbuilding relative, and in White Deer Valley began his own wagon shop in 1835.

William H. Sylvis (1828-1869)

Unfortunately, a faltering economy two years later, forced the closure of the business and Nicholas once again moved his wife and children, but William was entered into five years of indentured service on the land of the Pawling family, the head of which was a wealthy farmer and state legislator.


After his indentured servitude, Sylvis rejoined his father working in his wagon shop, but soon decided to go out on his own in the molding trade.


By 1849, he had completed his apprenticeship in Clearfield County and began working as a journeyman molder, first in Centre County, and then in Hollidaysburg.


In 1852, William married Amelia A. Thomas, moving the following year with his wife and infant son to Philadelphia where William found work at the Cresson, Stuart and Peterson Foundry. And like his father, he soon learned the trials and hardship of a low paid worker struggling to provide for his growing family.


Sylvis lived in a time before disability benefits were available, and he had only himself to depend on after he was injured in a work related accident - molten iron was poured down into his boot. Worker’s compensation would not become law until 1908 when signed into law by President Taft, and Social Security Disability did not become law until 1956.


It is likely his recognition of the value of union membership came in 1857 when the two-year-old Stove and Hollowware Molders Union of Philadelphia began a strike against a 12 percent wage cut. Sylvis began working on a picketing committee and a week after was officially accepted into the union, qualifying for strike benefits.


Unfortunately, the union lost the battle, but gained a new officer - Sylvis had been elected secretary. This began Sylvis’ decade of involvement with labor rights - first with the molders and later working in a broader spectrum of working people.


Sylvis wrote “I love this Union cause, I hold it more dear than my family or my life. I am willing to devote to it all that I am or have or hope for in this world.”


After four months with the union, he reached out to another molders organization in Troy, New York. By the end of 1858, he introduced a resolution establishing a committee to organize the first national molders convention on July 5, 1859 in Philadelphia. As a result, the National Union of Iron Molders was founded six months later in Albany, New York. Sylvis was elected the national treasurer and served on several committees, including adopting a constitution.


Not only did Sylvis work a regular 10-hour shift at the foundry; he also took on a workload of writing union reports. He delivered speeches to his fellow laborers, demonstrating a considerable talent for rallying an audience.


However, with his quick rise to influence and his sharp tongue, Sylvis soon won himself enemies. In an effort to oust him, there were charges that Sylvis embezzled union funds. Sylvis was able to provide a full accounting of his expenditures, but was still voted out of a delegate spot at the 1861 convention.


With the arrival of the Civil War, there was no shortage of jobs in molding and other trades, as production boomed. Unfortunately, the unions’ power eroded, as many of their members joined the ranks of draft dodgers fleeing to Canada.


Sylvis, himself, was opposed to the Civil War because he realized that a division of the nation would undermine labor’s progress. He also opposed Lincoln and the Republican party, who favored a compromise to divide the west into a northern free area and a southern slave zone. Despite his negative beliefs for the war, he equally despised draft dodgers.


He briefly served during the Civil War as an orderly sergeant during the fall of 1862, leading a group of men in pursuit of Lee’s army as they withdrew from Antietam.


By 1863, he was once again on the labor stage, as the Molders were revived in Pittsburgh, adding the tag “International” in recognition of several Canadian locals. He had been exonerated from the charges lodged against him in 1861, and was elected president of the International Union of Iron Molders. But the union had no money and very few members.


Sylvis was determined, although ill and with threadbare clothes, he embarked on three organizing tours to the west, lasting 10 months. His work paid off too, because after just two years, the International Union had 122 locals with a combined membership nearing 7,000.


Sadly, Sylvis was on the brink of poverty, and the union granted him an annual salary of $1,200, with a $300 bonus. (This would be approximately $22,500 today, with a $5,600 bonus).


Although Sylvis did not have a formal education, he became a fluent and effective writer in labor newspapers and journals. In 1865, he became editor of the Iron Molders Journal, which remained in publication until 1944. Later he served as co-editor of the Workingman’s Advocate, the official publication of the National Labor Union.


Sylvis’ family life also changed during this time. In October 1865, typhoid claimed his 29-year-old wife. But Sylvis swiftly wooed and wed Florrie Hunter, whose family he befriended in Hollidaysburg. And by the following year, he added a fifth child to his family.


While his organization of new locals was one of his most visible accomplishments, he wielded even more influence when it came to managing union affairs.


One of these examples of influence came during the “Great Lockout of 1866.” A selective strike by the Molders was touched off by a notice from the new American National Stove Manufacturers’ and Iron Founders’ Association that it planned to sweep aside shop rules established by the union.


Sylvis kept locals in Pittsburgh at work during the strike, which forced foundries along the Ohio River to remain in production, or risk losing their clients to the nearby city. Within a month, the strike ended, and was qualified a victory for Sylvis’ union.


The manufacturers withdrew their notice, and the Molders also backed down from their request for a 25 percent pay hike. But even this victory was short-lived. By the end of 1867, another depression shut down every foundry in Pittsburgh. The union’s membership dropped to less than 5,000 and cash balance amounted to only $24.21.


Sylvis responded to the dwindling membership by adopting a conciliatory policy toward management, but redirected his efforts toward establishing a union-owned cooperative foundry. He launched the effort in September 1867, in Pittsburgh, but came up short. The sale of stock in the company amounted to about $10,000, but start-up costs were closer to $15,000, and he could not meet the demands of his creditors.


Despite these setbacks, Sylvis was making his most far-reaching contributions to the labor movement. When he groups announced a national inter-trade labor organization, but failed to follow through - Sylvis stepped in. He took the reins of the new National Labor Union and steered it toward a meaningful role in social reform, including labor regulations.


In 1866, when his fledgling National Labor Union was launched, Sylvis wrote: “But, potent as our organization may be, and proud as we ought to feel, in view of our progress, the goal we desire to reach is yet far distant. We have many steps to climb, many quagmires to cross, many obstacles to overcome; and we cannot close our eyes to the fact, that still ‘there are lions by the way.’”


Sylvis was one of the first national labor leaders to use public opinion as a tool. He released a wave of propaganda to popularize the NLU’s platform. These included calls for an eight-hour work day, land reform and money reform, as well as a protest against convict labor.


His efforts somewhat paid off as the eight hour day was officially adopted for government workers in June 1868, but not for the overall American workforce.


Sylvis applied pressure to the Grant administration to reverse its decision to cut wages as a trade-off for fewer hours.


At the 1868 convection, Sylvis introduced a resolution which called for a federal Department of Labor, which would regulate trade unions and gather labor-related data. Sylvis also pushed to lower the national debt, which would allow slashes in a “horrifying” annual tax burden of $17 per capita. The Department of Labor would not be established until 1913, by President Taft; the Bureau of Labor Statistics was formed within the Department of the Interior in 1884. Unfortunately, Sylvis would not live long enough to see his call become a reality.


Sylvis was also ahead of his time by embracing women, by deed, and African Americans, by word, as part of a national labor unity.


Although, this was not always his point of view. He had at one time agreed with the dominant male viewpoint that women belonged at home. But after a first-hand view of the conditions seamstresses endured, he became sympathetic.


In 1867, about 50 years before women won the right to vote (this would not occur until 1920), Sylvis called for universal suffrage. And through Sylvis’ views, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was accepted as a delegate at the 1868 NLU convention.


His welcoming call to African-American workers was not nearly as heartfelt. While he continued his prejudice against African-Americans, he wanted them to be included in organized labor to prevent their use as strikebreakers.


Sylvis devoted himself to labor responsibilities, many times at the expense of himself and his family's finances. In 1869, he served as both president of the Molders and the head of the NLU. Dealing once again with a limited budget, Sylvis mortgaged his furniture to pay for the 1869 NLU convention planned for mid-August in Philadelphia.


He was absorbed in preparations for the convention on July 22, when he was stricken by inflamed bowels. Five days later, he would die, leaving his wife and five children with less than $100.


The NLU appropriated money to cover the funeral, and a 10 cent tax was collected from all members to help the family. Deprived of Sylvis’ leadership, the NLU severed its ties to the women’s movement, and in just three years time, had disappeared.


Sylvis was recognized as “labor’s champion” on a monument at his gravesite in Fernwood Cemetery, Lansdowne, PA.

Sylvis Memorial - Fernwood Cemetery, Lansdowne, PA

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