Notes on the early class struggle in America: Part 3 - The birth of the US workers’ movement and the difficult struggle for class unity

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“...Social relations are no longer the same as when the Republic was founded. The introduction and development of large-scale industry have produced a new revolution, dissolved the old classes, and above all, created our class, the class of propertyless workers. New relations require new institutions.” (Preamble to the demands of the American Workers’ League, 1853) [1]


In the first part of this occasional series we looked at the birth of the proletariat in North America and its earliest struggles, showing how black chattel slavery was introduced to keep black and white workers divided along racial lines.[2]

The second part exposed myths surrounding the birth of democracy in America, showing that by successfully harnessing the struggles of white workers to the creation of a separate state, the Revolution of 1776 strengthened capitalist domination in North America and entrenched black slavery while deploying racist ideologies to ensure the working class remained divided.[3]

In the third and final part of the series we will look at the first attempts by the US working class to organise itself into trade unions and political parties and the first mass struggles of the early workers’ movement against American capital. These deserve to be better known today if only because they highlight the vanguard role played by the American working class as a fraction of the world proletariat at this time.

But we also need to understand the extremely difficult conditions imposed on the American working class by the development of capitalism in the USA, where a highly intelligent and flexible ruling class actively prevented the building of solidarity by reinforcing divisions between white and black, ‘free’ workers and slaves, immigrant and ‘native-born’ workers – divisions that still weigh heavily on the struggle for class unity today.

The struggle to organise against American capital

For all the noble phrases of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, workers in the new republic had no right to organise or defend themselves. The new ruling class did not hesitate to use the democratic state to enforce colonial-era laws which treated strikes and trade unions as criminal conspiracies; corporal punishment, the whipping post and branding by the state were all perfectly legal, not only for black slaves but also for ‘free’ men, women and children. Strikes by women workers were called ‘mutinies’…

But workers had no choice but to defend themselves against such a rapacious capitalist class. The earliest struggles of American workers tended to unify around the demand for a shorter working day which was seen by the most politically advanced workers as vital to enable the development of class consciousness. In 1827 unions in Philadelphia formed the city-wide Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in order to build solidarity between trades and fight for political reforms. This led to the formation of the Working Men’s Party (1828), the first independent working class party in the world. For the party’s leaders –.men like William Heighton[4] – the trade union struggle to raise wages and shorten hours was not enough, because “All our legislators and rulers are nominated by the accumulating classes and controlled by their opinions - how then can we expect that laws will be framed which will favour our interest?[5] It was therefore necessary to call on workers to elect their own representatives to enact the ten-hour day. The formation of working men’s parties in New York and Boston followed and by 1834 the movement had spread to 61 towns and cities.

This early political movement was led by skilled craft workers who found their role and status undermined by speed-ups, lower wages, longer hours and the use of unskilled labour. Having fought as the radical wing of the bourgeois national liberation struggle (see part two) these workers tended to identify with the republican ideology of the American Revolution (Paine, Jefferson et al); by demanding a shorter working day they considered they were seeking the ‘equal rights’ they were entitled to as American citizens. This undoubtedly showed illusions in the democratic state and its founding myth of a republic of ‘free men’, but by de-skilling previously independent craft workers and creating a growing class of wage labourers, capital itself revealed the contradiction between the supposedly “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” and the reality of industrial wage slavery – a contradiction the early workers’ movement did not hesitate to ruthlessly expose.

More significantly, the ‘workies’ drew on the ideas of the Ricardian and utopian socialists to develop a political strategy based on the argument that as the producers of all wealth in society workers should receive the full product of their labour. While it was utopian to believe that wage labour could, in effect, be voted out of existence through electing working class representatives, by demonstrating that the working class was the source of all wealth in society, these early American militants boldly ‘threw down the gauntlet to the theory of the capitalists’ (Marx) and challenged the political power of the American bourgeoisie.

The great mass of the American proletariat remained unorganised. Unskilled workers, women, children and freed slaves possessed few or no legal rights or representation and their attempts to defend themselves from ferocious exploitation were treated as dangerous acts of rebellion. Nevertheless, the struggles of these workers, often led by women and children, were among the most militant in this period, frequently leading the way and winning the solidarity of organised workers. On the canals and turnpikes, where an army of unskilled, often recent immigrant workers toiled in murderous conditions, there were hundreds of strikes and violent uprisings as well as acts of sabotage and resistance, reaching a peak in 1834-38. State militias were regularly called out to crush rebellions and shoot down workers; dozens were killed and hundreds arrested, a pattern repeated later in the construction of the railroads,[6] while in the new prison-like mills of New England, where workers – mostly women and children – toiled long hours for miserable wages in appalling conditions, resistance to the repressive regime was led by militant women workers. There was frequent solidarity between factory and skilled craft workers; in the first recorded strike by factory workers in 1828, for example, children supported by parents and local artisans in Paterson, New Jersey, struck over a proposed change in their dinner hour and won.[7] There were also early attempts to organise factory workers, with the formation in 1832 of the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workmen, which despite being unsuccessful played an important role in advancing the struggle of the early US workers’ movement for the shorter working day.[8]

The first great wave of workers’ struggles in the USA

From the beginning of the 1830s we can see a rising wave of workers’ struggles in the USA focused on the demand for a ten-hour day, reaching a high point in 1835 with the first general strike in working class history. The strike wave spread from Baltimore to Boston, with militant workers sending delegations to other cities and distributing a manifesto calling for solidarity, which had an ‘electric’ effect on the movement, extending it to Philadelphia where workers quickly shut down the city and held mass meetings to demand the ten-hour day and higher wages for both men and women. Faced with this demonstration of class solidarity employers were forced to concede most of the workers’ demands and when the news of the victory spread it provoked a renewed wave of strikes by factory and skilled workers across the eastern United States.

This wave of struggles showed a real strengthening of class solidarity, uniting skilled and unskilled, men and women, recent immigrants and native-born proletarians around the demand for a shorter working day, which was also reflected in the development of permanent organisations: membership of trade unions reached a peak of around 300,000 in 1836, a proportion of workers not matched until the New Deal 100 years later.[9] There were also initiatives to form national organisations; the National Trades’ Union formed in 1835 existed for three years. But the most significant development was undoubtedly the formation in more than a dozen cities of general unions to co-ordinate the struggles of skilled, unskilled and factory workers; there were probably the most advanced union organisations created by the working class up to this point in its history.

This growth of class solidarity also had an international dimension. The strike wave in the US can only be understood in the context of the whole wave of class struggles in Europe at this time and the 1830 July Revolution in France was a definite influence on American workers, who sent messages of solidarity to their Paris comrades: “Fellow laborers! We owe you our grateful thanks. And not we only, but the industrious classes – the people of every nation. In defending your rights, you have vindicated ours.”[10]

The development of capitalism and the strategy of capital to manage the class struggle

In this way, in the first three decades of the 19th century, the American working class, led by the skilled craft workers of the northern cities, formed one of the most advanced fractions of the world proletariat, creating its first political parties and city-wide general unions. This early US workers’ movement was militant, internationalist and, in the context of this phase of capitalist development, highly class conscious. One of its key strengths was its recognition of the importance of political action to secure permanent reforms alongside the trade union fight for immediate demands. But, led by the skilled craft workers, it was destined to be eclipsed by the development of capitalism itself and the rise of the industrial proletariat.

With the economic depression of 1837-44 this pioneering fraction was plunged into the depths of defeat. The organisations so painfully built up by the American workers were effectively wiped out and the capitalist class went onto the offensive. When workers’ struggles finally began to revive after 1844, it was in changed conditions due to the development of capitalism itself; in particular the rapid growth of capitalist methods of production based on manufacturing, which hastened the destruction of artisan and skilled craft roles and the emergence of a permanent class of wage labourers in the factories and port cities of the eastern seaboard. These changes were reflected in the strategy of capital to manage the class struggle.

The American working class fought for and won important gains in this period, including higher wages and a shorter working day – although these were paid for through increases in productivity – and the legal right to (peacefully) organise. Still, strikes remained illegal and unions were still considered an alien import into the US. The 1850s saw several waves of struggles by industrial workers culminating in the largest strike in the USA so far; the New England shoemakers’ strike of 1860 (“The Revolution in the North”). From 1844 onwards we see the organisation of the factory workers, with women playing a leading role.[11] This period also saw the growth of permanent organisations including renewed efforts to create city-wide and national unions – although these tended to be short-lived owing to the cycle of boom and ‘Panic’ (ie. financial crisis) which necessitated their rebuilding almost from scratch.

The capitalist class put up bitter resistance to a reduction in the working day and despite some extremely militant struggles – like that of women textile workers supported by men and boys in western Pennsylvania in 1845 – all attempts by the workers’ movement to organise a general strike to win this demand failed, forcing it to resort to exerting pressure on the institutions of the bourgeois state for legislative reform.

With the ‘take off’ of the American economy – by 1860 the USA was the fourth most powerful capitalist industrial nation in the world – the bourgeoisie was able to create a more flexible political apparatus and to grant limited reforms, at the same time diverting potentially threatening class struggles into safer political channels. The independent workers’ parties of the early 1830s rapidly declined and broke up, due partly to the deliberate attempts of the bourgeoisie to destroy them, but also to the success of the left-wing of the Democratic Party (‘Jacksonian Democracy’) in winning a base of support among white male workers and small farmers with policies specifically aimed at mobilising working class electoral support, combining the slogan of ‘equal rights’ for rich and poor and the use of anti-elitist, anti-monopolist rhetoric. As a result, political action by the working class tended to focus on pressuring the Democratic Party to adopt its demands by threatening to withdraw its support and run its own candidates for election. The response of the Democratic bourgeoisie to the Equal Rights Party or ‘Locofocos’, originally a protest against corruption in the New York party and conspiracy charges against striking workers, was to adopt many of its demands, combining reform of the banking and legal systems with an end to conspiracy laws..[12]

There were some significant attempts to create a working class party at this time, in particular by the German-speaking workers (who in some important industrial centres like St Louis were the dominant force in the workers’ movement). The American Workers’ League, formed in 1853 by 800 delegates at a mass meeting in Philadelphia, called on workers “without distinction of occupation, language, color, or sex” to organise into “a closely knit and independent political party”.[13] This met resistance from the narrow craft unions and proved short-lived, but, led by supporters of the ‘Marx party’ in the US, the League attempted to build links between German- and English-speaking workers and link struggles for economic and political demands, in this way laying down important principles for the construction of a future class party in the US.[14]

Reinforcing ethnic, religious and racial divisions in the working class

The biggest challenge to the building of class unity in this period – aside, of course, from the continued existence and growth of black slavery – was mass immigration. In one of the greatest migrations of labour in human history, between 1840 and 1860 4.6 million migrants arrived in the USA, mainly from Britain, Ireland and Germany.

For the working class, this brought a huge influx of fellow proletarians and allies: British workers brought their invaluable experience as pioneers of union organisations and of economic struggles; Irish workers brought their own traditions of violent resistance to landlords, while German workers, some former fighters from the 1848 revolutions, also formed a strong contingent in the trade unions and went on to found the first scientific socialist organisations in the USA.[15]

For the American ruling class, mass immigration brought not only a vital supply of labour but a weapon in its counter-offensive against the working class, to lower labour costs and put pressure on wages and conditions in order to prevent the growth of class solidarity. The fear and hostility of ‘native-born’ workers towards immigrants was carefully exploited by bourgeois propaganda and promoted by religious institutions like the Catholic Church and the two-party system, which mobilised native-born workers behind the Republican Party and Irish workers, for example, into the Democratic Party. Some sections of the working class joined in the pogromist campaigns whipped up against German, Irish and black workers, especially during the period of defeat in 1837-44 when mob attacks, lynchings and destruction of churches were common in the large eastern cities. In 1844, for example, there were violent battles between Protestant Irish native-born workers and Catholic Irish immigrants in Philadelphia which were only ended by militia firing cannons into the crowd.

Skilled craft workers facing the destruction of their role tended to combine a militant defence of working class interests with calls for restrictions on immigration.[16] But the sheer numbers of immigrants continuing to arrive made such a stance increasingly unrealistic, while the periodic economic crises of US capitalism tended to break down divisions, at least temporarily, in the face of mass unemployment; in the 1857 crisis, for example, there were mass meetings of German, Irish and American workers in New York to demand work and in Philadelphia a Central Workingmen’s Committee was formed uniting skilled and unskilled, American- and foreign-born workers to fight for unemployment relief.[17] Some unions actively worked to organise immigrant workers in their trades and combat anti-immigrant campaigns, warning that hostility towards immigrant workers was being deliberately used by employers to distract workers’ attention from class issues.

Above all solidarity was built through struggle. Common experience of industrialisation and repression tended to break down initial hostility and suspicion between groups of workers; impartially meted-out police brutality during an 1850 strike in New York helped to build solidarity between German and native-born American members of the Tailors’ Union, with German workers protesting against the imprisonment of their fellow workers.[18] The 1860 New England shoemakers’ strike – the most extensive struggle in the US before the Civil War – was also significant for uniting Irish immigrant and American-born workers, with militant women again taking a leading role.

It was precisely these tendencies for the struggles of the growing industrial proletariat to overcome ethnic, religious and sexual divisions that forced the bourgeoisie to deploy a strategy based on the racist concept of white supremacy. The reactionary idea that ‘whiteness’ entitled European workers to political rights and jobs was used to justify the systematic exclusion of ‘free’ black workers in the northern states from employment and basic democratic rights, turning them into scapegoats for the poverty of the poorest white workers and easy targets for pogroms. Despite initial support among Irish workers for the abolition of slavery, for example, this was presented with some success – primarily by the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church – as bringing the threat of a ‘flood’ of black labour. This led to so many examples of racial violence that black workers called the bricks hurled at them “Irish confetti”.[19]

The roots of these racial divisions were not simply economic. In fact Irish Catholic workers found themselves in competition for unskilled jobs not with black but other white European workers and their more recent immigrant compatriots. Irish and black workers often lived, worked and struggled side-by-side and were even joint targets of racist attacks (eg. in Boston 1829). But with the growth of Irish immigration, especially after the 1845-49 Great Famine, and the increasing importance of the Irish vote for the two main bourgeois parties, ruling class propaganda cynically manipulated the feelings of powerlessness and anger engendered by the experience of being torn from the land and surviving the horrors of hunger only to be thrown into the brutal world of wage labour, or lack of it, accompanied by the desperate poverty that was the introduction to capitalism in the USA for the poorest immigrants.


The US proletariat in this period faced immense difficulties imposed on it not just by the development of capitalism but the conscious strategy of a highly intelligent and flexible ruling class which understood the need for policies specifically designed to mobilise working class support while at the same time using violence and repression against militant struggles to divert workers’ energies into legal channels of reform. With no need to struggle against pro-feudal forces, the American bourgeoisie was free to use the two-party system to operate an effective division of labour against the working class, developing the Democratic Party as a specific means of diverting growing class struggles while at the same time reinforcing ethnic, religious, sexual and racial divisions in the working class.

Such a strategy was of course far from unique in ascendant capitalism; the most obvious example, dealt with extensively by Marx, was the antagonism between English and Irish workers, deliberately fostered by the capitalist class to force down wages and maintain its political power.[20] Divisions within the proletariat are inevitable in an exploiting system based on the wage labour relationship and competition between human beings; capitalism is above all a social relation between classes in which the ruling class, in order to maintain capitalist private property, must continually and consciously act to prevent the unification of the proletariat.

What was specific to the USA was the existence of black chattel slavery in such a large and potentially powerful capitalist economy. As a result, the industrial revolution in the US was shaped by the political rule of a slave-owning class whose plantation economy was essential to the survival of the capitalist regime installed by the American Revolution and by the racist ideologies developed to justify it, based on pseudo-scientific concepts of biological inferiority and white ‘Anglo-Saxon’ supremacy.[21]

What we see from the 1830s onwards is the development of such ideologies by the American capitalist class in response to the rapid and massive growth of a racially and ethnically heterogeneous industrial proletariat as part of a deliberate strategy to prevent the tendency towards class unity. The concept of white supremacy was – and remains today – deeply embedded in the apparatus of capitalist domination in the USA, as part of the means to control the development of class struggles.

For its own part, despite all these obstacles, and in circumstances definitely not of its own choosing, the American working class was ceaselessly confronted with the necessity to struggle to defend itself and for its forces to come together, to fight for its unity, which required a struggle against all the forces that sought to divide it. For the US proletariat black slavery was thus not only a moral outrage but a practical obstacle to its unification and for this reason, despite the real gains made, in this historic period it was impossible to separate the difficult struggle for class unity from the struggle against black slavery.

We will return to this question in a future article.


NB: This article was revised on April 16  to include the author's latest version.

[1] Quoted in Karl in Obermann, Joseph Weydemeyer: Pioneer of American Socialism, 1947, p.34.
[2] ‘Notes on the early class struggle in America - Part I: The birth of the American proletariat’,

[3] ‘The birth of American democracy: “Tyranny is tyranny”’,

[4] William Heighton was an immigrant English shoemaker, influenced by the ideas of the Ricardian and ‘primitive’ socialists. He played a key role in organising the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations, founded and edited the Mechanic’s Free Press (probably the first workers’ paper in the US), and became leader of the Philadelphia Working Man's Party.

[5] ‘Address to the Members of the Trade Societies and to the Working Classes Generally’, 1827, quoted in Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor’s Story in the United States, 2004, p.61.
[6] Nicholson, Op. Cit., p.72.
[7] Their demand for a ten-hour day failed after the state militia was called out to break the strike (Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 1, 1979, p.105).

[8] A key role in the Association was played by Seth Luther, a carpenter, whose widely-read Address to the Workingmen of New England (1832) was a powerful denunciation of conditions in the cotton mills. A talented speaker and organiser, Luther was very active in the early trade union movement and the struggle for the ten-hour day, including moves to form a national union.

[9] Excluding farm workers (Nicholson, Op. Cit., p.72).
[10] See Foner, Op. Cit., p.107-8. Philadelphia workers also sent financial help to the Greek struggle for independence.
[11] Of the many women militants in this period we can mention Sarah Bagley, who was active in the mill workers’ struggles and played a large part in the revived workers’ movement of the 1840s. She was a founder of the Female Labor Reform Association in New England and one of the first women editors of a US workers’ paper, The Voice of Industry. In 1845 she was appointed secretary of the New England Working Men’s Association and called on male workers to help women win ten-hour day. She wrote extensively on working conditions, health care, prison reform, and women’s rights.
[12] For the positions of the ‘Locofocos’, see F. Byrdsall, The History of the Loco-foco or Equal Rights Party, 1842, pp.39-42. The legal right of workers to organise ‘peacefully’ was finally recognised by a right-wing government in 1842, in a bid for working class electoral support, but striking workers were still left open to conviction for criminal activity and indictments for conspiracy revived after the Civil War with harsh sentences doled out.

[13] See American Workers’ League Wikipedia entry and Karl Obermann, Op. Cit., p.35.

[14] A key role in all these efforts was played by Joseph Weydemeyer, a close collaborator of Marx and Engels and former member of the Communist League, whose contribution to the US workers’ movement will be more fully considered in a future article.
[15] Local groups of the Communist League in the US were founded at the same time as the League itself in 1847 and grew with the arrival of exiles from the 1848 revolutions (around this time the first copies of the Communist Manifesto appeared in the US, probably brought over by British Chartist supporters). After the League’s dissolution, in 1852 ex-members formed the Proletarian League in New York.

[16] For example, the Address to the Working Men of New England by Seth Luther (1833) ended by insisting on the right of Congress to protect them from the “importation of foreign mechanics and laborers, to cut down wages of our own citizens”.

[17] Foner, Op. Cit., p.238.
[18] See Foner, Op. Cit., p.226. The German workers carried placards saying “We did not expect to find in this free country a Russian police”.

[19] David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class, 1991, p.136.

[20] See for example Marx to S. Meyer and A. Vogt, 9 April 1870,

[21] The highly ideological nature of such concepts is underlined by Benjamin Franklin’s exclusion from the so-called ‘white race’ not only of “swarthy” Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes but all Germans except for Saxons… (Observations concerning the increase of mankind, etc., 1751)


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