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Sylvis, William H. (1828–1869) and the National Labor Union

Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker


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William H. Sylvis was one of the earliest and most radical American labor leaders. He first served as president of the Iron Molders' International Union and was later elected president of the shortlived National Labor Union. While his memory and significance are largely overshadowed by the eventual decline of the National Labor Union and by the better-known and more successful labor leaders that followed him, during his short life Sylvis led ambitious campaigns for working people's rights, attempted prescient reforms of the labor movement, and exerted significant political influence. He was a pioneer in the effort to forge national cooperation among American working people, regardless of race or gender. Had he lived longer, he intended to strengthen the United States' ties to the international labor movement. The son of Nicholas Sylvis, a poor wagon shop owner who struggled to support a large family, William chose to leave his father's profession and found work as an apprentice iron molder. Following his apprenticeship, Sylvis attempted to establish his own foundry, but the business endeavor failed. He spent the early 1850s moving with his wife and son looking for work across Pennsylvania. In 1853, the family settled in Philadelphia. There, Sylvis found work at the Cresson foundry. An accident that Sylvis suffered at the foundry, in 1854, led to a lowering of his wages and made ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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