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Signs of Unity: Stories and Symbols of the American Labor Movement
Updated On: Dec 30, 2013

The first genuine union labels in America began cropping up in the mid 19th Century as early craft unions began what would become a decades-long struggle for a shorter workweek. In 1869, the Carpenters Union launched an 8-hour day campaign with the union’s emblem affixed to any mill products from companies that had agreed to the 8-hour day. Cigar Makers, in 1874 adopted a label to differentiate their product, ironically, combating an influx of made-in-China cigars. Advertisements accompanying that campaign reflect a poor choice of words from a 20th century point of view, prominently noting that the union’s cigars were then crafted by “White Men.”

In 1881, along with the birth of the American Federation of Labor came the clasped hands symbol that has lasted, with only minor alterations, until today.

These and other facts about the label movement are thoroughly discussed in “Signs of Unity: Stories and Symbols of the American Labor Movement,” a book by Kim Munson.

A little more than a century ago when the Union Label Department was first created, the American marketplace was far different than today. Many consumer goods and services were created not far from where they were sold. Every region had its own small factories or shops turning out the everyday goods that residents needed. Millions of Americans earned adequate wages doing the difficult work of seamstresses, tailors leatherworkers, blacksmiths, printers, barbers and carpenters, stone masons, and craft workers.

The first union labels grew out of the same sentiment that prevails today: supporting good jobs strengthens the community. Union leaders urged American consumers to “discriminate against” products without a union label. Eventually that message would be re-crafted in a positive message as buyers were encouraged to “look for the union label.”

In 1909, America’s industrial age was hitting full stride. Innovations—electricity in the home, telephone and radio communications, the automobile, air travel— it all quickly spread across the nation, making life easier for the average American.

While life at home was getting easier, life at work was growing more difficult. Industrialization spawned huge factories to mass-produce the goods that Americans were now demanding. As farms became mechanized, millions of men and women left rural areas and migrated to big cities where they joined recent immigrants from Europe to form an energetic labor force to turn out iron and steel, autos, ships, appliances, paper and lumber. Demand for coal and oil to power the engines of industry created the need for millions of workers in those industries as well.

Industrialization changed the character of the American labor movement as well. In the 19th Century, American unions—led mostly by crafts and specialty workers unions—worked well together for such causes as the eight-hour day, fair wage movement and the right to organize. But, once industrialization took root, issues such as job safety, protection against sweatshops and child labor became over-riding causes. Perhaps the most significant problem was labor’s need to develop sufficient muscle to wrest decent contracts from huge employers that enjoyed monopoly power through every layer of American society in the railroads, manufacturing and mining. The Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgan’s and others were the forerunners of today’s mega-corporations. They were not only “too big to fail,” they were simply “too big to mess with.”

Mine Workers, Auto Workers and Steel Workers, Clothing and Textile Workers, Garment Workers and others emerged from that era to create the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—ultimately merging with the American Federation of Labor, then made up largely of craft unions in 1955 to create the AFL-CIO.

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