Journal of Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research


The doings of the labor movement during the Civil War were crucial in the development of the great time of unions at the turn of the 19th-century. While the nation was focused on the issue of slavery, the free labor force of the North strove for improved working conditions and more power in the workplace. Workers and the unions they formed faced unique challenges in the Civil War era. The international labor community found the problem of slavery more pressing than the plight of Northern workers. The United States government, comprised mainly of Republicans, discouraged the tactics and goals of unions on the basis of ideology and business interests. The Iron Molders’ International Union (IMIU) and the National Labor Union (NLU) were two of the most vocal unions of the time, and their stories provide a good picture of the labor situation of the day. The IMIU, led by the dynamic William H. Sylvis, laid the groundwork for the NLU, one of the first organizations to unify workers of all trades. Explored in this paper is the importance of the two unions not only to the labor situation of the Civil War era, but to the development of labor in general. The story of these unions is placed in the context of international labor and that of the United States embroiled in civil war. A look is taken at how the IMIU grew and developed, as well as how its successes and failures affected the subsequent creation of the NLU.