Labor History in 2:00

November 26 - The Birth of William Sylvis

November 26, 2021

On this day in Labor History the year was 1829. 

That was the day that William Sylvis was born in Armagh, Pennsylvania. 

Growing up he was one of twelve children. 

His father was a wagon maker and taught him the trade. 

At the age of eighteen he became an iron working apprentice. 

His skill took him to Philadelphia, where he found work. 

But iron work was changing. 

More and more foundries were hiring unskilled labor, or helpers, to assist in production. 

They could pay these workers significantly less, and undercut the wages of the skilled iron moulders. 

In response William joined his local iron moulders union. 

But he knew if they were to really have any power as workers, they would need to join together with other locals. 

In 1863 he brought together 21 locals to form the Iron Moulders International Union. 

Three years later, he embarked on an even more ambitious project—forming a national labor organization for workers across the trades. 

Under his leadership the National Labor Union grew to 300,000 members strong. 

William shared his thoughts on the importance of labor in a speech to the Iron Moulders Union in 1864 saying quote,

“If workingmen and capitalists are equal co-partners, composing one vast firm by which the industry of the world is carried on and controlled, why do they not share equally in the profits?  Why does capital take to itself the whole loaf, while labor is left to gather up the crumbs?  Why does capital roll in luxury and wealth, while labor is left to eke out a miserable existence in poverty and want?”  

Sadly after all these years, William’s questions are still being asked today.

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