America's union movement traces its beginnings to the earliest days of the country's history. Craftsmen counted themselves among the first Europeans to arrive with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Early efforts at collective action, in primitive unions or guilds, sprang up in several of the major seaports that developed in the early colonies. The pace of change in urban centers like Boston, New York and Philadelphia brought new stresses and strains to craftsmen and laborers, who slowly began to lose control over the nature of their work. Carpenters, shoe makers, and cobblers all attempted to form associations for their benefit during this time.
Workers played a crucial role during the struggle for American independence from Britain. The Boston Massacre began as a dispute over British troops moonlighting and taking the jobs of American workers. Laborers also led the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Many of them fought and held leadership positions in the Continental Army or in various state militias.
After the war, craftsmen in many areas led a precarious existence. They began to try to organize to protect their position in society. Printers went on strike in New York in 1794. Shoemakers, carpenters, and cabinet makers followed in other cities in the 1790s.
As more and more people worked in factories during the industrial revolution that began in the early 19th Century, workers began to explore the idea of banding together for economic and legal protection against their bosses. They fought to reduce the working day from 12 to 10 hours. City-wide labor organizations sprang up in the growing urban areas of the East. In 1834, workers in five cities formed the National Trades' Union, one of the earliest attempts at a national federation of labor organizations. The participants of this early organizing effort were skilled workers who were usually educated and received training. Unskilled workers were given simple tasks that required no judgment and could be learned on the job in a short period of time. A financial panic in 1837, however, destroyed the effort.