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Eras » Era 1: 1855 - 1909


During this period several efforts at centralized local labor organization followed one another and met varying success: the Monroe County Workingmen's Assembly (1855-1857), Rochester Trades Assembly (1863 - 1875), Knights of Labor District Assembly 44 (1881-1883) and DA 63 (1883-1890), the Central Labor Union (1884-1888), and the AFL’s Rochester Trades Assembly (1888-1903), later the Rochester Trades & Labor Council.

The early trades assemblies were able to organize workers in some of the building trades and miscellaneous occupations. The Knights of Labor succeeded in organizing not only among the building trades but throughout Rochester’s light manufacturing industries, including cigarette production; the Knights formed several women’s locals, as well as many mixed Local Assemblies. Following intense rivalry, the AFL’s Rochester Trades Assembly largely supplanted the Knights and stabilized Rochester’s labor scene.

Central labor body participation in electoral politics began as early as 1870, when Rochester’s independent Labor Reform Party ran candidates for state and local offices. Rochester’s United Workingmen’s Party contested state and county offices in 1877 and (with the Greenback Party) in 1878. Labor members ran for office, including a Knights of Labor officer who was elected to the State Assembly. However, workers voted mainly for Democrats or Republicans. Legislative issues confronted by labor during these years included eliminating convict labor and implementing an eight-hour day.

By the 1880s Rochester central labor bodies were publishing weekly labor journals funded by sales, subscriptions and ads. The Knights of Labor published the International Labor Advocate and the Sunday Truth & Advocate & Mail, which was sold throughout Rochester and as far away as Batavia, Lockport, Canandaigua and Oneida. Beginning in 1899 the AFL’s Central Trades & Labor Council published the Labor Journal.

Central labor bodies have long recognized parades to be a means of demonstrating union solidarity. By 1881 Knights of Labor District Assembly 44 had organized parades in which both Knights and non-Knights participated. By 1884 there was an annual Labor Day Parade, followed by an outing at Ontario Beach Park which, after 1888, was organized by the AFL’s Central Trades & Labor Council.

The Labor Lyceum, a weekly forum on labor issues organized by local unions and socialists, met Sundays at City Hall from 1897 until 1911. Although the Central Trades & Labor Council did not sponsor the Lyceum, it publicized the programs.

The union label originated among San Francisco cigarmakers in 1875. During the 1880s the Knights of Labor put their label on the products of other trades — boots and shoes, stoves, watches, apparel, barrels — and on goods produced by cooperative factories owned and run by Knights. To promote demand for union-made products and union services the AFL established a Union Trades and Label Department in 1909 and encouraged central labor councils to support its “buy union” campaign.

While central labor bodies could not initiate boycotts and strikes, they generally supported such efforts. One of Rochester’s earliest boycotts grew out of a struggle at Kimball’s Tobacco Factory in 1883: when Knights’ District Assembly 44 was unable to win a wage increase for its 1200 “cigarette girls,” a boycott was called on Kimball tobacco products. The Knights also waged several strikes over wage issues.

The Rochester Trades Assembly was renamed the Central Trades and Labor Council in 1903, at which time it consisted of about 13,000 members from 103 unions. The CTLC lasted until 1959.