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Organizing: 1855 - 1909

Trades Assemblies, 1855 - 1875

Rochester’s earliest unions were formed before there was a central labor body and so, in 1853, they organized independently: Typographers, Machinists and Ironworkers, Carpenters and Joiners, Seamstresses, Tailors, and Masons and Bricklayers. The Monroe County Workingmen’s Assembly, organized about two years later, disappeared during the Panic of 1857, along with some of the unions. Although several unions emerged between 1857 and 1860 (Machinists and Blacksmiths, Iron Moulders, Laborers, Bricklayers and Plasterers), it wasn’t until the formation of the Rochester Workingmen’s Trades Assembly (RWTA) in 1863 that a central labor body again coordinated the efforts of the city’s unions.

Original members of the RWTA included the Typographers, Carpenters and Joiners, Iron Moulders, Cutters, and Painters. Early in 1863 the Assembly created a committee on organization, “for the purpose of assisting members of any trade who may desire to organize a Union and connect themselves with the Assembly.” Within its first year the committee had affiliated five unions: Machinists and Blacksmiths, Coopers, Tinsmiths, Tailors, and Shoemakers. Other than organizing, the RWTA’s role was largely advisory, though unlike other such bodies, it did carry strike funds and assisted striking unions. A severe economic depression, together with “matters other than Trade Unionism having crept into the Central Body,” brought an end to the RWTA in 1875.

Knights of Labor, 1882 - 1898

Another form of central body emerged in Rochester in 1882, with the formation of District Assembly 44 of the Knights of Labor (KOL). Although the Knights’ first Local Assembly (LA) in Rochester was formed in 1877, significant recruitment by national KOL organizers did not occur until 1881 with the formation of ten LAs, and 1882 with the chartering of another twenty-one LAs. In June 1882 over 6000 members of the more than 30 LAs in District Assembly 44 (which extended beyond Monroe County) staged a march to demonstrate their strength and solidarity and were joined by several unaffiliated unions. KOL Grand Master Terence V. Powderly was unable to attend the picnic following the parade, but Rochester shoe maker and Knights leader David Healy spoke.

The role of District Assembly 44 in organizing new LAs is unclear, but it played a strong role in supporting newly-organized LAs. An instance is the support given to the 400 carriage-makers at the Cunningham Works, who had organized LA 1709 in November, 1881 and almost immediately decided to strike over work rules. Under the Knights’ constitution such action required a series of negotiations: first, LA 1709 and DA 44 met with the employers to resolve the dispute; that failing, representatives of DA 44 and Pittsburgh DAs 3 and 9 met unsuccessfully with the company; finally, the Knights’ General Executive Board reviewed the case, authorized a strike, and levied a national assessment to support the strikers. The resulting strike, the only such KOL labor dispute to fully follow these procedures involving District Assemblies, was soon settled in favor of the workers.

Between 1884 and 1887 Rochester’s trade unions and KOL LA’s collaborated through a Central Labor Union (CLU), which backed local unions in several disputes with employers and contractors and endorsed major party candidates for local office. But by 1888 many trade unions had abandoned the CLU, which they felt was dominated by the Knights.

American Federation of Labor, 1888 - 1909

Seven unions including the Cigarmakers, Moulders, Bricklayers, Plasterers and Masons, and German Typographical union organized the Rochester Trades Assembly (RTA), which received its AFL charter on September 29, 1888. That summer the Building Trades Council had conducted organizational meetings and quickly affiliated the Carpenters and Joiners; Plumbers, Gas and Steamfitters; Roofers, Tinsmiths and Slaters; Wood Carvers; Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers; Journeymen Stonecutters. The following year, recruiting on the issue of a shorter workday, the RTA affiliated the Lathers; Sash, Door and Blind Makers; German Laborers; Machinists and Blacksmiths. By 1890 a local AFL organizer was busy at work and many trades were organized and affiliated: Tinsmiths; Stovemounters and Polishers; Furniture Workers; Barbers; Ivory Button Workers; Painters and Decorators; Truckmen; Boot and Shoe Workers.

Twenty-two unions belonged to the Rochester Trades Assembly by the end of 1890 and President Whiting claimed that every trade union in the city was a member.

During these same years the Knights of Labor were busy organizing Rochester’s clothing industry, which included thousands of unorganized workers, mostly immigrants working for contractors employed by some thirty manufacturers. By 1889 the KOL had achieved the 9-hour day in the clothing factories and by 1890 had organized three LAs with over 1000 cutters and tailors.

That year the clothing cutters received endorsement from both the Central Labor Union (KOL) and the Rochester Trades Assembly (AFL) to publish the names of union manufacturers and ask workers to patronize them. In response to KOL organizing efforts, the manufacturers formed a Clothiers Exchange and in 1891 locked out over 15,000 workers. The KOL declared a national boycott and both the CLU and RTA supported the workers until, in 1892, the AFL sent an organizer who promptly formed a local of the United Garment Workers of America. The AFL then condemned the KOL boycott and instructed the RTA to affiliate the new Garment Workers union.

While the 1890s saw several attempts, mainly by the Knights, at reviving collaborative bodies such as the United Labor Council (1891), the Monroe County Labor Congress (1895), and the Central Labor Union of Rochester (1896), the rivalry and distrust between local members of the AFL and KOL, together with the loss of work resulting from the Depression of 1893, not only inhibited organizing and collaboration but led to raiding, as in the case of the Garment Workers.

The Rochester Trades Assembly was renamed the Central Trades and Labor Council and received its charter from the AFL in 1903.