William H. Sylvis was born on November 26th, 1828 in Armaugh, PA, the son of a wagon-maker. The New York Sun wrote of him: “…[he] never went to school six days in his life,” but he “could not long remain in the bondage of ignorance” because “perseverance and determination are as plainly written in his countenance as if the words were penned there with indelible ink.” This determination and perseverance made Sylvis America’s first national labor leader.
While many of the Iron Molders’ International were at war, Sylvis assumed charge of the organization, and in fact saved it after its financial officer was killed in combat, and he did this by taking “three lengthy organizing trips he made to the South, the Midwest, and Northeast, covering ten thousand miles,” according to Philip Dray, author of the comprehensive and essential There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America:
“He wore clothes until they became quite threadbare and he could wear them no longer,” his brother recalled of Sylvis’ wanderings. “The shawl he wore to the day of his death…was filled with little holes burned there by the splashing of molten iron from the ladles of molders in strange cities, whom he was beseeshing to organize.”
He often slept in train cars and neglected his wife and children by being away for such long periods of time, and quite frequently pushed his health to the limits, often stricken with nerve and gastrointestinal problems. “He drove himself feverishly, consumed with the prophecy he spread.” Sylvis was a man uniquely-suited to the task of creating the National Labor Union, America’s first national labor federation, in 1866.
The NLU was “dedicated not to any specific trade but to all, to the cause of labor itself, to both skilled and unskilled workers, as well as to farmers, women, and African Americans.” Sylvis’ NLU fought hardest for the eight hour work day, which he “embraced as a moral crusade.”
His love for the working class, and his acute awareness of capital’s class warfare on labor, were often conveyed through his fiery speeches and frequent indignation. “His bright blue eyes seemed to flare with hotness when he was angry, which was most of the time,” it was observed once. His attitude towards the elite and their control over workers might best be summed up with this:
“If workingmen and capitalists are equal co-partners, why do they not share equally in the profits? he demanded. “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? Are these the evidences of an identity of interests, of mutual relations, of equal partnership? No…on the contrary they are evidences of an antagonism…a never-ending conflict between the two classes, [where] capital is in all cases the aggressor.”
How true those words ring today, when labor is under attack with an intensity not seen in years.