Back in Plaque: The story of William H. Sylvis

09/18/2015
Margaret Burris
Staff Writer
M.W.Burris@iup.edu

A plaque near Wallwork Hall briefly summarizes the life of William H. Sylvis and reads that he died “labor’s champion.”

However, the impact of Sylvis’ life cannot truly be described in a few short lines.

Sylvis was born in the borough of Armagh, which is a small borough in Indiana County that today is home to about only 200 residents.

He hailed from a family that could trace its American heritage back to before the pre-Revolutionary era.

Due to the Panic of 1837, Sylvis was forced to move away from his family and attended school for the first time when he was 11. He was an avid reader with a dream of changing the New World.

When he was 18, he left his home to learn the trade of iron molding and eventually traveled to Philadelphia, where he became a high-profile member of the local trade-union movement.

He became interested in trade unions when a shop that he worked at proposed to cut wages, and a labor strike ensued.

The workers collaborated together and chose Sylvis as their secretary – they named their organization Iron-Moulders Union no. 1.

After some meetings and discussions, Sylvis decided to try to establish a national labor union. In 1860, he did just that with the National Union of Iron Molders (NUIM).

After aiding the Union forces in the Civil War, Sylvis revived the NUIM and traveled more than 10,000 miles in order to give speeches about the union.

He also implemented a much more efficient financial system that involved collecting national dues and handing out union cards.

Still thirsty for fair wages and workers’ rights, Sylvis sought to establish a federation of unions that would have the ability to govern unions of workers from many different trades and crafts.

Working with William Harding and Jonathan Fincher, the National Labor Union (NLU) was founded.

The founding convention of the NLU saw representatives from more than 40 local trade unions, as well as 11 trade assemblies and four Eight Hour Leagues.

However, Sylvis was too ill to attend this convention.

Sylvis was critical of the work of the NLU. Even so, he was elected as the president of the NLU in 1868.

He believed that political parties in the past had not represented the working class and that the NLU would offer a political alternative to the working man.

Sylvis died at the age of 41 in 1869. He dedicated his life to fair wages and hours and did not discriminate against race, gender or age.

Unfortunately, the NLU never achieved the status he had wanted for it. Even though the NLU dissolved in 1874, it led the way for organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor.

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