William H. Sylvis, future labor leader, was born in the town of Armagh on November 28, 1828, to Nicholas Sylvis, a wagon maker, and Maria Mott. The Sylvis family moved to Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe, PA), his father worked for a boatbuilding relative and then moved to White Deer Valley, where he began his own wagon shop in 1835.
A faltering economy forced William Sylvis, 11-years old at the time, into indentured service on the land of a wealthy farmer and state legislator from the Philadelphia area. His father’s wagon-making business began to grow again, and his father wished that young William would work for him when he turned 16, but William went to work for the Forest Iron Works instead.
During this time, the common practice for businesses was to pay their employees only enough to survive from week to week, and the remainder of the wages would be paid at the end of the year. Sylvis worked for nearly a year, but before he received the bulk of his pay, the company went out of business.
From Philadelphia, Sylvis moved to Curwensville, Clearfield County to work as a foundry apprentice. He also taught Sunday school in Hollidaysburg and worked in Johnstown for a short time before he married. In 1851, he married 15-year old Amelia A. Thomas; the following year the newlyweds along with their infant son moved back to Philadelphia in 1852 and worked in the Cresson, Stuart and Peterson Foundry. Sylvis soon learned the hardships of a low paid worker, as he struggled to provide for a second son born in 1854.
In 1854, tragedy struck in a work-related accident at the Cresson Foundry. Sylvis was working as an iron molder among fellow workers who were casting molds in sand. Another molder was carrying a long ladle of melted iron, stumbled, and the ladle spilled into one of Sylvis’ boots. Sylvis became crippled in that leg. This was before disability benefits, so Sylvis knew that such an injury would likely lead to begging on the street or selling pencils, just to survive.
Despite his injury, a year later, Sylvis returned to work at the foundry. During the Panic of 1857, the company wanted huge wage concessions, and a fledgling union struck; although Sylvis was not a member of the union, he picketed with the members. Sylvis soon became secretary of the union and probably its most active member. Two years later, Sylvis founded the Iron Molders Union and became the president of the National Labor Union (NLU) (a predecessor of both the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor). As president of the National Labor Union, Sylvis supported the right of women to vote (this was 54 years before women had the right to vote in the United States).
During this time, Sylvis not only worked his regular 10-hour shift at the foundry, but also the workload of writing union reports. He also started to deliver speeches to his fellow laborers. But with the quick rise to influence and his sharp tongue, there were enemies. Those enemies were behind charges that Sylvis embezzled union funds. Sylvis provided a full accounting but was still voted out at the 1861 convention.
The Civil War caused a boom in production and there was no shortage of jobs in molding or other trades, but the unions’ power declined because of their members joining the ranks of draft dodgers fleeing to Canada. Sylvis opposed war because he realized that a division of the nation would undermine labor’s progress, because of this Sylvis favored a compromise that would divide the west into a northern free area and a southern slave zone. Sylvis did serve briefly as an orderly sergeant in the fall of 1862 by leading a group of men in pursuit of Lee as he withdrew from Antietam.
The Molders were revived in Pittsburgh and added the tag “International” in recognition of Canadian locals. Sylvis was exonerated from the charges and was elected president. The only issue was that the union did not have money and few members, so Sylvis embarked on three organizing tours to the west, and his work paid off. Two years later, the International Union boasted 122 locals with a membership nearing 7,000.
In 1865, tragedy struck the Sylvis family; typhoid fever claimed his wife in October. Sylvis swifty wooed and wed Florrie Hunter, whose family he had befriended in Hollidaysburg. The following year, there was a fifth child added to the Sylvis family.
Sylvis also founded the International Journal, a union periodical; it was through this periodical that he helped start “Reading Rooms” for the general public. He also helped obtain an eight-hour work day law for federal employees.
Sylvis was ahead of his time in his calling for social reforms and the extension of union benefits to women and African-Americans. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was accepted as a delegate at the 1868 NLU convention. It should be noted that Sylvis had a continued prejudice against African-Americans; however, he wanted them included in organized labor to prevent their use as strikebreakers.
Sylvis dedicated his life to labor, at the expense of his health; and on July 22, 1869 he was stricken by inflamed bowels and five days later he died, at the young age of 41. He left behind his wife and five children with less than $100. The NLU appropriated money to cover his funeral, and there was a 10 cent tax collected from all members to help the family. After his death, the NLU severed its ties to the women’s movement, and in three years disappeared altogether.