Unions Before Union Bureaucracy: Paid Officers and Staff in American Labor Unions, 1799-1878

This will be the first in a series examining the history of the use of paid officers and staff in labor unions. In this installment, we look at the origins of the practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The AFL-CIO, the largest labor union in the United States, spends over $800,000 annually on officer pay, including a $275K salary for its President and $238K each for the Secretary-Treasurer and Executive Vice President.  It also spends $25 million per year employing a small army of staff, with a range of salaries ranging from less than $10K to $186K.  The AFL-CIO is an umbrella group, with many other unions affiliated to it.  Most of those unions also pay their officers six figure salaries and employ a small army of staff.  The United Food and Commercial Workers, one of its larger affiliates, spends $4 million per year on officer pay, including $298K on the President, $243K on the Secretary-Treasurer, and around $200K each for 15 Vice Presidents.  It spends $22 million per year on paid staff, including 7 department directors who are each paid around $150K to be bosses of other, lower paid, staff.

If we look at the Service Employees International Union, one of the larger unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, we see a similar pattern.  It spends $1.7 million on its officers, including $266K for its President, $235K for its Secretary-Treasurer, and around $200K each for 6 executive Vice Presidents.  It, too, employs an army of hired staff, spending $47 million per year. Pay ranges from less than $20k for organizers in training to around $150K for directors and most of the lawyers.

The use of paid labor by unions, both by paying elected officers and by hiring unelected staff, is thus widespread today.  More than one person has chosen to make a career out of working for organized labor, and some of them are able to make significantly more than the average worker by doing so.  The disparity between the pay of workers and union leaders has never been as great as the disparity between the pay of workers and business leaders, but it is nonetheless significant. 

This practice of labor unions has not existed forever.  For most of the nineteenth century, officers were typically unpaid or poorly paid, and hired staff was rare.  The early labor historian and economist David Saposs wrote about early labor unions:

On occasion of a strike, a “tramping committee” would be selected to visit the various places of employment in order to “see that the journeymen are honest to the cause.”  It seems that the Philadelphia cordwainers found this method inefficient and “thought it requisite to take one man instead of three for the tramping committee, and paid him.”  Hence, as early as 1799, they introduced the paid walking delegate.  This is the only instance of the kind.  In other strikes, unpaid committees were used.

The use of paid labor by labor unions in the United States is thus as old as organized labor, going all the way back to 1799.  However, it was used on a limited basis; the labor movement as a whole relied predominately upon volunteer labor.  Working for a labor union didn’t truly become a viable long-term career option until the start of the twentieth century.  This article is the first in a series that will trace how the labor movement went from volunteer-driven to staff-driven, why union positions became careers, how that profession changed over time, and how the bureaucratization of labor unions influenced their behavior.

If we examine the constitutions of early typographical unions, all of them either did not pay their officers or only paid them a small amount, not enough to make a career out of.  The first constitution of the Philadelphia Typographical Society, adopted in 1802, provided for $1 per month pay for the Secretary “at the discretion of the board.”  One dollar per month would be about $25 per month in 2021 dollars.  All other positions were unpaid, and there were no provisions made for hiring staff.  The constitution of the Nashville Typographical Society, founded in 1837, stated, “in consideration of the ordinary duties of his office, the secretary shall be exempt from the payment of his monthly installments.”  Other than exempting the Secretary from paying dues, no provision was made to pay officers, let alone hire staff.  The constitution of the Baltimore union, established in 1832, stated that the Secretary was “exonerated from the payment of monthly dues, and allowed 50 cents [$12.29 in 2021 dollars] for each meeting.”  Other locals paid none of their officers, not even the Secretary.  Although they did not rely exclusively on volunteer labor, early Typographical locals generally made most positions unpaid, did not hire staff, and the few officers that were paid did not receive enough to make it a full-time job.

Antebellum Labor Movement

In the 1830s workers responded to industrialization, the growth of economic inequality, and a decline in social mobility by joining the labor movement in unprecedented numbers.  In early American factories, the vast majority of workers were girls & young women, who organized several strikes in the 1830s.  Many were staged without a formal organization, but working women in Lowell, Massachusetts formed a labor union, the Lowell Factory Girls Association, during the 1836 strike. Its constitution stated that the officers were “a President, Vice President, a Recording Secretary, a Corresponding Secretary, a Treasurer, a Collector, and a Prudential Committee.” All were unpaid, and no staff was hired. Money was used to aid strikers, not employ people. The association was founded during a successful strike, and faded away after its conclusion.

Outside the factories, male craft workers also joined the labor movement in unprecedented numbers. Since they had the vote, they initially formed working men’s parties, but that effort failed and they turned towards labor organizations instead. Local unions proliferated, and eventually led to the founding of the first national unions in the mid-1830s. These national unions often sought to create national price lists, standardize rules limiting the number of apprentices, encourage local unions to give each other financial aid during strikes, and circulate lists of rats & expelled members, but local unions retained a great deal of autonomy and remained the primary focus of action. Both local and national unions usually did not pay their officers, let alone hire staff. The National Typographical Association was founded in 1836 by a convention of delegates elected by local typographical unions. It had six officers (all unpaid) and no staff.

In 1837, the economy crashed and employers took advantage of high unemployment to crush the labor movement, easily replacing strikers and firing union members. All national labor unions were destroyed, and a great many union locals also ceased to exist. Although workers lobbied for the ten-hour day and were involved in reform and socialist efforts during the 1840s, organized labor did not revive, almost from scratch, until the later part of the decade.

As part of that revival, the printers re-founded their national union in 1851, with a new constitution, and now named the National Typographical Union. It would rename itself the International Typographical Union in 1869, after Canadian locals affiliated, and had the status of being America’s oldest labor union until its dissolution in the 1980s. Although it would later make use of paid labor, when founded it did not pay its officers and had no paid staff.  For the first half of the nineteenth century, the heavy reliance on volunteer labor by labor unions continued to be the norm.

Reconstruction-Era Labor Movement

From 1864 through the early 1870s, workers again began joining labor unions in unprecedented numbers. They again founded many national labor unions, this time putting more effort into national-level organizing and organizing national unions for far more occupations. In 1866, they founded an umbrella federation, the National Labor Union, which later spun off another umbrella federation, the Colored National Labor Union, after a split. It became more common for unions to pay their officers, but it was still done only on a limited basis and hiring staff remained uncommon.

The young cigar maker Samuel Gompers, who would later become a major labor leader, joined the labor movement during this time period. In his memoirs, he noted, “at that time there were few salaried officers in the labor movement who were paid for services rendered.”

One of the largest unions of this era, the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin, reached 50-60,000 members at its height, making it the largest union in the country and larger than any previous labor organization. The KoSC organized male shoe workers; female shoe workers had their own union, the Daughters of St. Crispin. When founded, they paid their Grand Scribe (secretary) an annual salary of $1,000 and the Grand Treasurer $300 per year; that works out to salaries of $19,400 and $5,800 in 2021 US dollars. They also elected seven other officers, none of whom received an annual salary. However, the KoSC’s original constitution stated, “the officers of this lodge, except the GS, who shall receive only mileage and board, when on special duty, shall be allowed mileage, board, and compensation not exceeding three dollars per day.” In 1871, they amended their constitution to provide convention delegates a five dollar per diem ($97 in 2021 dollars) for mileage, but they remained otherwise unpaid.  In 1872 they further amended the constitution to reduce the Grand Scribe’s pay to $700/year (about $15K in today’s dollars) and give the Grand Sir Knight (President) a $200/year ($4.3K) salary, along with additional responsibilities. 

Whenever a new lodge (local) was chartered, the KoSC would send a trainer “to instruct and obligate the membership.” The trainer was an unpaid volunteer, but the constitution required “all necessary expenses of such deputy shall be paid from the Treasury of the [international] Grand Lodge.” Experienced members were thus able to train newer members and help get new lodges off the ground without relying on staff.

Organizer was not a position within the KoSC, paid or otherwise. Instead, their constitution made it “the duty of every member” with co-workers not in the union to “use his utmost endeavors to induce” those coworkers to join the union. In effect, all members with non-union co-workers were expected to be volunteer organizers. “Every member an organizer” was a common policy held by many labor unions prior to the 1880s.

The KoSC used paid labor more than most labor unions in the first half of the nineteenth century, but still on a relatively limited basis. Only the Grand Scribe made enough that he could potentially turn his office into a full-time job, and even he was not paid generously. Other national officer positions were at most part-time jobs. The Grand Treasurer and, later, the Grand Sir Knight were paid small salaries, and all officers could get paid $3 ($58 in 2021 dollars) per day if needed for special duty. Special duty would work out to the equivalent of a $14K salary if they did it five days a week, but special duty not that frequent so it was more of a part-time job. Working for labor unions was still something one might do on the side, or as a temporary diversion from one’s other job, rather than a viable long-term career.


Whether in the Typographers, the Crispins, or other unions, the position of Secretary (or its equivalent) was the most likely to be paid, and tended to be paid better than other positions. This position was generally responsible for most administrative work required by the union, such as maintaining member lists, taking care of all paperwork, keeping records, and conducting correspondence. The nature of this work is such that it can be difficult to distribute it to multiple volunteers, and requires skills that can be improved by spending more time doing it. It can therefore be advantageous to the union to pay a single person to spend time doing administrative labor.

Although unions experimented with paying a member to aid strikes and/or organize new members, this practice was less successful and ended up not being done as often. Workers on strike have ample time to conduct anti-scab actions themselves (as they are not at work during the strike) and money paid to officers (or staff) is money not available for the strike fund. Paying a union member to organize new members can allow them to devote more time to it (if they no longer have to hold down a day job) and make it easier to travel across the country for organizing purposes compared to relying on volunteer member-organizers. However, it also means they lose knowledge about the workplaces they are organizing and no longer have relationships with co-workers at the targeted workplaces. Unlike volunteers, full-time organizers cannot be fired by the employer for organizing but are more vulnerable to legal or violent repression (it is easier to assault or arrest a single organizer than a crowd of angry workers). Unions prior to 1878 were more likely to pay members to do administrative labor as secretary than other kinds of work because, in the latter case, there was no clear advantage to relying on paid labor over volunteers.

The history of the labor movement before 1878 shows that a labor organization with a minimal level of paid officers and no staff is viable. The current practice of unions paying their officers lavish salaries and relying heavily on staff has not existed forever, nor is it inevitable. Labor organizations do not have to rely on staff to organize or do most other activities; they can choose to rely heavily on volunteers for organizing and most other tasks. Another union is possible.

Robin J. Cartwright is a former labor historian, with a PhD in late-nineteenth century U.S. working class history. He is a member of the IWW and a former elected department representative of the Communication Workers of America.

The second article in this series will examine the first labor union in the United States to use paid officers and staff on a large scale, the Order of the Knights of Labor.