During the 18th and 19th centuries, footwear and leather workers were known as cordwainers, and it was under that name that they first organized. In 1794, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers was founded. The cordwainers organized the first labor strike in North America in 1804. In the years following the strike, six cases of criminal conspiracy were brought against the union. The nature of the conspiracy was recorded as a “combination to raise their wages.” The union was found guilty of these crimes by a Philadelphia jury in 1806.
The beginnings of mechanization in the U.S. threatened the craftsmen who worked primarily with their hands. In an effort to regulate machinery use, workers organized the Knights of St. Crispin. However, the speed and efficiency of new technology proved to be a very powerful adversary.
In 1895, the largest shoe unions along with a number of independent locals joined to form the Boot and Shoe Workers Union (BSWU), which went on to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor in 1895.
The BSWU continued to thrive until the late 1960s when an import wave of foreign-made footwear from low-earning countries began seriously affecting the union’s growth. The situation only worsened during the 1970s when more imports caused more than 200 companies to go out of business and cost the jobs of more than 70,000 workers. As union membership declined, the resources imperative for the union’s organizing campaigns also decreased, leaving the union with few choices. Although the BSWU’s decision to merge with the UFCW came out of necessity, that merger has helped lend strength and unity to protect workers who remained in the U.S. industry.