The first systematic efforts to encourage international cooperation between trade unions most likely occurred in Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. Labor leaders there sought to develop alliances with trade unions from other countries for reasons that would be familiar to workers today. In part, suggests Lewis Lorwin in his pioneering work The International Labor Movement (1953), they sought to prevent the importation of strikebreakers from other countries. They also feared competition from foreign sweatshop labor and believed it was in their best interest to try to raise workers' wages throughout Europe. Some anticipated the increasing concentration of international capital and sought to develop alliances with foreign workers in the same industry so as to prevent international financiers and capitalists from playing workers in one country against those in another. Finally, some unions initiated contacts with unions from other countries for the practical reason that they needed financial assistance for their organizing or strike activities.
Most of these early efforts at international labor cooperation were suppressed by European governments or came to naught. It was only in 1864 that European workers successfully formed the International Working Men's Association, later known as the First International. Among the most influential members of the organization was Karl Marx, who wrote the preamble and rules, as well as an inaugural address that included the now famous appeal "Workmen of all countries, unite!" The organization grew slowly at first, and national delegates expressed a wide variety of viewpoints about questions of capitalism and collective ownership. As the organization expanded, however, it became increasingly dominated by Marxists. Eventually, an internal struggle developed between Marx and the Russian revolutionary and writer Michael Bakunin. After Bakunin was expelled, the First International's headquarters were transferred to New York City, where it declined rapidly and was finally dissolved at a meeting of the General Council in Philadelphia in 1876.
How American workers responded to these early European efforts at international labor cooperation is not entirely clear. The First International boasted some twenty-seven American sections representing several hundred U.S. workers, mostly immigrants. The short-lived National Labor Union, under the leadership of William Sylvis, also announced its attention to affiliate with the First International and to adhere to its principles. But no record has been unearthed of an official relationship between the First International and the more predominant Knights of Labor, which was created in 1869 and reached a peak membership of some 750,000 workers in the mid-1880s. Indeed, some Knights of Labor activists and leaders adopted a hostile attitude toward socialists like those who dominated the First International. Thus, historians have often treated the Knights as a uniquely American organization that developed in relative isolation from the European labor movement. They emphasize the importance of an ideology of labor republicanism within the Knights of Labor that drew on American political traditions rather than on European socialist and Marxist doctrines emphasizing international labor solidarity.
But the Knights may not have been as isolated from European political currents and internationalist activities as previously assumed. Leon Fink and Kim Voss note parallels between the Knights of Labor's condemnations of wage labor and emphasis on worker cooperatives, and the socialist critiques and programs promoted by European labor activists. They suggest that the Knights' emphasis on inclusive membership and broad-based, working-class solidarity across nationality lines was similar to that of other industrial labor organizations developing in Britain and France at the time. Eric Foner notes the importance of immigrants within local chapters of the Knights of Labor and illuminates their role in promoting an ethos of international labor solidarity upon which future generations could draw.
Particularly important, suggests Foner, was the influence of Irish-Americans within the Knights of Labor, for they brought with them an interest in the land question in Ireland. When Knights of Labor chapters faced opposition from hostile clergy and local governments in areas such as the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, Knights of Labor activists often met covertly under the guise of local Irish Land League chapters. A creative cross-breeding of Irish nationalist and American labor reform ideas resulted and frequently led workers to conceptualize their local trade union struggles as part of a worldwide struggle between the owning and producing classes. Terence Powderly, Knights of Labor "Grand Master Workman," embodied the inter-connections between class and ethnicity in shaping the international orientation of some Knights of Labor activists. Born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, of Irish immigrant parents, Powderly became active in both Irish and labor activities as a young man. During his tenure as grand master of the Knights of Labor, Powderly also served as vice president of the Irish Land League Council. Inevitably, the two causes became intertwined as Powderly used Knights conventions to publicize the linkages between the Irish land struggle and the class struggle in the United States. Although Knights of Labor activists advanced few actual international programs and developed few substantial ties with foreign labor movements, they thus sowed fertile ground for future immigrant labor activists who would develop an international labor vision that clashed fundamentally with that of the American Federation of Labor.