The National Labor Union was the first organized labor movement in the U.S. It was led by one William Sylvis. The NLU's goal was to unite the various labor movements in the U.S. and create a national labor organization. The organization was largely responsible for the enactment of legislation creating the eight hour workday; however employers cut wages to compensate for the reduced hours, and worker's gains were minimal. Additionally, the NLU believed political activity was the key to reform, which did not appeal to many workers. It was unable to get its candidates elected, and most of its members deserted to join the Knights of Labor.
The Knights of Labor were organized much like a fraternal lodge. They were known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. They were not a true labor union, but rather sought to promote the culture of the working man. They were largely disorganized which prevented them from succeeding to any great extent. The Knights were founded by Uriah S. Stephens, but their primary leader was Terrence Powderly. Powderly attempted to convert the Knights into a true labor union rather than a fraternity. Because they were so loosely organized, their goals differed in different areas of the country. Their lack of organization caused a loss of interest and membership ultimately declined.
The American Federation of Labor was founded in 1886 by Samuel L. Gompers. It was quite successful and remains effective today. Gompers worked to bring disparate labor movements together and to work for immediate reform of local problems rather than long range goals. The AFL was largely successful as members of other unions under its umbrella would support striking workers by refusing to cooperate with the struck employer. A prime example is the picket line which no union person will cross, even if he/she is a member of another union.