In 1870, switchmen employed on railroads in the Chicago area worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $50.00. Helpless in bargaining with their employers individually, they banded together in August of that year to form the Switchmen’s Association.

In 1886, switchmen met in Chicago and formed the Switchmen’s Mutual Aid Association, but a lockout on the Chicago Northwestern Railroad and a disastrous strike in 1888 on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad ended the Association in July 1894. Later that year, however, a meeting in Kansas City, Mo., led to the establishment of the Switchmen’s Union of North America.