William Bauchop Wilson, the son of a coal miner, was born in Blantyre, Scotland, on 2nd April, 1862. His father, Adam Wilson, was an active trade unionist and in 1868 his family was evicted from their company-owned house. Blacklisted, Wilson was unable to find work in Scotland and in 1870 the family emigrated to the United States.
The Wilson family settled in Arnot, Tioga County, Pennsylvania. William's father was barely literate and they used to attend lessons together at Hugh Kerwin's cobbler shop. Wilson later wrote: "As I look back on the group of men that formed our little circle in the early days at Arnot, many of them classed as illiterate, I am still amazed at the knowledge they possessed of many religious, social, economic, political, historical and scientific questions, their wisdom and tolerance in discussing them, and their wide acquaintance with good literature. It was a splendid school for any boy to attend."
At the age of nine William began work with his father in the local coal mine. In 1874 the two men joined the Miners and Laborers Benevolent Association. When they went on the strike later that year the family were evicted from their company owned home. However, the miners won the dispute when it was agreed that in future they would have the freedom to shop at non-company stores. At the age of fourteen Wilson agreed to become secretary of the local Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association.
Wilson remained active in the union until he was sacked and blacklisted in 1882. Forced to leave Tioga County, Wilson worked as a lumber jack, wood chopper, bark peeler and a log driver. Later he found employment as a fireman on the Illinois Central Railroad and as a typesetter in Blossburg, Pennsylvania.
On 7th June, 1883, Wilson married Agnes Williamson. Over the next few years the couple had eleven children. During this period he worked for the Amalgamated Association of Miners and the Knights of Labor. In January 1890, he helped establish the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The following year he became a member of the UMWA's National Executive Board.
Wilson led the campaign to try to get a eight-hour workday. This brought him into conflict with the mine owners and he was arrested and imprisoned several times. Between July, 1899 and February, 1900, Wilson and Mary 'Mother' Jones led a bitter strike in Tioga County that led to a lockout and evictions from company-owned homes. Soon afterwards, John Mitchell, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, appointed Wilson as Secretary-Treasurer of the organization.
Wilson was member of the Democratic Party and in November 1906 was elected to Congress for the 15th Congressional District (Lycoming, Clinton, Potter and Tioga counties). Soon after his election Wilson introduced a bill to appoint a committee to investigate mining disasters. This committee eventually developed into the Bureau of Mines and Mining.
Reelected in November 1908, Wilson served on the Committee on Patents and the Committee on Ventilation and Acoustics during his second term in Congress. He also served on the committee that organized the 1910 Census. After the 1910 election Wilson was appointed chairman of the Labor Committee. However, Wilson lost the 1912 election when the Socialist Party candidate split the left-wing vote.
On 4th March 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Wilson as America's first Secretary of Labor. During the First World War Wilson had the task of coordinating the movement of 6 million workers from non-essential to essential industries. He was also a member of America's Council of National Defense.
In 1917 the American government became concerned about the conviction and imprisonment of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. Both men were trade union activists in San Francisco, and it was claimed they had not received a fair trial. Wilson delegated John Densmore, the Director of General Employment, to investigate the case. By secretly installing a dictaphone in the private office of the District Attorney it was discovered that Mooney and Billings had been framed by Charles Fickert and Martin Swanson.
The report was leaked to Fremont Older who published it in the San Francisco Call on 23rd November 1917. There were protests all over the world about this miscarriage of justice and President Woodrow Wilson called on William Stephens, the Governor of California, to look again at the case. Two weeks before Tom Mooney was scheduled to hang, Stephens commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in San Quentin. However, the two men remained in prison for another twenty-two years.
After leaving office in March 1921 Wilson became a member of the International Joint Commission created to prevent disputes regarding the use of the boundary waters between the United States and Canada.
William Bauchop Wilson died on 25th May, 1934.