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Knights of Labor

Knights of Labor

Overview
The Knights of Labor (officially "Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor") was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. Its most important leader was Terence Powderly. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman, rejected Socialism and radicalism, demanded the six-hour day, and promoted the producers ethic of republicanism
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

.
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Encyclopedia
The Knights of Labor (officially "Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor") was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. Its most important leader was Terence Powderly. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman, rejected Socialism and radicalism, demanded the six-hour day, and promoted the producers ethic of republicanism
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

. In some cases it acted as a labor union, negotiating with employers, but it was never well organized, and after a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s, it suddenly lost its new members and became a small operation again.

It was established in 1869, reached 28,000 members in 1880, then jumped to 100,000 in 1885. Then it mushroomed to nearly 700,000 members in 1886, but its frail organizational structure could not cope and it was battered by charges of failure and violence. Most members abandoned the movement in 1886-87, leaving at most 100,000 in 1890. Remnants of the Knights of Labor continued in existence until 1949, when the group's last 50-member local dropped its affiliation.

Origins


On December 1869, seven members of the Philadelphia tailors' union, headed by Uriah Smith Stephens
Uriah Smith Stephens
Uriah Smith Stephens was a U.S. labor leader. He led nine Philadelphia garment workers to found the Knights of Labor in 1869, a more successful early national union....

 and James L. Wright, established a secret union under the name the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. The collapse of the National Labor Union
National Labor Union
The National Labor Union was the first national labor federation in the United States. Founded in 1866 and dissolved in 1873, it paved the way for other organizations, such as the Knights of Labor and the AF of L . It was led by William H...

 in 1873, left a vacuum for workers looking for organization. The Knights became better organized with a national vision when they replaced Stephens with Terence V. Powderly
Terence V. Powderly
Terence Vincent "Terry" Powderly was born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants. He was a highly visible national spokesman for the working man as head of the Knights of Labor from 1879 until 1893...

. The body became popular with Pennsylvania coal miners during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, then it grew rapidly.

As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began not only to emphasize cooperative enterprises, but to initiate strike
Strike action
Strike action, also called labour strike, on strike, greve , or simply strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became...

s to win concessions from employers. Powderly opposed strikes as a "relic of barbarism," but the size and the diversity of the Knights afforded local assemblies a great deal of autonomy.

Though initially averse to strikes as a method to advance their goals, the Knights aided various strikes and boycott
Boycott
A boycott is an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for political reasons...

s. Their greatest victory was in the Union Pacific Railroad
Union Pacific Railroad
The Union Pacific Railroad , headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, is the largest railroad network in the United States. James R. Young is president, CEO and Chairman....

 strike in 1884. The Wabash Railroad
Wabash Railroad
The Wabash Railroad was a Class I railroad that operated in the mid-central United States. It served a large area, including trackage in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and Ontario. Its primary connections included Chicago, Illinois, Kansas City, Missouri, Detroit,...

 strike in 1885 was also a significant success, as Powderly finally supported what became a successful strike on Jay Gould
Jay Gould
Jason "Jay" Gould was a leading American railroad developer and speculator. He has long been vilified as an archetypal robber baron, whose successes made him the ninth richest American in history. Condé Nast Portfolio ranked Gould as the 8th worst American CEO of all time...

's Wabash Line. Gould met with Powderly and agreed to call off his campaign against the Knights of Labor, which had caused the turmoil originally. These positive developments gave momentum and a surge of members, so by 1886, the Knights had over 700,000 members.

Ideology


The Knights primary demand was for an eight hour day; they also called for legislation to end child and convict labor
Penal labour
Penal labour is a form of unfree labour in which prisoners perform work, typically manual labour. The work may be light or hard, depending on the context. Forms of sentence which involve penal labour include penal servitude and imprisonment with hard labour...

. They were eager supporters of cooperatives
Worker cooperative
A worker cooperative is a cooperative owned and democratically managed by its worker-owners. This control may be exercised in a number of ways. A cooperative enterprise may mean a firm where every worker-owner participates in decision making in a democratic fashion, or it may refer to one in which...

.

The Knights of Labor had a mixed history of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, accepting women and blacks (after 1878) and their employers as members, and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies, but tolerating the segregation
Racial segregation
Racial segregation is the separation of humans into racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a public toilet, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home...

 of assemblies in the South. Bankers, doctors, lawyers, stockholders, and liquor manufacturers were excluded because they were considered unproductive members of society. Asians were also excluded, and in November 1885, a branch of the Knights in Tacoma, Washington
Tacoma, Washington
Tacoma is a mid-sized urban port city and the county seat of Pierce County, Washington, United States. The city is on Washington's Puget Sound, southwest of Seattle, northeast of the state capital, Olympia, and northwest of Mount Rainier National Park. The population was 198,397, according to...

 worked to expel the city's Chinese, who amounted to nearly a tenth of the overall city population at the time. The Knights were also responsible for race riots that resulted in the deaths of about 28 Chinese Americans in the Rock Springs massacre
Rock Springs Massacre
The Rock Springs massacre, also known as the Rock Springs Riot, occurred on September 2, 1885, in the present-day United States city of Rock Springs, Wyoming, in Sweetwater County...

 in Wyoming, and an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre
Thibodaux massacre
The Thibodaux Massacre was a violent labor dispute and racial attack in Thibodaux, Louisiana in November 1887. Although the number of casualties is unknown, at least 35 and as many as three hundred workers were killed, making it one of the most violent labor disputes in U.S. history...

 in Louisiana. The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law
Contract Labor Law
The 1885 Contract Labor Law was an act to prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States, its Territories, and the District of Columbia.- Background :...

 of 1885, as did many other labor groups, although the group did accept most others, including skilled and unskilled women of any profession.

Decline


Membership declined with the problems of an autocratic structure, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes. Disputes between the skilled trade unionists (also known as craft unionists
Craft unionism
Craft unionism refers to organizing a union in a manner that seeks to unify workers in a particular industry along the lines of the particular craft or trade that they work in by class or skill level...

) and the industrial unionists
Industrial unionism
Industrial unionism is a labor union organizing method through which all workers in the same industry are organized into the same union—regardless of skill or trade—thus giving workers in one industry, or in all industries, more leverage in bargaining and in strike situations...

 weakened the organization. The top leadership did not believe that strikes were an effective way to up the status of the working people, and failed to develop the infrastructure that was necessary to organize and coordinate the hundreds of strikes, walkouts, and job actions spontaneously erupting among the membership. The Knights failed in the highly visible Missouri Pacific strike in 1886
Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886
The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1885 was a labor union strike against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads involving more than 200,000 workers. In March 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest United States conducted an unsuccessful strike against railroads owned by Jay Gould,...

.

The Haymarket Riot of May 1886 came during a strike by the Knights in Chicago, and although violence was not planned, the Knights were very badly tarnished nationwide with the image of violence and anarchy. They lost many craft unionists that year to the rival Railroad brotherhoods
Railroad brotherhoods
The Railroad brotherhoods are labor unions of railroad workers in the United States. They first appeared in 1863 and they are still active. Until recent years they were independent of each other and of the American Federation of Labor.-1863-1920:...

 and the new American Federation of Labor
American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...

, which had more conservative reputations. Efforts to run labor candidates proved a failure in numerous elections in 1886-89. By 1890, the Knights had declined to fewer than 100,000 members. At the same time, the organization gave political support to the People's Party. Terence Powderly was replaced as Grand Master Workman by James Sovereign in 1893. Two years later, members of the Socialist Labor Party left the Knights to found the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance
Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance
The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance - commonly abbreviated STLA or ST&LA - was a revolutionary socialist labor union in the United States closely linked to the Socialist Labor Party , which existed from 1895 until becoming a part of the Industrial Workers of the World at its founding in 1905.The...

 as a Marxist rival. Membership was reduced to 17,000. In 1895, the Knights of Labor fought two NYS National Guard Brigades in the streets of Brooklyn, while the "Trolley Strike" of 1895 raged from Jan 14 - Feb 28 1895. During that time, the City of Brooklyn, NY was placed under Martial Law. A Special Committee Of The State Assembly was appointed "To Investigate The Causes Of The Strike Of The Surface Railroads In The City Of Brooklyn", April,1895 pp 3–6. The majority of New York City's District Assembly 49 joined the Industrial Workers of the World
Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international union. At its peak in 1923, the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict...

 at its 1905 foundation. Although by 1900, it was virtually nonexistent as a labor union, the Knights maintained a central office until 1917 and held conventions until 1932. At least a few local assemblies lasted until 1949.

The Order was brought to Australia
Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 around 1890. The Freedom Assembly, which operated in Sydney
Sydney
Sydney is the most populous city in Australia and the state capital of New South Wales. Sydney is located on Australia's south-east coast of the Tasman Sea. As of June 2010, the greater metropolitan area had an approximate population of 4.6 million people...

 during the tumultuous period of 1891-93, had as members well-known Australian labor movement
Australian labour movement
The Australian labour movement has its origins in the early 19th century and includes both trade unions and political activity. At its broadest, the movement can be defined as encompassing the industrial wing, the unions in Australia, and the political wing, the Australian Labor Party and minor...

 people such as William Lane
William Lane
William Lane was a journalist, advocate of Australian labour politics and a utopian.-Early life:Lane was born in Bristol, England, eldest son of James Lane,from Ireland a Protestant Master Gardener , and his English wife Caroline, née Hall...

, Ernie Lane, WG Spence, Arthur Rae and George Black. A similar assembly operated in Melbourne.

Legacy


Though often overlooked, the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest song
Protest song
A protest song is a song which is associated with a movement for social change and hence part of the broader category of topical songs . It may be folk, classical, or commercial in genre...

s in America. The Knights frequently included music in their regular meetings, and encouraged local members to write and perform their work. In Chicago, James and Emily Talmadge, printers and supporters of the Knights of Labor, published the songbook "Labor Songs Dedicated to the Knights of Labor" (1886). The song "Hold the Fort" [also "Storm the Fort"], a Knights of Labor pro-labor revision of the hymn by the same name, became the most popular labor song prior to Ralph Chaplin
Ralph Chaplin
Ralph Hosea Chaplin was an American writer, artist and labor activist. At the age of seven, he saw a worker shot dead during the Pullman strike in Chicago, Illinois. He had moved with his family from Ames, Kansas to Chicago in 1893...

's IWW anthem "Solidarity Forever
Solidarity Forever
"Solidarity Forever", written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, is perhaps the most famous union anthem. It is sung to the tune of "John Brown's Body" and is inspired by "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". Although it was written as a song for the Industrial Workers of the World , other union movements,...

". Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger
Peter "Pete" Seeger is an American folk singer and was an iconic figure in the mid-twentieth century American folk music revival. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, he also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of The Weavers, most notably their recording of Lead...

 often performed this song and it appears on a number of his recordings. Songwriter and labor singer Bucky Halker includes the Talmadge version, entitled "Labor's Battle Song," on his CD Don't Want Your Millions (Revolting Records 2000). Halker also draws heavily on the Knights songs and poems in his book on labor song and poetry, For Democracy, Workers and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865-1895 (University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Grand Master Workmen

  • Uriah Smith Stephens
    Uriah Smith Stephens
    Uriah Smith Stephens was a U.S. labor leader. He led nine Philadelphia garment workers to found the Knights of Labor in 1869, a more successful early national union....

     (1869–1879)
  • Terence V. Powderly
    Terence V. Powderly
    Terence Vincent "Terry" Powderly was born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants. He was a highly visible national spokesman for the working man as head of the Knights of Labor from 1879 until 1893...

     (1879–1893)
  • James Sovereign (1893–1901)
  • John Hayes
    John Hayes
    John Hayes may refer to:In academia:* John Hayes , British art historian and museum director, expert on GainsboroughIn entertainment:* John Hayes , American director of low-budget films...

     (1901–1917)

See also


  • Labor unions in the United States
    Labor unions in the United States
    Labor unions in the United States are legally recognized as representatives of workers in many industries. The most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police...

  • List of trade unions
  • Labor federation competition in the United States
  • Olivier-David Benoît
    Olivier-David Benoît
    Olivier-David Benoît was a shoemaker by trade and attained importance in history as a trade union leader....


Scholarly studies

  • Browne, Henry J. The Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1949.
  • Case, Theresa Ann. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor (2010) 1886
  • Commons, John R. et al., History of Labour in the United States: Volume 2, 1860-1896. (4 vol 1918). vol 2
  • Conell, Carol, and Kim Voss. "Formal Organization and the Fate of Social Movements: Craft Association and Class Alliance in the Knights of Labor," American Sociological Review Vol. 55, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 255–269 in JSTOR, focus on steel industry
  • Fink, Leon. "The New Labor History and the Powers of Historical Pessimism: Consensus, Hegemony, and the Case of the Knights of Labor," Journal of American History Vol. 75, No. 1 (Jun., 1988), pp. 115–136 in JSTOR, historiography
  • Fink, Leon/ Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • Grob, Gerald N. "The Knights of Labor and the Trade Unions, 1878-1886," Journal of Economic History Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jun., 1958), pp. 176–192 in JSTOR
  • Kaufman, Jason. "Rise and Fall of a Nation of Joiners: The Knights of Labor Revisited," Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 31, No. 4 (Spring, 2001), pp. 553–579 in JSTOR statistical study of competition with other unions and with fraternal societies for members
  • Levine, Susan. "Labor's True Woman: Domesticity and Equal Rights in the Knights of Labor," Journal of American History Vol. 70, No. 2 (Sep., 1983), pp. 323–339 in JSTOR
  • Levine, Susan. True Women: Carpet Weavers, Industrialization, and Labor Reform in the Gilded Age. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.
  • McLaurin, Melton Alonza. The Knights of Labor in the South. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.
  • Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (Greenwood, 2000), scholarly biography online edition
  • Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Sociological study.
  • Ware, Norman J. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860 - 1895: A Study In Democracy. (1929).
  • Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor. (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996) online edition
  • Weir, Robert E. (1997). A fragile alliance: Henry George and the Knights of Labor. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
    The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
    The American Journal of Economics and Sociology is a peer-reviewed academic journal established in 1941 by Will Lissner with support from the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. The purpose of the journal was to create a forum for a continuing discussion of the issues raised by Henry George, a...

    , 56,
    421-439.
  • Weir, Robert E. Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in Gilded Age Social Movement (Wayne State University Press, 2000)
  • Wright, Carroll D. "An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor," Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 1, no. 2 (January 1887), pp. 137–168. in JSTOR

Outside U.S.

  • Gregory Kealey and Brian Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982., shows that American workers in the window glass industry set up an English chapter in 1884 to watch the business in Europe; it remained small
  • Leon Watillon and Frederic Meyers, The Knights of Labor in Belgium. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978.



by Knights