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Knights of Labor

KNIGHTS OF LABOR

KNIGHTS OF LABOR. The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor reached a peak membership of around 700,000 in the mid-1880s, making it the largest and most important labor organization in nineteenth-century America. The complexities of its organization, ideology, and activities reflected the problems that afflicted the American labor movement. Antebellum working-class involvement with fraternal orders, such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, inspired associations like the Mechanics' Mutual Protection Association and the Brotherhood of the Union. From the Civil War and the panic of 1873 emerged new clandestine labor organizations, including the shoemakers' Knights of St. Crispin and the miners' "Molly Maguires," along with the broader Sovereigns of Industry, Industrial Brotherhood, and Junior Sons of '76. The Knights of Labor eventually subsumed all of these.

Long a hotbed of such activities, the Philadelphia needle trades built the Garment Cutters' Union during the Civil War. On 28 December 1869, Uriah Stephens gathered a handful of workers in that craft to launch the Knights of Labor. Members paid a 50-cent initiation fee. Ten members could form an assembly, though at all times at least three-quarters of the assembly had to be wage earners. Initially, membership in the Knights expanded among Philadelphia textile workers, but in the mid-1870s it spread into western Pennsylvania and began recruiting large numbers of miners. Expansion into other trades required not only the "trade assembly" but the industrially nonspecific "local assembly." The presence of the order in different communities with growing numbers of organizations inspired the formation of a "district assembly" to coordinate the work.

After an insurrectionary railroad strike in 1877, the order assumed a more public presence, and membership expanded at an unprecedented pace. The Knights numbered nearly 9,300 in 1878; over 20,000 in 1879; over 28,000 in 1880; and almost 52,000 in 1883. With the radically expanding membership, new leaders like Terence V. Powderly displaced the old fraternalists like Stephens. This turnover in leadership represented a deeper ideological shift.

The Knights of Labor proclaimed the underlying unity of the condition of all who work and urged solidarity. They asserted the equal rights of women and included them in the order despite the often Victorian values of the leadership. Calling for the unity of brain and brawn—the solidarity of all who labor—the Knights essentially shaped the popular notion of class in American life. Notwithstanding national chauvinismand ethnic rivalries, the order organized assemblies of immigrants from across Europe and Jewish associations. By some estimates, as many as ninety-five thousand African Americans became Knights. Glaringly, however, the Knights established a terrible record regarding treatment of Chinese Americans, even defending the massacre of Chinese workers by white miners at Rock Springs, Wyoming.

The order pursued legislative and political means to undermine the "money power," banks and monopolies, and favored the legislation of an eight-hour day, equal pay for equal work, abolition of child labor and convict labor, and public ownership of utilities. On the other hand, in the midst of major third-party movements, the Knights struggled, usually without success, to remain aloof. Largely to placate the active hostility of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the leadership of the Knights explicitly denied an interest within the order in more radical politics.

These contradictions gave the Knights great power, yet largely predisposed the order to use its power in an uncoordinated and chaotic fashion. Railroad workers in the Knights in 1883 launched a series of strikes against the widely hated railroads that came to fruition in the southwestern strike of 1885 against the Jay Gould interests. Powderly and the Knights successfully organized national boycotts in support of the strike movements. As a result of the consequent publicity and the temporary demise of third-party politics, the Knights expanded to massive proportions, attaining 110,000 members by July 1885 and over 700,000 members by October 1886. By then, the movement embraced virtually every current in the American labor movement. Some thought the strike, wage agreements, boycott, and cooperatives were sufficient. The order avoided support of the 1886 eight-hour-day strike movement and remained ambiguous about nonpolitical means of attaining its goals.

Members of the trades assemblies, including printers, molders, cigar makers, carpenters, glassworkers, ironworkers, and steelworkers, combined into the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) in 1881. Although initially cooperative with the concerns of these trade unionists, the leadership of the Knights became increasingly cautious even as their successes inspired intense opposition, and the FOTLU reorganized as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886. Membership in the Knights quickly fell to 100,000 by 1890, and neither its dalliance with populism nor interventions by the Socialist Labor Party kept it from plummeting during the twentieth century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Mark A.Lause

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Industrial Workers of the World ; Labor ; Strikes .

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Knights of Labor

KNIGHTS OF LABOR


An American labor union, the Knights of Labor organization was founded in 1869 as a secretive fraternal society (the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A garment worker Uriah Stephens (18211882) and several of his colleagues banded together and opened membership to anyone except physicians, lawyers, bankers, professional gamblers, stockbrokers, and liquor dealers. After a relatively slow start in the depressed economy of the 1870s, when it spread mostly to coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania, the Knights of Labor's membership grew dramatically from fewer than 10,000 members in 1879 to 730,000 members in 1886. Recruiting women, blacks, immigrants, as well as unskilled and semiskilled workers alike, the Knights of Labor began working for reforms, including better wages, hours, and working conditions. The open-membership policy provided the organization with a broad base of support, something previous labor unions, which had limited membership based on craft or skill, lacked.

At a general meeting of its members in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1878, the organization set its objectives. It wanted an eight-hour workday, prohibition of child labor (under age fourteen), equal opportunities and wages for women laborers, and an end to convict labor. The group became involved in numerous strikes from the late-1870s to the mid-1880s. At the same time, a faction of moderates within the organization was growing, and in 1883 it elected American machinist Terence Powderly (18491924) as president. Under Powderly's leadership, the Knights of Labor began to splinter. Moderates pursued a conciliatory policy in labor disputes, supporting the establishment of labor bureaus and public arbitration systems. Radicals not only opposed the policy of open membership, they strongly supported strikes as a means of achieving immediate goalsincluding a one-day general strike to demand implementation of an eight-hour workday.

Violence that sometimes attended labor strikes not only hurt the cause of organized labor in the country, it further divided the Knights: In May 1886, workers demonstrating in Chicago's Haymarket Square attracted a crowd of some 1,500 people; when police arrived to disperse them, a bomb exploded and rioting ensued. Eleven people were killed and more than a thousand were injured in the melee. For many Americans, the event linked the labor movement with anarchy. That same year several factions of the Knights of Labor seceded from the union to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Knights of Labor remained intact for three more decades, before the organization officially dissolved in 1917, by which time the group had been overshadowed by the AFL and other unions.

See also: Haymarket Bombing, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Terence Powderly, Strike

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Knights of Labor

Knights of Labor, American labor organization, started by Philadelphia tailors in 1869, led by Uriah S. Stephens. It became a body of national scope and importance in 1878 and grew more rapidly after 1881, when its earlier secrecy was abandoned. Organized on an industrial basis, with women, black workers (after 1883), and employers welcomed, excluding only bankers, lawyers, gamblers, and stockholders, the Knights of Labor aided various groups in strikes and boycotts, winning important strikes on the Union Pacific in 1884 and on the Wabash RR in 1885. But failure in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 and the Haymarket Square riot (for which it was, although not responsible, condemned by the press) caused a loss of prestige and strengthened factional disputes between the craft unionists and the advocates of all-inclusive unionism. With the motto "an injury to one is the concern of all," the Knights of Labor attempted through educational means to further its aims—an 8-hour day, abolition of child and convict labor, equal pay for equal work, elimination of private banks, cooperation—which, like its methods, were highly idealistic. The organization reached its apex in 1886, when under Terence V. Powderly its membership reached a total of 702,000. Among the causes of its downfall were factional disputes, too much centralization with a resulting autocracy from top to bottom, mismanagement, drainage of financial resources through unsuccessful strikes, and the emergence of the American Federation of Labor. By 1890 its membership had dropped to 100,000, and in 1900 it was practically extinct.

See P. S. Foner and R. L. Lewis, ed., Black Worker: The Era of the Knights of Labor (1979).

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"Knights of Labor." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 30 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Knights of Labor." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/knights-labor