Powderly, Terence Vincent

views updated May 29 2018


Terence Powderly (18491924) was born in Pennsylvania in 1849 to a family of poor Irish immigrants. He rose to become one of the major leaders of U.S. industrial workers during the late nineteenth century. Becoming the leader of the Knights of Labor Union in 1879, his idealism created the first industrial union to admit all workers regardless of race or sex and enabled the birth and development of 135 worker and consumer cooperatives in the United States.

Born in 1849, Powderly did not begin his career as a labor leader. He started out in public office, serving three terms as mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He entered into union work seeking to abolish the capitalist wage system and institute a society where people would live by cooperation, rather than by seeking to gain from exploiting one another.

Powderly sought to lead laborers collectively towards this goal. He preferred to negotiate labor matters in a non-confrontational manner. Powderly hoped to bring harmony to industrial relations, stressing cooperation between workers and industries. With these ideals in mind, Powderly became leader of the Knights of Labor in 1879. Since the labor movement at that time was not open to conciliation and negotiation, Powderly found himself taking the union in a different direction.

Powderly led the Knights of Labor through a series of dramatically successful strikes in the 1880s, among them a victory against the U.S. railroad industry. The 1880s were the early days of the labor movement, and Powderly's victories encouraged union growth. Membership in the Knights of Labor rose from 100,000 to 700,000 in one year. Powderly continued to meet with success as a labor leader, establishing labor bureaus in several states and supporting contract-labor laws.

As time passed the popular union boss became ambivalent about leading a confrontational union, but despite his best attempts, the Knights of Labor continued to be more aggressive. Powderly, who saw himself as a man of peace, became uncomfortable with his position, and as a result, he began to distance himself from union involvement.

Powderly turned more of his attention to pursuits outside the labor movement. While still serving as head of the union, he studied law and served as a county health officer. He partly owned and managed a grocery store and served as vice president of the Irish Land League. He also sought a presidential appointment as the first U.S. Commissioner of Labor. Several times he threatened to resign from the union.

Resignation came in 1893, when a rural wing of the Knights of Labor moved aggressively to oust Powderly from the union leadership. This movement was supported by socialists, who sought open conflict with industrial owners and disagreed completely with Powderly's insistence on negotiation. By this time the union's strength was failing; its membership had dwindled to seventy-five.

Powderly was relieved to leave the union. He resigned at the age of forty-four and soon started a new career as a lawyer and civil servant. Putting his union leadership days behind him, he worked in several capacities as a civil servant with the U.S. Immigration Commission and the Department of Labor.

Terence Powderly died in 1924. His efforts as a labor leader, though often against his personal philosophy, encouraged workers to organize and change the workplace status quo. He continued to serve the public in his work outside the union until his death.

See also: Knights of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Trade Unions


Encyclopedia of American Biography, 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1996, s.v. "Powderly, Terence Vincent."

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998, s.v. "Powderly, Terence Vincent (18491924)."

Falzone, Vincent J. Terence V. Powderly, Middle Class Reformer. Washington: University Press of America, 1978.

Powderly, Terence Vincent. The Path I Trod; the Autobiography of Terence V. Powderly. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

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

Terence Vincent Powderly

views updated May 29 2018

Terence Vincent Powderly

American labor leader Terence Vincent Powderly (1849-1924) presided over the Knights of Labor during the union's remarkable growth and rapid decline in the 1880s.

Terence V. Powderly was born in Carbondale, Pa., on Jan. 22, 1849. His parents were Irish immigrants. At 13 he began work in a railroad yard. At 17 he apprenticed himself to a machinist and began to practice the trade in 1869 in the shops of the Delaware and Western Railroad in Scranton, Pa. Interested in labor unionism, he joined the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths in 1871 and, in 1874, was an organizer for the Industrial Brotherhood. That year he was initiated into the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, a small secret society centered on Philadelphia. Powderly organized the Knights' local assembly in Scranton and was elected its master workman in 1876; he was also an officer in district assembly no. 5.

In 1878, at the age of 29, Powderly was elected mayor of Scranton on the Greenback-Labor ticket. He was reelected three times. Meanwhile, in 1879, he was elected the Knights' grand master workman (general master workman after 1883). His accession marked a significant departure in Knights' policy. His predecessor, a Baptist, had been indifferent to the Catholic Church's opposition to the Knights. Powderly, although a Mason, was also a Roman Catholic and realized that the American Catholic hierarchy must be placated if the Knights were to flourish among Catholic workers. He persuaded the union to abandon its secrecy and to remove scriptural references from its ritual.

Powderly disapproved of strikes, considering them too costly for the small benefits gained. He was a humanitarian visionary, interested in the long-term goals of abolishing the wage system and instituting a cooperative society rather than in short-term gains. With his approval, various local assemblies of the Knights set up 135 producers' and consumers' cooperatives, including a coal mine.

However, as head of the union (1879-1893), Powderly had to devote much time to settling strikes the various locals became involved in. "Just think of it!" he wrote, "Opposing strikes and always striking … battling with my pen in the leading journals and magazines of the day for the great things we are educating the people on and fighting with might and main for the little things."

The Knights were involved in a series of dramatically successful strikes during the early 1880s. The most notable involved a strike against the railroads of financier Jay Gould. Such victories resulted in an incredible growth: in mid-1885 there were about 100, 000 Knights in 1, 610 local assemblies; a year later membership stood at 700, 000 in almost 6, 000 locals. Powderly was uncomfortable with such rapid growth, and his lack of enthusiasm in another strike against Gould (1886) contributed to the Knights' defeat and, ultimately, their decline. By 1893, when Powderly was ousted from his position, there were only 75,000 dues-paying members.

Part of Powderly's weakness as the union's leader was his interest in other than union affairs. During his first 6 years as grand master workman, he was also mayor of Scranton. He studied law, served as a county health officer, partly owned and managed a grocery store, served as vice president of the Irish Land League, tried to become the first U.S. commissioner of labor in 1884, took great interest in political campaigns, and was an active prohibitionist. Frequently complaining about the Knights' demand upon his time, he resigned once and threatened to resign several times.

In addition, Powderly was temperamentally unsuited to the industrial turmoil of the 1880s. Disliking strikes and other conflicts, he constantly looked forward to an age of cooperation. Nor did he look the part of a labor organizer. Slender, even frail, he wore delicate spectacles and a magnificent drooping mustache and dressed impeccably. His manners were formal, even haughty. He was considered something of a snob. Ultimately these qualities neutralized his competence as an organizer and administrator, his considerable abilities as a speaker and correspondent, and his tact and diplomacy.

After retiring from leadership of the Knights, Powderly practiced law and was named commissioner general of immigration (1897). He became chief of the Division of Information in the Immigration Bureau in 1907. He died on Jan. 24, 1924.

Further Reading

The basic sources for studying Powderly are his autobiographical Thirty Years of Labor, 1849-1924 (1889; rev. ed. 1890) and The Path I Trod: The Autobiography of Terence V. Powderly (1940). The most comprehensive discussion of Powderly is in Norman J. Ware, The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895 (1929). Information on Powderly can be found in any standard labor history of the period; the best is probably Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America (1949; 3d ed. 1966).

Additional Sources

Falzone, Vincent J., Terence V. Powderly, middle class reformer, Washington: University Press of America, 1978. □