Knights of Labor

views updated


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.


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 .

Knights of Labor

views updated

Knights of Labor

Many issues led to the labor disputes of the Gilded Age (the period following the American Civil War [1861–65] and Reconstruction, roughly the last twenty-three years of the nineteenth century): prejudice against immigrants; greed of big business owners versus the rights of workers; and social class distinction. American and immigrant workers were willing to risk their lives to form labor unions (formally organized association of workers that advance their members’ views on wages, work hours, and labor conditions). Without the unions, and sometimes even with them, it was difficult to demand and enforce workers’ rights.

Pennsylvania saw particularly intense labor union efforts. As far back as the 1790s, shoemakers in Philadelphia had joined efforts to fix prices and keep out cheap competition. In the 1820s, a mechanics union was formed. In 1869, one of the most powerful labor unions ever formed was organized in Philadelphia. Under the leadership of Uriah S. Stephens (1821–1882), nine tailors established the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL). The KOL differed from previous unions in that it allowed both unskilled and skilled laborers to join. Prior to the Industrial

Revolution, a period of time during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when rapid industrial growth caused a shift in focus from agriculture to industry, most laborers were skilled craftsmen. But with the invention of machinery that could do the work of many men, businesses did not need to hire (or continue to pay the wages for) as many skilled laborers. Much of the workforce of the late nineteenth century was unskilled. The KOL also welcomed women and African Americans into its ranks. During its early years, the KOL met in secrecy. By the 1880s, it had become a national force.

Among other goals, the KOL negotiated for an eight-hour work day (ten- or twelve-hour shifts had been the norm), an end to child labor , equal pay for equal work (which meant that regardless of sex and race, people who performed the same task would be paid the same wage), and an income tax that would require higher taxes to be paid by those who earned more. The KOL also pressed for the government to take control of the telegraph and railroad industries to end price gouging (overcharging) by private businessmen.

Terence V. Powderly

In September 1879, machinist and union organizer Terence V. Powderly (1849–1924) became grand master workman, the highest position in the KOL. Powderly was an Irishman living in Pennsylvania. In addition to being a laborer, he practiced law and managed a grocery store.

The small Powderly did not fit the image of a strong union leader, but he had good political skills and kept his grand master position for fourteen years. Powderly was a skilled public speaker, able to inspire his listeners and move them to action. His vision for the KOL had the skilled worker defending the unskilled worker as well. That blend of skill levels was one of the reasons the KOL attracted so many members, but it was also one of the main reasons for its end.

Most skilled workers did not want to join forces with the unskilled because they felt they had nothing to gain from such an alliance. That is why traditional labor unions did not allow unskilled workmen to join. It was only a matter of time before the traditional unions pitted themselves against the KOL.

The KOL played important roles in a number of strikes throughout the winter of 1883–84. In 1885 they found themselves involved in a major railroad strike. Financier Jay Gould (1836–1892) owned and controlled much of the Southwest railroad system, including the Wabash line. Gould was known for his unethical business tactics, which included blackmail (demanding money in exchange for withholding potentially damaging information). Workers of the Wabash line, some of whom were KOL members, were not happy with their work situation and went on strike. Without them, Gould's entire system could not operate. He was forced to deal with the KOL, and the KOL's victory over the railroad's most celebrated businessman earned them the leadership of the labor movement. Total membership increased, and Powderly was the undisputed king of labor. The honor proved to be short-lived.

Because the KOL was open to all workers, its membership grew rapidly. In 1884, fifty thousand laborers were members. By 1886, that number had jumped to seven hundred thousand. Membership was open to all craft and trade occupations, such as machinist, blacksmith, and carpenter. Workers in the professional sector, such as lawyers and doctors, could not join.

Membership in the KOL declined steadily after 1886 for various reasons. Labor strikes had become violent and mostly unsuccessful. In addition, other labor unions formed and took members away from the KOL. By 1900, the KOL had almost completely disbanded.

Knights of Labor

views updated


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

Knights of Labor

views updated


A U.S. labor organization founded in 1869 at Philadelphia, Pa., by Uriah S. Stephens (182182); it was the most successful effort of its kind up to that time and exercised maximum influence from 1877 to 1887. In 1871 Stephens, an abolitionist who had studied for the Baptist ministry before becoming a tailor and labor leader, adopted the name Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor for his secret organization. Ten years later the order dropped "Noble and Holy" from its official title, eliminated its oath of secrecy, and revised its ritual. Combining advanced social theories with practical objectives, the Knights advocated laws for improved safety regulation, mechanics' liens, the eight-hour workday, public ownership of utilities, and the regulation of child labor. Convict leasing was opposed. Although arbitration, instead of strikes, was advanced strongly, a strike fund was soon started. Women were encouraged to organize, and equal pay for both sexes for equal work was advocated. The order's stated objective was the organization of every department of productive industry; it became an advocate of industrial union, in contrast with its earlier emphasis on craft unions. The Knights were committed also to a system of producer cooperatives, an activity that proved unprofitable and contributed to the eventual decline of the organization. After Terence Vincent Powderly succeeded Stephens as grand master workman of the order (1879), membership increased to 700,000 (1886), and the Knights emerged successful in a number of strikes, including that against the Missouri Pacific railroad. However, the Chicago Haymarket Square riot in May 1886 was used widely to discredit the Knights, although they took no part in it.

The attitude of Catholic clergy was an important factor in the rising and waning fortunes of the organization. Many parish priests, fearing possible socialistic or violent influences, often opposed such unions. The Knights were condemned by the hierarchy of Canada on the grounds of secrecy, but Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, Md., was convinced of the merits of labor organizations and obtained assurance against condemnation from Rome. In 1891 Leo XIII's encyclical rerum novarum

strongly supported the cardinal's position. When Powderly retired (1893), the Knights' difficulties with the Church had ceased; but other labor unions, more in touch with the changing times, were coming to the fore. In 1917 the Knights of Labor officially disbanded.

Bibliography: h. j. browne, Catholic University of America, Studies in American Church History: The Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor 38 (Washington 1949). n. j. ware, The Labor Movement in the United States, 18601895 (New York 1929). j. r. commons et al., eds., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, 10 v. (Cleveland 1909). j. t. ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, 2 v. (Milwaukee 1952).

[j. w. coleman]

About this article

Knights of Labor

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic