Knights of Labor - Definition, Goals and Leader

Knights of Labor - Definition, Goals and Leader

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

The Knights of Labor began as a secret society of tailors in Philadelphia in 1869. The organization grew slowly during the hard years of the 1870s, but worker militancy rose toward the end of the decade, especially after the great railroad strike of 1877, and the Knights’ membership rose with it.

Terence Powderly

Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly took office in 1879, and under his leadership the Knights flourished; by 1886 the group had 700,000 members. Powderly dispensed with the earlier rules of secrecy and committed the organization to seeking the eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work, and political reforms including the graduated income tax.

Unlike most trade unions of the day, the Knights’ unions were vertically organized–each included all workers in a given industry, regardless of trade. The Knights were also unusual in accepting workers of all skill levels and both sexes; blacks were included after 1883 (though in segregated locals).

On the other hand, the Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885; like many labor leaders at the time, Powderly believed these laws were needed to protect the American work force against competition from underpaid laborers imported by unscrupulous employers.

Jay Gould, Railroad Baron

Powderly believed in boycotts and arbitration, but he opposed strikes. He had only marginal control over the union membership, however, and a successful strike by the Knights against Jay Gould’s southwestern railroad system in 1884 brought a flood of new members.

By the beginning of 1886, there were 700,000 Knights of Labor. But when the workers struck the Gould system again in the spring of 1886, they were badly beaten. Meanwhile, other members of the Knights participated–again, over Powderly’s objections–in the general strike that began in Chicago on May 1, 1886.

Haymarket Square Riot

When a bomb explosion at a workers’ rally in Haymarket Square May 4 triggered a national wave of arrests and repression, labor activism of every kind suffered a setback, and the Knights were particularly–though unfairly–singled out for blame. By 1890, the membership had fallen to 100,000.

Although Powderly’s somewhat erratic leadership and the continuing factionalism within the union undoubtedly contributed to the Knights’ demise, the widespread repression of labor unions in the late 1880s was also an important factor.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Knights of Labor - Definition, Goals and Leader - HISTORY

It took American labor longer than industrialists to successfully organize on a national basis. By the 1820s, craft workers in the Northeast had organized the first unions to protest the increased use of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the production process. But these were local organizations. It was not until 1834 that the first national organization of wage earners, the National Trades' Union, was formed. By 1836, the organization claimed 300,000 members, but it rapidly lost membership during the financial panic of 1837.

In 1852, printers' locals in 12 cities organized the National Typographic Union, which fought for a common wage scale and restrictions on the use of apprentices. It was one of five national unions formed in the 1850s. Another 21 national unions were organized in the 1860s. By the early 1870s, about 300,000 workers were organization, making up about nine percent of the industrial labor force. But during the financial depression from 1873 to 1878, membership in labor organizations fell to just 50,000.

During the 1870s and 1880s, American workers began to form national labor unions in order to effectively negotiate with big corporations. The Knights of Labor was one of the most important early labor organizations in the United States. It wanted to organize workers into "one big brotherhood" rather than into separate unions made up of workers who had a common skill or who worked in a particular industry.

The Knights were founded in 1869 as a secret organization of tailors in Philadelphia. At first, the union had a strong Protestant religious orientation. But a decade later, when a Catholic, Terence V. Powderly was elected its head, the Knights became a national organization open to workers of every kind, regardless of their skills, sex, nationality, or race. The only occupations excluded from membership were bankers, gamblers, lawyers, and saloonkeepers.

At its height in 1885, the Knights claimed to have 700,000 members. Despite the Knight's rejection of strikes as a tactic in labor disputes, the union won big victories against the Union Pacific railroad in 1884 and the Wabash railroad in 1885. The Knights had a wide-ranging platform for social and economic change. The organization campaigned for an eight-hour work day, the abolition of child labor, improved safety in factories, equal pay for men and women, and compensation for on-the-job injury. As an alternative to wage labor, the Knights favored cooperatively run workshops and cooperative stores. The organization held the first Labor Day celebration in 1882.

The Knights declined rapidly after the 1886 Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, in which 11 people were killed by a bomb. The American Federation of Labor, a union of skilled workers, gradually replaced the Knights as the nation's largest labor organization. Unlike the Knights, which sought to organize workers regardless of craft, rejected the strike as a negotiating tool, and had a broad-based reform agenda, the American Federation of Labor was made up of craft unions and committed to "bread-and-butter" unionism. Its goals were narrower but also more realistic than those of the Knights. It sought to increase workers' wages, reduce their hours, and improve their working conditions.

Knights of Labor: An Early Labor Organization

Many early efforts to organize workers in the United States saw their inception in Pennsylvania. As early as the 1790s, shoemakers in Philadelphia joined to maintain a price structure and resist cheaper competition. In the 1820s, a Mechanics Union was formed that attempted to unite the efforts of more than a single craft. The rise of industrial capitalism, with its widening of the gap between rich and poor, generated the union movement's transformation. One form of worker reaction occurred with the Molly Maguires of the western Pennsylvania anthracite coalfields their modus operandi was intimidation and violence. In 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, which initially offered a more reasoned approach to solving labor problems, was established in Philadelphia. At its inception, the KOL comprised nine tailors whose leader was Uriah S. Stephens. The organization believed that its predecessors had failed by limiting membership the Knights proposed to organize both skilled and unskilled workers in the same union and opened their doors to blacks and women. In its early years, the organization was highly secret since in many areas union members were summarily fired. The Knights developed ornate rituals, drawn from Freemasonry,* to govern their meetings. By the early 1880s, the group had emerged as a national force and had dropped its initial secrecy. They sought to include within their ranks everyone but doctors, bankers, lawyers, liquor producers and gamblers. The aims of the Knights of Labor included the following:

  • An eight-hour work day
  • Termination of Child Labor
  • Termination of the convict contract labor system (the concern was not for the prisoners the Knights of Labor opposed competition from this cheap source of labor)
  • Establishment of cooperatives to replace the traditional wage system and help tame capitalism's excesses
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Government ownership of telegraph facilities and the railroads
  • A public land policy designed to aid settlers and not speculators
  • A graduated income tax.

Difference Between Knights of Labor and AFL

Knights of Labor vs AFL

Knights of Labor and AFL (American Federation of Labor) are different labor unions that were present in the United States.

The AFL was a formal federation of labor unions whereas the Knights of Labor was much more a secretive type. One of the main differences between the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor is that the former one was more radical.

The formation of Knights of Labour can be traced to the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, a secret union formed in 1869 by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright. Once Terence V. Powderly came to the leadership after Stephens, the organization got national recognition. This union became popular among the coal miners of Pennsylvania during the 1870’s economic depression. It was after this that the Knights of Labor established itself as a leading labor union. They had their greatest victory in the Union Pacific Railroad strike (1884) and the Wabash Railroad Strike (1885). The Knights of Labor had put forth many demands like legislation for ending convict labor and child labor.

Doctors, bankers, stockholders, Asians, Chinese, and lawyers were not included in the Knights of Labor as they were considered unproductive members in the society. Though the union flourished as a leading labor union, its membership declined because of mismanagement, autocratic structure, and unsuccessful strikes.

It was after the decline of the Knights of Labor that the American Federation of Labor gained popularity. The AFL was launched in Columbus, Ohio in 1886. Socialists like Peter J. McGuire and Gompers were behind the formation of the AFL. But in the later years, the union saw a policy shift towards conservative politics. The American Federation of Labor adopted the philosophy of “business unionism,” which emphasized the contribution to profit and national economic growth.

1. One of the main differences between the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor is that the former one was more radical.
2. The AFL was a formal federation of labor unions whereas Knights of Labor was much more a secretive type.
3. The formation of Knights of Labor can be traced to the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, a secret union formed in 1869 by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright.
4. The AFL was launched in Columbus, Ohio in 1886. Socialists like Peter J. McGuire and Gompers were behind the formation of the AFL.


Mary G. Harris was born on the north side of Cork, the daughter of Roman Catholic tenant farmers Richard Harris and Ellen (née Cotter) Harris. [1] Her exact date of birth is uncertain she was baptized on 1 August 1837. [2] [3] Harris and her family were victims of the Great Famine, as were many other Irish families. The famine drove more than a million families, including the Harrises, to immigrate to North America when Harris was 10. [4]

Mary was a teenager when her family emigrated to Canada. [5] In Canada (and later in the United States), the Harris family were victims of discrimination due to their immigrant status as well as their Catholic faith and Irish heritage. Mary received an education in Toronto at the Toronto Normal School, which was tuition-free and even paid a stipend to each student of one dollar per week for every semester completed. Mary did not graduate from the Toronto Normal School, but she was able to undergo enough training to occupy a teaching position at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, on 31 August 1859 at the age of 23. [4] She was paid eight dollars per month, but the school was described as a "depressing place". [6] After tiring of her assumed profession, she moved first to Chicago and then to Memphis, where in 1861 she married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders, [7] which later became the International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America, which represented workers who specialized in building and repairing steam engines, mills, and other manufactured goods. [8] Considering that Mary's husband was providing enough income to support the household, she altered her labor to housekeeping.

The loss of her husband and their four children, three girls and a boy (all under the age of five) in 1867, during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis marked a turning point in her life. After that tragedy, she returned to Chicago to begin another dressmaking business. [9] She did work for those of the upper class of Chicago in the 1870s and 1880s. [4] Then, four years later, she lost her home, shop, and possessions in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This huge fire destroyed many homes and shops. Jones, like many others, helped rebuild the city. According to her autobiography, this led to her joining the Knights of Labor. [10] She started organizing strikes. At first, the strikes and protests failed, sometimes ending with police shooting at and killing protesters. The Knights mainly attracted men but by the middle of the decade member numbers leaped to more than a million becoming the largest labor organization in the country. The Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the fear of anarchism and social change incited by union organizations resulted in the demise of the Knights of Labor when an unknown person threw a bomb into an altercation between the Chicago police and workers on strike. [4] Once the Knights ceased to exist, Mary Jones became involved mainly with the United Mine Workers. She frequently led UMW strikers in picketing and encouraged striking workers to stay on strike when management brought in strike-breakers and militias. [8] She believed that "working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids." [11] Around this time, strikes were getting better organized and started to produce greater results, such as better pay for the workers. [12]

Another source of her transformation into an organizer, according to biographer Elliott Gorn, was her early Roman Catholicism and her relationship to her brother, Father William Richard Harris. He was a Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, and dean of the Niagara Peninsula (in St. Catharines, Ontario) in the Diocese of Toronto, who was "among the best-known clerics in Ontario", but from whom she was reportedly estranged. [13] [ page needed ] Her political views may have been influenced by the 1877 railroad strike, Chicago's labor movement, and the Haymarket Affair and depression of 1886. [5]

Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was involved particularly with the UMW and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organizer, she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf. She was termed "the most dangerous woman in America" by a West Virginian district attorney, Reese Blizzard, in 1902, at her trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign . crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out." [14]

Jones was ideologically separated from many female activists of the pre-Nineteenth Amendment days due to her uncommittment to female suffrage. She was quoted as saying that "you don't need the vote to raise hell!" [15] She opposed many of the activists because she believed it was more important to liberate the working class itself. When some suffragettes accused her of being anti-women's rights she clearly articulated herself, "I'm not an anti to anything which brings freedom to my class." [16] She became known as a charismatic and effective speaker throughout her career. [17] She was an exceptionally talented orator. Occasionally she would include props, visual aids, and dramatic stunts for effect. [17] Her talks usually involved the relating of some personal tale in which she invariably "showed up" one form of authority or another. It is said Mother Jones spoke in a pleasant-sounding brogue which projected well. When she grew excited, her voice dropped in pitch. [18]

By age 60, she had assumed the persona of "Mother Jones" by claiming to be older than she was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers that she helped as "her boys". The first reference to her in print as Mother Jones was in 1897. [5]

In 1901, workers in Pennsylvania's silk mills went on strike. Many of them were young women demanding to be paid adult wages. [19] The 1900 census had revealed that one sixth of American children under the age of sixteen were employed. John Mitchell, the president of the UMWA, brought Mother Jones to north-east Pennsylvania in the months of February and September to encourage unity among striking workers. To do so, she encouraged the wives of the workers to organize into a group that would wield brooms, beat on tin pans, and shout "join the union!" She felt that wives had an important role to play as the nurturers and motivators of the striking men, but not as fellow workers. She claimed that the young girls working in the mills were being robbed and demoralized. [19] The rich were denying these children the right to go to school in order to be able to pay for their own children's college tuitions.

To enforce worker solidarity, she traveled to the silk mills in New Jersey and returned to Pennsylvania to report that the conditions she observed were much better. She stated that "the child labor law is better enforced for one thing and there are more men at work than seen in the mills here." In response to the strike, mill owners also divulged their side of the story. They claimed that if the workers still insisted on a wage scale, they would not be able to do business while paying adult wages and would be forced to close. [20] Even Jones herself encouraged the workers to accept a settlement. Although she agreed to a settlement that sent the young girls back to the mills, she continued to fight child labor for the rest of her life. [20]

In 1903, Jones organized children who were working in mills and mines to participate in a "Children's Crusade", a march from Kensington, Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, the hometown of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding "We want to go to school and not the mines!" [21] [22] [23]

As Mother Jones noted, many of the children at union headquarters were missing fingers and had other disabilities, and she attempted to get newspaper publicity for the bad conditions experienced by children working in Pennsylvania. However, the mill owners held stock in most newspapers. When the newspapermen informed her that they could not publish the facts about child labor because of this, she remarked "Well, I've got stock in these little children and I'll arrange a little publicity." [24] Permission to see President Roosevelt was denied by his secretary, and it was suggested that Jones address a letter to the president requesting a visit with him. Even though Mother Jones wrote a letter asking for a meeting, she never received an answer. [25] Though the president refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda. The 2003 non-fiction book Kids on Strike! described Jones's Children's Crusade in detail.

During the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, Mary Jones arrived in June 1912, speaking and organizing despite a shooting war between United Mine Workers members and the private army of the mine owners. Martial law in the area was declared and rescinded twice before Jones was arrested on 13 February 1913 and brought before a military court. Accused of conspiring to commit murder among other charges, she refused to recognize the legitimacy of her court-martial. She was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary. During house arrest at Mrs. Carney's Boarding House, she acquired a dangerous case of pneumonia. [22]

After 85 days of confinement, her release coincided with Indiana Senator John W. Kern's initiation of a Senate investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines. Mary Lee Settle describes Jones at this time in her 1978 novel The Scapegoat. Several months later, she helped organize coal miners in Colorado in the 1913-1914 United Mine Workers of America strike against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron company, in what is known as the Colorado Coalfield War. Once again she was arrested, serving time in prison and inside the San Rafael Hospital, and was escorted from the state in the months prior to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre, she was invited to meet face-to-face with the owner of the Ludlow mine, John D. Rockefeller Jr. The meeting was partially responsible for Rockefeller's 1915 visit to the Colorado mines and introduction of long-sought reforms. [26]

Jones remained a union organizer for the UMW into the 1920s and continued to speak on union affairs almost until she died. She released her own account of her experiences in the labor movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). [27] During her later years, Jones lived with her friends Walter and Lillie May Burgess on their farm in what is now Adelphi, Maryland. She celebrated her self-proclaimed 100th birthday there on 1 May 1930 and was filmed making a statement for a newsreel. [28]

Mother Jones attempted to stop the miners' from marching into Mingo County in late August 1921. Mother Jones also visited the governor and departed assured he would intervene. Jones opposed the armed march, appeared on the line of march and told them to go home. In her hand, she claimed to have a telegram from President Warren Harding offering to work to end the private police in West Virginia if they returned home. When UMW president Frank Keeney demanded to see the telegram, Mother Jones refused and he denounced her as a 'fake'. Because she refused to show anyone the telegram, and the President's secretary denied ever having sent one, she was suspected of having fabricated the story. After she fled the camp, she reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. [29]

Mother Jones was joined by Keeney and other UMWA officials who were also pressuring the miners to go home. Although Mother Jones organized for decades on behalf of the UMWA in West Virginia and even denounced the state as 'medieval', the chapter of the same name in her autobiography, she mostly praises Governor Morgan for defending the First Amendment freedom of the labor weekly The Federationist to publish. His refusal to consent to the mine owners' request that he ban the paper demonstrated to Mother Jones that he 'refused to comply with the requests of the dominant money interests. To a man of that type, I wish to pay my respects'. [30] Apparently Jones did not know or overlooked that Morgan had received about $1 million in campaign donations from industrialists in the 1920 election. [31]

Mary Harris Jones died on 30 November 1930 at the Burgess farm then in Silver Spring, Maryland, though now part of Adelphi. [32] There was a funeral Mass at St. Gabriel's in Washington, D.C. [33] [34]

She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the 1898 Battle of Virden. [35] [36] [37] She called these miners, killed in strike-related violence, "her boys." [38] In 1932, about 15,000 Illinois mine workers gathered in Mount Olive to protest against the United Mine Workers, which soon became the Progressive Mine Workers of America. Convinced that they had acted in the spirit of Mother Jones, the miners decided to place a proper headstone on her grave. By 1936, the miners had saved up more than $16,000 and were able to purchase "eighty tons of Minnesota pink granite, with bronze statues of two miners flanking a twenty-foot shaft featuring a bas-relief of Mother Jones at its center." [39] On 11 October 1936, also known as Miners' Day, an estimated 50,000 people arrived at Mother Jones's grave to see the new gravestone and memorial. Since then, 11 October is not only known as Miners' Day but is also referred to and celebrated in Mount Olive as "Mother Jones's Day." [ citation needed ]

The farm where she died began to advertise itself as the "Mother Jones Rest Home" in 1932, before being sold to a baptist church in 1956. The site is now marked with a Maryland Historical Trust marker, and a nearby elementary school is named in her honor. [32]

According to labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky: [40]

Indeed her renown as a radical rests on a shaky historical foundation. A woman who publicly accused UMW officials of selling out their followers to the capitalist class, she negotiated amicably with John D Rockefeller. Jr., in the aftermath of the 1914 Ludlow massacre. Famous for enlisting workers' wives in the labor struggle, she opposed women's suffrage and insisted that woman's place was in the home. She was simply and essentially an individualist, one who chose to devote the last 30 years of a long life to the cause of the working-class. Her influence on the American labor movement was, however, largely symbolic: the image of a grandmotherly, staidly dressed, slightly built woman unfazed by hostile employers, their hired gunmen, or anti-labor public officials intensified the militancy workers who saw her or who heard of her deeds.



On December 1869, seven members of the Philadelphia tailors' union, headed by Uriah Smith Stephens 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 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. The body became popular with Pennsylvania coal miners during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, then it grew rapidly. [ 2 ]

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 strikes 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.

In 1882, the Knights ended their membership rituals and removed the words "Noble Order" from their name. This was to mollify the concerns of Catholic members and the bishops who wanted to avoid any resemblance to freemasonry. [ 3 ] Though initially averse to strikes as a method to advance their goals, the Knights aided various strikes and boycotts. Their greatest victory was in the Union Pacific Railroad strike in 1884. The Wabash Railroad strike in 1885 was also a significant success, as Powderly finally supported what became a successful strike on Jay Gould'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.


The Knights primary demand was for an eight hour day they also called for legislation to end child and convict labor. They were eager supporters of cooperatives.

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 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 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 in Wyoming, and an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana. The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885, as did many other labor groups, although the group did accept most others, including skilled and unskilled women of any profession.

The Knights of Labor attracted many Catholics, who were a large part of the membership, perhaps a majority. Powderly was a Catholic. However, the Knights's use of secrecy, similar to the Masons, during its early years concerned many bishops. The Knights used secrecy to help prevent employers from firing members. After the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in 1884, twelve American archbishops voted 10 to 2 against doing likewise in the United States. Furthermore, Cardinals James Gibbons and John Ireland defended the Knights. Gibbons went to the Vatican to talk to the hierarchy. [ 4 ]


Membership declined with the problems of an autocratic structure, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes. Disputes between the skilled trade unionists (also known as craft unionists) and the industrial unionists 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.

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 and the new American Federation of Labor, which had more conservative reputations. Efforts to run labor candidates proved a failure in numerous elections in 1886-89. [ 5 ] 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 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 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. [ 6 ]

The Order was brought to Australia around 1890. The Freedom Assembly, which operated in Sydney during the tumultuous period of 1891-93, had as members well-known Australian labor movement people such as William Lane, Ernie Lane, WG Spence, Arthur Rae and George Black. A similar assembly operated in Melbourne.


Though often overlooked, the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs 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's IWW anthem "Solidarity Forever". Pete Seeger 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).

Knights of Labor - Definition, Goals and Leader - HISTORY

The labor movement gained strength in the 1850s in such crafts as typographers, molders, and carpenters. Fixed standards of apprenticeship and of wages, hours, and working conditions were drafted. Although such agreements often broke down in periods of depression, a strong nucleus of craft unions had developed by the 1880s so that a central federation emerged. This was the American Federation of Labor.

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was the first president of the American Federation of Labor, the first enduring national labor union. He served as president from 1886 until his death in 1924, except for a single year, 1895. Born in London, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 13, and worked as a cigar-maker. He became the leader of the cigar-makers' union, and transformed it into one of the country's strongest unions.

Gompers believed that labor had the most to gain by organizing skilled craft workers, rather than attempting to organize all workers in an industry. He refused to form an alliance with the Knights of Labor. "Talk of harmony with the Knights of Labor," he said, "is bosh. They are just as great enemies of trade unions as any employer can be."

Gompers repudiated socialism and advocated a pragmatic "pure and simple" unionism that emphasized agreements with employees--which would spell out for a stipulated period the wages, hours of work, and the procedures for handling grievances. Gompers proposed that agreements contain clauses stipulating that employers hire only union members (the closed shop) and that any employee should be required to pay union dues. Employers advocated the open shop, which could employ non-union members.

During the 1880s and 1890s, unions sought to secure and retain a foothold in such major industries as railways, steel, mining, and construction. It was in the building trades where the craft principle was most dominant that the American Federation of Labor developed its largest membership. Miners merged their crafts into the United Mine Workers of America, an industrial union that admitted to membership of those working in and about a mine, whether skilled or unskilled.

In 1892, the AFL's affiliate in the steel industry, struck in protest against wage cuts. Following the bitter Homestead strike, the steel industry adopted an open shop policy. Craft unions were able to secure collective bargains on railroads, but when some workers a union of all rail workers, their effort collapsed in the Pullman boycott of 1894.

But some efforts at unionization proved more successful, including efforts in organizing workers in immigrant sweatshops. The International Ladies' Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers demonstrated that the new immigrants could be effectively organized.

As trade unionism gained ground before World War I, employers in mines and factories established "company unions," to handle grievances and provide certain welfare benefits. The most notable company union was in the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

Knights of Labor - Definition, Goals and Leader - HISTORY

The annual convention of the Knights of Labor that convened in Richmond, Virginia, on October 4, 1886, took place in a region riven by racial and political conflict. The convention and the Knights, the most powerful labor organization in late 19th century America, were quickly plunged into conflict over the organization’s attitudes toward the question of social equality between the races. A major controversy erupted over whether or not Frank J. Ferrell, a black representative of the Knights’ powerful District Assembly #49 in New York City, should introduce the governor of Virginia at the opening session. This excerpt from Knights’ leader General Master Workman Terence V. Powderly’s 1890 autobiography detailed the tense moments leading up to Frank Ferrell’s appearance at the podium, where he agreed to introduce Powderly and the Grand Master Workman in turn would introduce the governor.

We see religion’s conflicts and war’s terrible munitions—

See advances and repulses, see contentions and transitions,

And Humanity’s great struggles toward loftier conditions—

During the session of the General Assembly in Richmond, Va., an episode occurred which caused a great deal of excitement in that city, and came near resulting in bloodshed. Previous to the convention, William H. Mullen of Richmond requested Hon. Fitzhugh Lee, Governor of Virginia, to tender an address of welcome to the representatives of the Order on the assembling of the convention. The Governor kindly consented to do so, and made preparations accordingly. When D. A. 49 of New York elected representatives to the convention, one of the number chosen was a colored man, Frank J. Ferrell. In making arrangements for hotel accommodations for the New York delegation, the agent of D. A. 49 did not state that there would be any colored men among them, and when the representatives arrived in Richmond, and appeared at the hotel selected, they were told that Mr. Ferrell would not be admitted because of his color. Without hesitation the representatives of D. A. 49 withdrew in a body, and secured quarters where there would be no objections to any one of their number. J. E. Quinn, then Master Workman of that District, stated the facts in the case to the General Master Workman, and requested that officer to assign to Mr. Ferrell the duty of introducing Governor Lee to the General Assembly. The General Master Workman did not favor the proposition and urged that it be abandoned. In the discussion which took place at the hotel where the General Officers were staying, the General Master Workman said to Mr. Quinn:

I do not believe that it would be an act of courtesy on our part to violate any recognized rule of this community, and it would not be pleasant for either the Governor or the convention to attempt to set at defiance a long-established usage. I know a man who feels that he is the equal of Governor Lee, and I think he is just as good a man in every respect if Brother Ferrell will consent to introduce this man to the convention when the time comes, I think it will be as acceptable to him, in fact I believe he will esteem it a greater honor than to introduce even the Governor of Virginia

When asked to name the person of whom he spoke, the answer which Mr. Quinn received was: “The General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor.”

With the understanding that the Governor was to be introduced by the General Master Workman, and that officer in turn introduced by Mr. Ferrell, the convention was called to order. The program was carried out to the letter, and, when the very excellent and well received address of welcome was delivered by Governor Lee, Mr. Ferrell mounted the platform and said:

It is with much pleasure and gratification I introduce to you Mr. T. V. Powderly of the State of Pennsylvania, who will reply to the address of welcome of Governor Lee of this State, which is one of the oldest States in the arena of political influence of our country. He is one of the thoughtful men of the nation, who recognizes the importance of this gathering of the toiling masses in this our growing Republic. As Virginia has led in the aspirations of our country in the past, I look with much confidence to the future, in the hope that she will lead in the future to the realization of the objects of our noble Order. It is with extreme pleasure that we, the representatives from every section of our country, receive the welcome of congratulation for our efforts to improve the condition of humanity. One of the objects of our Order is the abolition of those distinctions which are maintained by creed or color. I believe I present to you a man above the superstitions which are involved in these distinctions. My experience with the noble Order of the Knights of Labor and my training in the District have taught me that we have worked so far successfully toward the extinction of these regrettable distinctions. As we recognize and repose confidence in all men for their worth in society, so can we repose confidence in one of the noblest sons of labor—T. V. Powderly —whom I now take the pleasure of presenting to you.

The response to the address of welcome having been delivered by the General Master Workman, the convention was opened under the forms and usages of the Knights of Labor, and all visitors excluded.

On the boat which brought the New York delegation to Richmond was a dramatic company, which opened up for a week’s stay at one of the Richmond theatres on the evening of the first day’s session of the General Assembly. The leading man of the company extended an invitation to the representatives of D. A. 49 to attend the play, and it was accepted. The entire delegation, including Mr. Ferrell, went in a body to the theatre. When it became known that a colored man was admitted to one of the choicest seats in the theatre all interest in the play was lost, and many left the building vowing vengeance on the intruder who had so recklessly defied one of the rules of Richmond life. The next evening the attendance at the theatre was very slim, many theatre-goers having determined to boycott it while that particular company occupied the boards. Outside of the building an angry mob assembled, armed with revolvers and other weapons, for the purpose of preventing one negro from entering the theatre. Neither Mr. Ferrell nor any of the New York representatives went to the theatre for the reason that they were nearly all assigned to duty on some committee of the General Assembly, or to attend some of the Local Assemblies in session in the city that evening. The excitement ran high for many days, and on several occasions men who claimed to be residents of Richmond appeared at the hotel where the General Officers were stopping and threatened to do violence to some of the delegates. On Sunday, October 10, the information was conveyed to the General Master Workman that the armory building, where the convention held its sessions, was to be mobbed on the following evening. The information was made on good authority. The officers of the regiment, whose headquarters were in the armory building, held consultations with some of the General Officers and assured them that there would be no trouble. Sunday evening the General Master Workman sent a note to the Chief of Police informing him of the state of affairs, and requesting him to call at the hotel. After a consultation with the Chief of Police, it was resolved to pay no attention to the threats which were made each day as the representatives went to and from the armory. The Southern press was much exercised over the condition of affairs, and many unjust editorials were written on statements which were sent out from Richmond by sensational writers. On Monday the General Master Workman felt called upon to reply to some of the aspersions cast upon the General Assembly. He prepared a statement for publication and gave it to the Richmond Dispatch. It appeared in the issue of October 12, but no other paper copied it. Many extracts were taken from it, and garbled to suit the views of the editors of the papers who published them but the whole of the article was never published outside of Richmond. It is given in full below:

RICHMOND, Va., October 11, 1886.

Much has been said and written concerning the events which have transpired in the city of Richmond during the past ten days. As I am responsible for a great deal of the agitation, it is but proper that I should be permitted to speak to as large an audience as that which listened to those who have criticised, misconstrued and distorted the words and the idea intended to be conveyed by my utterances of October 4, when Francis Ferrell introduced me to the meeting assembled in the armory. I stated to the meeting that it was at my request that Mr. Ferrell, a representative of the colored race, introduced me it was left to me to make the selection, and I did it after mature deliberation and careful thought. I have not seen or heard an argument since then that would cause me to do differently to-day. Critics have seen fit to decide what I meant by selecting this man to introduce me, and they have asserted that my action must be regarded in the light of an attack upon the laws of social equality. A part of the press of the South has attacked, in a most unjustifiable manner, a man who, under the flag and Constitution of his country, selected another man, and a citizen of the Republic, to perform a public duty in a public place. In acknowledging his introduction I referred to the prejudice which existed against the colored man. If previous to that day I had any doubts that a prejudice existed, they have been removed by the hasty and inconsiderate action of those who were so quick to see an insult where none was intended.

My sole object in selecting a colored man to introduce me was to encourage and help to uplift his race from a bondage worse than that which held him in chains twenty-five years ago—viz.: mental slavery. I desired to impress upon the minds of white and black that the same result followed action in the field of labor, whether that action was on the part of the Caucasian or the negro. Two years ago, in an address delivered in this city, I said to the people of Richmond: “You stand face to face with a stern, living reality a responsibility which cannot be avoided or shirked. The negro question is as prominent to-day as it ever was. The first proposition that stares us in the face is this: The negro is free he is here, and he is here to stay. He is a citizen, and must learn to manage his own affairs. His labor and that of the white man will be thrown upon the market side by side, and no human eye can detect a difference between the article manufactured by the black mechanic and that manufactured by the white mechanic. Both claim an equal share of the protection afforded to American labor, and both mechanics must sink their differences or fall prey to the slave labor now being imported to this country.” I was not criticised for saying that, and yet it was as susceptible of criticism as my words on October 4. I did not refer to social equality, for that cannot be regulated by law. The sanctity of the fireside circle cannot be invaded by those who are not welcome. Every man has the right to say who shall enter beneath his roof who shall occupy the same bed, private conveyance, or such other place as he is master of. I reserve for myself the right to say who I will or will not associate with. That right belongs to every other man. I have no wish to interfere with that right.


My critics have forgotten that personal liberty and social equality stand side by side. They would deny me the right to make my own selection as to which of the assembled representatives should perform a certain duty. Had I selected the colored man to introduce Governor Lee, it would have been quite another thing. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that our coming was at a time when political excitement ran high, and all things served as excuses for those who wished to use them. When I heard that there was a likelihood of trouble because Mr. Ferrell attended a place of amusement, I asked him not to subject himself to insult by going where he was not welcome, He told me that he had no intention of again going to that or any other place where his presence would give rise to comment. Until that time I did not know that colored men were denied admittance to theatres in this city.

While I have no wish to interfere with the social relations which exist between the races of the South, I have a strong desire to see the black man educated. Southern labor, regardless of color, must learn to read and write. Southern cheap labor is more a menace to the American toiler than the Chinese, and this labor must be educated. Will my critics show me how the laws of social equality will be harmed by educating the black man so that he may know how to conduct himself as a gentleman? Will they explain how a knowledge of the laws of his country will cause a man to violate the laws of social equality? Will they, in a cool, dispassionate manner, explain to me whether an education will not elevate the moral standard of the colored man? and will they tell me that such a thing is not as necessary with the blacks as with the whites?

Will it be explained to me whether the black man should continue to work for starvation wages? With so many able-bodied colored men in the South who do not know enough to ask for living wages, it is not hard to guess that while this race continues to increase in numbers and ignorance, prosperity will not even knock at the door, much less enter the home of the Southern laborer and that country which has an abundance of ill-fed, ill-bred laborers is not, nor can it be, a prosperous one. Will my critics stop long enough to tell me why the United States Senate allowed a colored man to introduce, before the Vice-President of the United States, measures for the benefit of his State? Were the laws of social equality outraged when the House or Representatives permitted colored men to take seats in it? Why did other Southern representatives not leave and return to their homes when that was done?


There need be no further cause for alarm. The colored representatives to this convention will not intrude where they are not wanted, and the time-honored laws of social equality will be allowed to slumber on undisturbed, We have not done a thing since coming to this city that is not countenanced by the laws and Constitution of our country, and, in deference to the wishes of those who regard the laws of social equality as superior to the laws of God and man, we will not, while here, avail ourselves of all of those rights and privileges which belong to us. The equality of American citizenship is all that we insist on, and that equality must not, will not, be trampled upon.

Now a word as to hospitality. We are here under no invitation from any one. We came of our own free-will and accord, and are paying our own way therefore, gratuitous insults, such as those offered by a few mischievous meddlers, are not in order, and do not admit of defense, even though given in behalf of the laws of social equality. I do not hold the people of Richmond responsible for the ill-advised, churlish action of a few who saw a menace in our every move. The treatment received at the hands of the citizens generally has been most cordial. If, during our stay, any representative shall conduct himself in an unbecoming manner, he alone will be held responsible for his action.

To the convention I say: let no member surrender an iota of intellectual freedom because of any clamor. Hold fast to that which is true and right. The triumph of noise over reason is but transient. Our principles will be better known, if not to-day it may be to-morrow they can bide their time, and will some day have the world for an audience. In the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color. The demagogue may distort, for a purpose, the words of others, and for a time the noise of the vocal boss may silence reason, but that which is right and true will become known when the former has passed to rest and the sound of the latter’s voice has forever died away. Then it will be known that the intelligent, educated man is better qualified to discern the difference between right and privilege, and the unwritten law of social equality will be more rigidly observed than it is to-day.

After the publication of that letter the excitement died away, and the representatives met with no further annoyance. The General Master Workman received many insulting letters from residents of Richmond, who, evidently, scorned to read the truth, and drew for their information on the store of prejudice which they had treasured up against allowing the negro to avail himself of the rights of citizenship. One lady, wrought to a high pitch of anger, sent a postal card bearing the following amusing proposition:

Dear Sir: As you are so much in sympathy with the negro, will you please call over and fill our coachman’s place until he gets well? Inquire on Church Hill.

Many similar missives were conveyed to him during his stay in Richmond. There were people in that city who were not in sympathy with the element which acted so discourteously toward the visiting strangers but they made no outward sign of their disapproval of the course pursued by those whose foolish prejudices construed an act with which it was none of their business to meddle into an insult to their noble blood.

Violation of the rules of social equality formed no part of the thought or intentions of the General Master Workman when he selected Mr. Ferrell to introduce him to the General Assembly. Neither was it his desire to cater to the sentiment of D. A. 49, or Mr. Quinn, the Master Workman of that District. His only wish was to do something to encourage the black workman, and cause him to feel that, as a factor in the field of production, he stood the equal of all other men.

It was not reserved for the coming of the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor to do violence to the laws of social equality in Richmond or the Southern States. That had been done years before the Knights of Labor ever gained a foothold in the South, but in a far different way. Social equality is recognized in the South by many of those who prate the loudest against it. The slave-owners of long ago leveled the distinctions between the races, and some of their children and children’s children honor the practice to the present day.

One has only to stand on a street corner, or at the door of one of the churches where colored people attend, to be convinced that Caucasian blood flows through the veins of thousands who, for certain reasons, dare not boast of pride of ancestry.

Had the laws of social equality been rigidly practiced in secret as they are boasted of in public by the aristocracy of the South, more of respect would be due to those who affect to scorn the man who would maintain the rights of a race whose crime is its color, and whose fault is that long years of slavery has transmitted the curse of ignorance to its children of the present day. The best evidence of the insincerity and hypocrisy of the Southern aristocrat is written upon the half-white faces of the hundreds of thousands of young men and women in whose veins flow, in mingled current, the blood of the former slave and that of the best families of the South.

It is not the negro alone who stands ostracised in the South by the remnant of the Bourbon element, which still exists to protest against the progress of the Southern States. The white man who works is held in no higher esteem than the black man, and his ignorance is taken advantage of when he is patted on the back and told that he “is better than the negro.”

No labor advocate seeks to interfere with the social relations of the races in the South, for it is the industrial, not the race, question we endeavor to solve, and the intellectual status of the black and white laborer must be improved if either one is to prosper.

Of the two races in the South at the present time, the negro is making the most energetic struggle for an education. If the whites would not fall behind in the race they must learn that moral worth, not wealth, is the true standard of individual and national greatness.

Source: Terence V. Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, 1859� (Philadelphia: T. V. Powderly, 1890).

History: The rise and fall of the Knights of Labor

May 4th, 1886: anarchists lead a protest in Haymarket Square, Chicago, against the violence of police against workers on strike around the city. They do so in the middle of what historians now call the “Great Upheaval,” a huge wave of strikes, boycotts and political agitation across the United States between 1885 and 1887. As the anarchists and their supporters are about to wind up the meeting, ranks of uniformed police arrive. Suddenly, a bomb is thrown. It explodes. Gunfire rings out in the square. By the time the firefight is over, four of the protesters and seven police are dead. Eight men, all anarchists, will eventually be charged and then convicted of conspiracy to throw the bombs that night, even though none of them were present at the protest. Four will be executed, two more with their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, another receiving 15 years, and the eighth committing suicide in jail.

This event, the Haymarket Affair, remains a dramatic event in US history and one of the defining episodes of US anarchism. Many on the left still see the conviction of the eight men as a frame-up, as the classic case of radicals railroaded to jail or the gallows not for what they did, but for what they said and thought. Little evidence, they argue, tied the bomb to the convicted anarchists, or to any anarchists in particular: it might as easily have been thrown by an agent provocateur who wanted to tarnish the left and the labour movement with violence.

Haymarket was also a defining moment in the history of the first truly national movement of US workers, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. On Thanksgiving Day 2019 the Knights celebrated their 150 th birthday – or they would have, if they hadn’t been forced into retreat after Haymarket, then decline, then dissolution in 1917.

They were founded in 1869 by seven tailors in Philadelphia who wanted to replace their old defunct union with something new and more ambitious. Uriah Stephens, their founding father (if that is the right phrase), had long thought about a movement that, as he put it to a friend in 1861, would:

“Cover the globe. It will include men and women of every craft, creed and color: It will cover every race worth saving. It will come in my time, I hope. Its groundwork will be secrecy, its rule obedience, and its guiding star mutual assistance. It will make labor honourable and profitable and lessen its burdens it will make idleness a crime, render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines.”

This was a goal worthy of the most utopian of nineteenth-century radicals. Stephens did not think of himself as a socialist or anarchist, and distrusted those who did. But he and his successors looked forward to a world where private competition would be replaced by public co-operation, or what they called the “co-operative commonwealth” where, to quote the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, “individual and moral worth, not wealth,” would become “the true standard of individual and national greatness.”

The Rise and Fall

This was not anarchism, but nor was it a million miles away. The Knights operated as a trade union, as a semi-Masonic order, with secrecy and a ritual, as an educational society, providing libraries and reading rooms for workers to educate themselves, as a political club, and as the basis for hundreds of co-operative enterprises, owned and run by the workers themselves.

They came of age in the 1870s, a decade of crisis. A financial crash, the Panic of 1873, led to a long depression. The election of 1877 ended one of the most hopeful periods in American history, Reconstruction, which began with the end of the Civil War in 1865 when newly-freed slaves asserted their new political rights. Those rights were taken away from them by white men in sharp suits and white hoods. Amid these events, many trade unions fell apart. The Knights did not. By 1884, more than 100,000 men and women, white and black — for the Knights opened their doors to women and black workers — were members.

In 1885, the Knights led major strikes on railroads across the southwest of the country, all owned by the notorious robber baron Jay Gould. They forced Gould to the negotiating table, an outcome that was seen by many people in the USA and beyond as one of the most significant victories ever won by workers against their bosses. Partly as a result of that victory, hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked to the Knights. At the beginning of 1886, it seemed likely that the organisation would pass more than a million members and that the thousands of strikes, boycotts and other actions that took place between 1885 and 1887 would not only continue but increase.

Just as bad for the bosses, Knights entered the political arena. Sometimes they took over their local Democrat or Republican parties, but just as often they formed local labour parties. Labour candidates won office at local, state and even federal levels, and the economist Henry George, standing for the United Labor Party, nearly won the mayoralty of New York in 1886. The two-party system briefly seemed in crisis. To crown it all, calls grew louder for a mass strike on May 1, 1886 to win a long-cherished demand of working-class movements all over the world, the eight-hour working day. This, incidentally, was one of the origins of May Day as an international workers’ day. Tens of thousands of American workers answered the call.

Then Haymarket happened. The government, the press, and the bosses all screamed that the US might at any moment descend into anarchy and violence, and the Knights of Labor were to blame. They became the object of the USA’s first Red Scare, even though most leading Knights vainly tried to distance themselves from the eight accused anarchists and, worse, refused to appeal to the authorities for clemency on their behalf. After 1886 the movement began to decline.

As the Knights were battered from without, they fragmented from within. Different factions vied for control of the leadership, some based on political grounds and others on personal cliques. Splits followed, and great chunks of the movement simply disappeared. Others were lured to reviving trade unions, gathered from 1886 in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). A war of unions against the Knights reduced the latter’s numbers still further. By 1890 the 750,000 members of 1886 had dwindled to around 100,000. Four years later, the Knights had split and declined to something like 40,000. By this time, they were the has-beens of the US labour movement.

The Training School of Trade Unionists

Why should we bother to remember a movement that rose and fell so quickly, so long ago? In the first place, because were the first national working-class movement to appear in the United States. Because they grew so big, so fast, they included pretty much all the political tendencies of the country. Some Knights became an important part of the People’s Party, the original Populists, in the 1890s. Others came out of the Marxist tradition, through parties like the Socialist Labor Party, and would go into the Socialist Party when it started in 1901. The working-class wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties were well represented, especially among the Knights’ leaders. Some historians have likened the Knights to a school where all the major leaders of the US labour movement received their early education.

The Knights have a special place for the anarchist reader. Aside from the Haymarket Martyrs, influential anarchists joined the movement and, to some extent, shaped it. Joseph Labadie, a printer from Detroit, was a case in point. He set up the first assembly of Knights in that city in 1878, and extolled the movement in his writing for numerous socialist and anarchist magazines. Like many other anarchists — not to mention socialists — he saw the Knights as a step towards the real unity of American workers regardless of gender, race, origin and occupation. Like many of them, his membership only ended when the leaders of the Knights of Labor distanced the movement from the Haymarket anarchists, and even attacked them in public.

A direct line also connects the Knights with the Industrial Workers of the World, the great syndicalist movement of the early twentieth century and afterwards. Many members of the Western Federation of Miners, one of the most powerful early affiliates of the IWW, earned their trade union apprenticeship in the Knights of Labor. They inherited the Knights’ rivalries with the American Federation of Labor, and saw the federation and its leadership as conservative, uninterested in organising workers outside the skilled trades, and unwilling to challenge the system of exploitation that kept wage earners down. The cooperative commonwealth of the Knights of Labor was the direct ancestor of the IWW’s One Big Union.

The rich cultural legacy of the Wobblies owed much to the Knights. Many of the songs that appear in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book were first sung by members of the Knights of Labor: when the early Wobblies sang “Hold the Fort” as they marched off to the class war, they might not have been aware that the start of the original chorus ran:

Hold the fort, ye Knights of Labor
Union men be strong…

The longstanding leader of the Knights, Terence Powderly, liked to say in later life that his movement was the unacknowledged author of most progressive legislation in the United States. As a preacher of class harmony and not class war, he probably didn’t approve of the fact that his movement trained the first generation of militant Wobblies. Irony is seldom appreciated when it comes at your expense.

Prophets and Militants

The Knights of Labor remind us of what we still need to do now. They managed to build local movements all over the United States, based at the local assembly hall, and surrounded by a network of libraries, reading rooms, theatres and the local co-op shop or workshop. Their integration into the local community allowed many branches to put forward a working-class candidate for office against the two major parties, and for a time win many elections. That community spirit then allowed many branches to survive long after the national movement had fallen apart. The Knights prove that it is possible to build solidarity at the local level in a short space of time.

The same applies to building a global movement. The Knights not only attracted hundreds of thousands of American members, but thousands of others in assemblies from Canada to Europe, Australasia and South Africa. Their branches in Britain and Ireland numbered as many as 20,000 workers at their height. Their Belgian assemblies became a major force in the industrial region around Charleroi, and in the luxury trades of Brussels. Historians have estimated that at one point, nearly a third of the MPs in New Zealand’s colonial parliament were members of the Knights of Labor. They had a sizeable presence in Australia, France and Italy as well.

The impetus for this global movement came first from the desire of many US Knights to reduce immigration. They wanted to do this without building up walls, but by organising workers overseas so that they would not need to migrate to the US simply in search of work or higher wages. In this they followed a pattern set by the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International of 1864-1876: international solidarity would work best when workers and their unions regulated the flow of people from one place to another. We might not want to follow that logic. But we can certainly learn from the determination with which Knights spread their gospel around the world.

As with any movement from so long ago, there are things that they said and did that we can safely consign to the past. The Knights joined the general mania against Chinese immigrants, supported their exclusion from the country, and refused as a national movement to admit them as members (although some branches recruited them anyway). Knights were implicated in pogroms against Chinese workers at Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885, and in other places. Some Knights extended that hostility to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, although the movement included tens of thousands of them. While the Knights tried with great success to organise black workers, their record on other racial questions was and is not defensible.

They were also stuck between their dislike of capitalism and the unwillingness of their leaders to challenge individual capitalists. Leaders like Powderly liked to boast in later life that they had never ordered a strike, and they saw militancy of any kind as a kind of juvenile phase that would soon give way to orderly negotiations between employers and employed. We have all seen how that kind of approach has turned out in practice, and we now look instead to the revival of trade union militancy through new unions like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) or the United Voices of the World (UVW). The IWGB and UVW have both proved that even the most precarious and unappreciated workers can win big if they are prepared to strike and make a lot of noise. Today, we need less Powderlys and more militants.

The Knights, in any case, are not coming back. They belong to the nineteenth century, and their enthusiasm for mystical symbols and Masonic ritual would not survive for long in the social media age. They remain relevant for us because they form an important link in the chain that connects us with the workers and radicals of the past. They show us that a determined movement of workers can build solidarity at the local level and around the globe. They had an optimism about the future, and that the future could be better and fairer and transformed, that we now lack. When the end of austerity becomes the outermost limit of our ambition, the dream of Uriah Stephens for an organisation that would “render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines,” is still worth remembering, and still worth fighting for.

Pic: Knights leader Terence Powderly holds a boss and scab apart in an illustration by satirical cartoonist Joseph Keppler, circa 1886

The Knights of Labor is the term referring to the history of the labor movement in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The Knights of Labor was among the first and the most well-known national labor organizations in the USA. It came into existence at the very end of the 1860s as a small secret society of dressmakers living and working in Philadelphia.

The next few decades were marked by the organization’s gradual growth and successful efforts to attract new members and demand just attitudes to the working class. In particular, by the middle of the 1880s, about 700,000 people were its members and took part in the Knights’ activities. The Knights of Labor united a number of ambitious workers, some of which contributed to the development of other bodies, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

It is just to call it the unique and truly revolutionary society due to multiple facts, including the Knights of Labor’s membership requirements that were quite progressive for the time. People allowed to join the organization included workers in diverse industries, those fulfilling low-skilled and unskilled jobs, female workers, and even racial and ethnic minority workforce.

The group used different forms of protest to pursue its basic goals, such as changing the legal status of child labor, regulating working day length, and reducing unfair pay gaps.

Despite its noble goals appealing to the working class, the organization could not maintain its high popularity. It started losing members after 1886 as a result of the emergence of other, more flexible organizations, such as the AFL, the weaknesses of its organizational structure, and the alleged participation in the so-called Haymarket Affair.

Watch the video: The Knights of Labor and the Radical Labor Movement


  1. Farlan

    I will know, many thanks for the help in this question.

  2. Deutsch

    I think you are wrong. I'm sure. I can prove it. Email me at PM, we will discuss.

  3. Faro

    I agree, this is a wonderful phrase.

Write a message