Knights of Labor

Knights of Labor

The Seal of the Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor (K of L), officially Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, was the largest and one of the most important American Terence V. Powderly. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman, rejected Socialism and radicalism, demanded the eight-hour day, and promoted the producers ethic of republicanism. In some cases it acted as a labor union, negotiating with employers, but it was never well organized, and after a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s, it suddenly lost its new members and became a small operation again.

It was established in 1869, reached 28,000 members in 1880, then jumped to 100,000 in 1885. Then it waffled to nearly 800,000 members in 1886, but its frail organizational structure could not cope and it was battered by charges of failure and violence. Most members abandoned the movement in 1886-87, leaving at most 100,000 in 1890.[1] Remnants of the Knights of Labor continued in existence until 1949, when the group's last 50-member local dropped its affiliation.

Organizational history

Origins

Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor during its meteoric rise and precipitous decline.

In 1870, Daniel Spahr and his friend Sam Catri the lead member of the Philadelphia tailors' union, headed by 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, as well as a graduated income tax. They were eager supporters of cooperatives. The only woman to hold office in the Knights of Labor, Leonora Barry worked as an investigator and described the horrific conditions in factories, conditions tantamount to the abuse of women and children. These reports made Barry the first person to collect national statistics on the American working woman.[4]

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. While an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers displaced by a strike led by the Knights were murdered by strikebreaking thugs 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.[5]

Decline

J.R. Sovereign, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor from 1893.

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.[5]

Legacy

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" (1885). 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).

Footnotes

  1. ^ Kemmerer and Wickersham, (1950)
  2. ^ Ware, (1929) pp 23- 37
  3. ^ Robert E. Weir, Beyond labor's veil: the culture of the Knights of Labor (1996) p 94
  4. ^ Whitman, American Reformers, 57.
  5. ^ James Hennesey, American Catholics, Oxford University Press, 1981, page 188.

Grand Master Workmen

See also

Further reading

Scholarly studies

Outside U.S.

Primary sources

by Knights

  • Knights of Labor (1887–1913). Proceedings of the General Assembly, 10th - 30th (microfilm). Library of American civilization. LAC 23217-20. 
  • Knights of Labor (1878–1886). Record of the proceedings of the General Assembly, 1st - 9th (microfilm). Library of American civilization. LAC 23214-16. 
  • Powderly, Terence Vincent (1889). Thirty Years of Labor. 1859-1889. Excelsior publishing house. p. 693. 
  • Powderly, Terence Vincent (1889). Thirty Years of Labor. 1859-1889. Excelsior publishing house. p. 693. 
  • Powderly, Terence Vincent; Edmund Janes James (1891). The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-day. The M. W. Hazen Company. p. 628. 
    • Powderly, Terence Vincent (1891). The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-day; Chapter XV: The History of the Knights of Labor. pp. 397–428. 
  • Powderly, Terence Vincent; John Williams Hayes (1891). John A. Turcheneske, Jr, ed. Terence Vincent Powderly Papers 1864-1937 and John Williams Hayes Papers 1880-1921, The Knights of Labor. pp. 109 reels. 

by others

  • A.C. Dunham, "The Knights of Labor," New Englander and Yale Review, vol. 45, no. 195 (June 1886), pp. 490–498.
  • John Stephens Durham, "The Labor Unions and the Negro," Atlantic Monthly, vol. 81, no. 484 (February 1898), pp. 222–231.
  • Henry George, "The New Party," North American Review, vol. 145, no. 368 (July 1887), pp. 1–8.
  • Rufus Hatch, "The Labor Crisis," North American Review, vol. 142, no. 355 (June 1886), pp. 602–607.
  • Richard J. Hinton, "American Labor Organizations," North American Review, vol. 140, no. 338 (January 1885), pp. 48–63.
  • M.E.J. Kelley, "Women and the Labor Movement, North American Review, vol. 166, no. 497 (April 1898), pp. 408–418.
  • George Frederic Parsons, "The Labor Question," Atlantic Monthly, vol. 58, no. 345 (July 1886), pp. 97–113.
  • Carroll D. Wright, "An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor," Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 1, no. 2 (January 1887), pp. 137–168.

External links