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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.
In its early years, the Knights of Labor opposed the use of strikes; however, new members and local leaders gradually radicalized the organization. By the mid-1880s, labor stoppages had become an effective tool. The KOL won important strikes on the Union Pacific in 1884 and the Wabash Railroad in 1885. However, failure in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 and the Haymarket Square Riot of the same year quickly eroded the Knights' influence—although no member was implicated in the latter event. In the public mind, the eight-hour work day and other demands by the KOL had become radical ideas; to many, the terms "unionism" and "Anarchism" were synonymous. Labor leader Terence V. Powderly's organizing skills had brought the group's membership to more than 700,000 in the early 1880s, but by 1900 that number had dropped to approximately 100,000. Why did the Knights of Labor decline so precipitously? The Haymarket incident was certainly pivotal in that it transformed a skeptical public into vocal opponents of the group. Beyond that, however, the Knights suffered from mismanagement and internal divisions, especially the longstanding strife between the skilled and unskilled worker members. Finally, the rise of the American Federation of Labor offered an alternative that rejected radicalism and organized its members along craft lines.
*Despite its aim to be inclusive, the Knights of Labor made little headway toward organizing Irish-Americans. The primary reason was this ceremonial influence of Freemasonry, which was often highly anti-Roman Catholic. Irish-Americans were predominantly Catholic.