Prior to the 1860s, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were a small number of trade associations of skilled craftsmen, but little if anything that we would today recognize as labor unions.
Soon that began to change. The National Labor Union was the first union that made any significant progress toward uniting workers from different industries under one banner, as it sought to become an umbrella group for all the national labor organizations already in existence, and the “eight hour leagues” that had been formed specifically to fight for the eight hour work day. The NLU favored arbitration over strikes.
The NLU did indeed play a role in getting legislation passed at the federal level and in some states mandating an eight hour day for government workers, but the laws had many exceptions and loopholes and were left largely unenforced. The NLU then made a major push to form a third political party-a party of labor-failed spectacularly, and soon faded away.
This set the stage for by far the most successful labor union up to that time, which was the Knights of Labor (Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor). Formed in 1869 by seven Philadelphia tailors headed by Uriah Stephens, the Knights initially were as much a lodge or secret society-like the Freemasons-as a union, complete with secret meetings and rituals, and titles like “Venerable Sage.” The name of the organization itself was even supposed to be kept secret from non-members.
This approach was chosen because the climate in the Gilded Age was greatly hostile to the working class, and any efforts they might make to organize. With government solidly allied with the employers, joining a union meant risking your opportunity to make a living, if not your physical well-being.
The Knights were able to stay underground for several years, gradually building up their membership, in part from the collapsing NLU. The downside of their secrecy was that it allowed for rumors of just who they were and what they were up to, actively fanned by those hoping to crush all unions. In some circles they were spoken of as little more than an organized crime syndicate, operating in the shadows.
With the election of Terence V. Powderly-the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania-as their leader in 1879, the Knights gave up their tradition of secrecy and decided to operate in the open. Membership skyrocketed, from about 10,000 at the time of Powderly’s election, to a peak in the mid 1880s of at least 700,000, with some sources estimating as much as a million.
The Knights mostly continued the NLU’s preference for negotiation and arbitration over strikes, but as their numbers and power grew, strikes-and certainly the threat of strikes-became somewhat more prominent a weapon for them.
The Knights were unusual for their time in attempting to unite skilled and unskilled workers across all crafts and industries. They excluded as “unproductive members of society” only such professions and groups as bankers, gamblers, liquor manufacturers, doctors, lawyers, and stockholders.
They were also surprisingly inclusive as far as gender and race. They had as many as 50,000 women members at their peak, which was unheard of at the time (remember, women wouldn’t even get the vote for several more decades), including in leadership positions. One of the giants of American labor history, Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, first rose to prominence as a member of the Knights.
After initially barring black members-as was standard for unions and most organizations in society at the time-the Knights soon reversed this policy. At their peak, they had about 50,000 black members, so roughly the same number of blacks as women.
Note, though, that they did not enforce their racial policy in the South, turning a blind eye to white locals keeping blacks out of the union. They also joined other unions in their hostility to foreign workers being imported to work at lower wages on railroads or in other industries, thus supporting the various anti-Chinese laws and policies adopted during that period of American history.
The Knights were a large enough organization to encompass a broad range ideologically, but they did become somewhat more conservative over time, trying to distance themselves from the communists, socialists, and anarchists of the labor movement.
But they were big enough to “be” the labor movement in many people’s eyes, so when the enemies of labor were able to twist the events of Haymarket in 1886 (police massacred some strikers, an anarchist threw a bomb at the police at a protest meeting about it, the police killed some more workers, and several labor leaders who’d had little or no connection with the events were tried and sentenced to death for murder), public opinion took a turn against unions and thus against the Knights, who hadn’t in fact called the strike or protest meeting in question.
Also in 1886, the Knights suffered a major defeat when their strike against Jay Gould’s Union Pacific Railroad was crushed. Gould used a private army (the “Pinkertons”) to defeat the strikers with violence, and replaced them in their jobs with hired strikebreakers. (As Gould had remarked prophetically, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”) The violence escalated on both sides until state and federal troops were called in-on the employer’s side-to restore order. The defeat of the strikers was a major blow to the Knights, as they became associated in the public mind with violence and troublemaking.
The Knights continued to make an effort to paint themselves as the “moderate” alternative to the radicals, for example by siding with those who wanted a Labor Day holiday in September instead of on May 1 (a date associated with the international communist and socialist movements and with the martyrs of Haymarket), but it was too late. In December 1889, on the heels of the Union Pacific debacle, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed. Believing that new blood was needed in the labor movement, many who had been members and supporters of the Knights rushed to embrace the new organization.
With the AFL taking a lot of its moderate and right wing members, the Knights underwent a rapid decline, then plummeted even further when new unions formed on their left, including the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, taking what remained of their more radical wing.
The Knights didn’t formally disband until 1949, but they had no significance in 20th century labor history.
gjohnsit, “Knights of Labor.” Daily Kos.
Robert McNamara, “Knights of Labor.” About.com.
“What are the Knights of Labor?” Wise Geek.