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The Knights of Labor

the first labor organization in America to organize all workers into a single union, rather than into separate trade unions

founders of the Knights of LaborThe Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded as a secret fraternal lodge by Uriah S. Stephens and eight other Philadelphia tailors in 1869. Anyone who worked in a productive industry could join the order, including recent immigrants, blacks and other minorities, and women. The order specifically excluded, however, those it deemed non-productive workers, such as bankers, stockbrokers, professional gamblers, lawyers, and those who sold or manufactured liquor. Despite the open membership policy, the Knights were a highly secretive society during the formative years since membership in a union often meant immediate job loss (or worse); the secrecy lessened over the years, and had been dropped entirely by 1881.

The first general assembly of representatives of local Knights organizations met in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1878. The assembly drew up a list of aims, which included: an eight-hour work day; an end to child labor; termination of the convict contract labor system, a system which the Knights opposed due to the unfair competition rather than for humanitarian reasons; 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; and a graduated income tax. The assembly also generally came out in opposition to strikes in favor of boycotts and peaceful negotiations, although some local leaders preferred more action and less talk.

Terence V. PowderlyDespite its impressive list of aims, the Knights of Labor enjoyed little actual success at making those aims realities and its membership rolls remained relatively stagnant for most of the first years of its existence. That changed, however, after Terence V. Powderly was elected Grand Master Workman in 1879. Under his leadership the Knights began actively enlisting members, and as the membership grew so too did the organization's ability to get noticed.

The Knights of Labor suddenly became a powerful national force in 1884-1885, when it led strikes against both the Union Pacific and Wabash railroads, and forced both to meets its demands. Within a year after the Wabash strike membership had risen from about 100,000 to about 700,000. The sudden increase in power was followed by an almost equal sudden decrease in 1886, however, when the Knights of Labor lost its strike against the Missouri Pacific Railroad. That same year also witnessed the disastrous Haymarket Riot in Chicago, which led to a wave of antilabor sentiment across the United States. These two incidents, combined with growing disagreements within the organization over leadership and methods caused membership to decline. Powderly resigned in 1893, and by 1900 membership was down to barely 100,000. The Knights of Labor was formally dissolved in 1917.

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This page was last updated on December 21, 2014.

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