Knights of Labor

The story of Labor Day remains incomplete without an introduction to the Knights of Labor.  Not only did they initiate Labor Day as a civic event, it had proved itself to be the first labor association strong enough to challenge industry on its own ground.  And it was with them the future of American labor in the 1880s appeared to lie.

The Knights of Labor was an American labor organization, started by Philadelphia tailors in 1869, led by Uriah S. Stephens. It became a body of national scope and importance in 1878 and grew more rapidly after 1881, when its earlier secrecy was abandoned. Organized on an industrial basis, with women, black workers (after 1883), and employers welcomed, excluding only bankers, lawyers, gamblers, and stockholders, the Knights of Labor aided various groups in strikes and boycotts, winning important strikes on the Union Pacific in 1884 and on the Wabash RR in 1885. But failure in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 and the Haymarket Square riot (for which it was, although not responsible, condemned by the press) caused a loss of prestige and strengthened factional disputes between the craft unionists and the advocates of all-inclusive unionism. With the motto “an injury to one is the concern of all,” the Knights of Labor attempted through educational means to further its aimsan 8-hour day, abolition of child and convict labor, equal pay for equal work, elimination of private banks, cooperation which, like its methods, were highly idealistic. The organization reached its apex in 1886, when under Terence V. Powderly its membership reached a total of 702,000.

But after that the membership began to decline, partly because of opposition by Powderly and other organization leaders to a one-day general strike as a means of winning the 8-hour day. Members were alienated also by their leaders' denunciation of the eight anarchists whose conviction for complicity in the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago was widely believed to be unjust. Another reason for membership decline was the defeat that the organization sustained in a strike against the railroads in the southwestern part of the U.S. Also in 1886 factional strife broke out between the members who continued to support the original policy of inclusive unionism and those who favored craft unionism. This dissension led to the secession of a number of large craft unions, which, in December of that year, participated in the organization of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The last important struggle in which the Knights of Labor participated was the 1894 strike by the Pullman workers American Railroad Union against many of the principal railroads of the U.S. The total defeat of this strike resulted in a severe setback of the Knights of Labor. 

Despite the common opinion that the Knights of Labor had virtually disappeared by the end of the 1890s, it remained as the dominant labor organization among railroad freight handlers and longshoremen in Boston until just prior to the outbreak of World War I. The seemingly solid position of the Knights in the Boston transportation industry crumbled almost overnight in 1912, when a strike by Boston longshoremen was defeated resoundingly. The longshoremen’s experience in this strike led them to abandon the Knights of Labor and move en masse to the International Longshoremen’s Association by the beginning of 1913. The organization was formally dissolved in 1917.

The labor movement brought about many needed reforms. It helped bring an end to horrid working conditions, bring better wages, and helped to end child labor. Groups such as the National Labor Union of the Knights of Labor brought about the eight-hour day through non-violence strikes & peaceful negotiations. The Knights of Labor also worked diligently to have health and safety codes put in place to protect workers.