The Knights of Labor: a secret union’s history and impact

By LUIS VERASTIGUE, Western Courier Reporter


The Knights of Labor was a pioneering force in the late 19th-century labor movement in the United States. Operating both as a trade union federation and a political movement, with a goal of inclusivity, embracing both skilled and unskilled laborers, regardless of race or gender.

The Birth of the Knight of Labor

The Knights of Labor emerged from the industrial turmoil of the late 19th century. Established in 1869, the organization was initially named the “Noble Order of the Knights of Labor” and was created by a group of garment cutters in Philadelphia. These founding members, led by the influential Uriah Smith Stephens initiated the Knights of Labor as a secret society to protect its members from employer retaliations.

The Secret Beginnings

The organization’s early days were marked by secrecy, a characteristic intended to shield its members from employer retaliation. This secrecy added an emotional appeal, drawing in members with the allure of a clandestine brotherhood fighting for workers’ rights. However, this secret nature also fueled rumors that the group was dangerous or violent, a narrative often propagated by factory owners frightened of labor organizations.

The Ideological Platform of the Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor envisioned a “Cooperative Commonwealth” where producer cooperatives and nationalized railroads would replace monopolistic capitalism. The initial platform was partly ideological, based on a belief in the unity of all producing groups — shopkeepers, farmers, and laborers alike.

Advocacy for Worker Cooperatives

The Knights of Labor proposed a system of worker cooperatives to replace capitalism. They believed in a unity of interest among all producing groups, advocating for a system where workers would own and operate businesses collectively. This vision was a revolutionary alternative to the traditional capitalist model, where businesses were owned by a select few.

The Knights of Labor Transition to Public Visibility

In 1879, Terence V. Powderly was elected as the Grand Master Workman of the national organization. Under his leadership, the Knights of Labor dropped its secrecy and the mystical connotations from its title. The organization became publicly visible, and the word “noble” was removed from its title.

The Shift of Power to Regional Leaders

Powderly was reluctant to initiate strikes or employ other forms of economic pressure to achieve the union’s goals. Consequently, effective control of the organization shifted to regional leaders. Membership in the Knights grew after the railway strike in 1877, reaching a peak of 700,000 in 1886. At this time, the Knights of Labor was the dominant labor organization in the United States.

Inclusivity: A Hallmark of the Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor were known for their inclusivity. Unlike most unions of the time, the Knights opened their membership to all workers, regardless of skill, sex, race, or nationality. This broad sense of solidarity was encapsulated in their motto, “An injury to one is the concern of all.”

Welcoming African American and Female Workers

The Knights of Labor was a pioneering force in advocating for the inclusion of African-American and female workers. They recognized that if black, female, or immigrant workers were excluded, employers could exploit these groups to undermine unionism. At its peak membership in 1886, as many as 75,000 members, about 10% of the total, were African American, with a comparable number of women.

The Decline of the Knights of Labor

The influence of the Knights of Labor declined sharply after 1886. This decline was marked by over 1,600 strikes, some of them violent, and the deadly Haymarket Riot in Chicago. The backlash against unionism, coupled with many members’ dissatisfaction, led to the union’s demise.

The Rise of the American Federation of Labor

The demise of the Knights of Labor fostered the establishment of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in December 1886. The AFL focused on winning economic benefits for its members through collective bargaining. As a federation, it represented several national craft unions, each retaining autonomous operations.

The Legacy of the Knights of Labor

Despite their decline, the Knights of Labor left a lasting legacy in the labor movement. Their advocacy for inclusivity and the unity of all producing groups paved the way for more equitable labor practices. They also pioneered the idea of a “Cooperative Commonwealth,” an alternative to traditional capitalism.

The Impact of Future Labor Movements

The efforts of the Knights of Labor significantly influenced future labor movements, particularly the American Federation of Labor. Many former members of the Knights joined the AFL, bringing with them the principles and experiences they had gained from their time with the Knights.

The Knights of Labor played a significant role in the labor movement of the late 19th century. Their advocacy for worker cooperatives, inclusivity, and unity of all producing groups left an indelible mark on labor practices and ideologies. Although their influence waned, their legacy continues to resonate in today’s labor movements.

As the first significant national labor organization in the United States, the Knights of Labor remain a critical part of American labor history. Their history sheds light on the struggles and triumphs of the labor movement, providing valuable insights into the ongoing fight for workers’ rights.

Previous articleThe Big Board: how a small town is becoming a giant board game
Next articleMacomb School District reports death of student