Knights of Labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As one of the most powerful national labor unions in the United States during the post-Civil War industrial era, the Knights of Labor, which welcomed both women and African Americans, championed a progressive agenda designed to define the rights and protect the interests of an emerging urban workforce.

As increasing industrialization shaped the northeast United States after the U.S. Civil War, the growing gap between the rich and the poor resulted in numerous attempts to organize workers. On Thanksgiving, 1869, Uriah Smith Stephens, Uriah SmithStephens, a Philadelphia tailor, invited eight other tailors to inaugurate what he envisioned as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, a fraternity of workers and artisans regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion, designed to promote the dignity of work. Initially the order was based on Stephens’s familiarity with the Freemasons. He conceived of the order as a way to organize Philadelphia’s immigrant Catholic workers, who were banned from the Masons. Rosters were kept secret, and the meetings resembled religious rituals, with scripture readings and visionary sermons.Knights of Labor

Initially growth was unremarkable: By 1879, the order maintained only twenty-three assemblies, mostly around Philadelphia. After Stephens resigned as the order’s master workman in 1879 and the order came under the progressive leadership of Terence V. Powderly, it abandoned its secrecy and rituals, trimmed its name, and began to address worker issues more forthrightly. Most notably, the new leadership championed an eight-hour workday, a ban on hiring children under fourteen for factory work, an end to using convicts as cheap labor, an upgrade in factory safety standards, a graduated income tax, public ownership of utilities, government assistance for farmers, and equal pay regardless of gender or race. Because the Knights of Labor welcomed all workers (excluding only “nonproductives,” such as bankers, doctors, stockholders, professional gamblers, and liquor producers) and because it welcomed both women and African Americans, by 1886, the Knights of Labor was the most powerful labor organization in the country with more than 700,000 members. In 1884, the organization achieved its most significant victory: the settlement of the Union Pacific Railroad strike.

The decline in the Knights of Labor’s influence, however, has been traced to its opposition to strikes (it advocated arbitration and limited boycotts), a strategy out of step with an evolving radical labor underground that saw disruption as the workers’ best hope. Ironically, it was the growing outcry against unions, particularly after the 1886 Haymarket Riot (which did not actually involve the Knights of Labor), and the resulting blackballing of union members by company owners that caused a sharp drop in membership. With the rise of craft-unions, most notably the American Federation of Labor, Knights of Labor membership dropped to 74,000 by 1893, a decline exacerbated by disputes among the organization’s leadership and among its autonomous assemblies and by several failed investment schemes. The Knights of Labor, however, maintained a headquarters until it was disbanded in 1917.

Further Reading
  • Fink, Leon. Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
  • Leavitt, John McDowell. Kings of Capital and the Knights of Labor: For the People. Adamant, Vt.: Adamant Media, 2001.
  • Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor’s Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

AFL-CIO

Gilded Age

Samuel Gompers

Haymarket Riot

Industrial Workers of the World

Labor history

Labor strikes

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