Saturday, May 28, 2016

People Taking Charge: The Knights of Labor

"A deeply rooted feeling of discontent pervades the masses." - Terence V. Powderly

        The Knights of Labor, known officially as the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the nineteenth century. Its most important leader was Terence V. Powderly. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplifting of the working man, rejected socialism and anarchism, even though many of their demands were socialist in nature, demanded the eight-hour day, and promoted the producers' ethic of republicanism, a contradiction that did not go unnoticed. As a labor union, they negotiated with employers, and as a social organization, they helped to organize workers into their own associated unions. Unfortunately, the Knights were never very well organized, and after a rapid period of expansion in the mid 1880s, they suddenly lost most of their new members and became a small operation again. The Knights were founded by Uriah Stephens on December 28, 1869. By 1880, they had reached twenty-eight thousand members members. Just for your years later, however, they had skyrocketed to over one hundred thousand members. By 1886, twenty percent of all American workers were affiliated with the Knights of Labor, ballooning the organization to nearly eight hundred thousand members. Unfortunately, their poor organizational structure could not cope with the overload, especially as they faced charges of failure from their members and charges of violence from the government. The failure of the Great Southwestern Railroad Strike in 1886 was the event that signaled the organization's decline. Their association with the Haymarket Square incident, later that same year, was another nail in their coffin. Most of their members dropped their affiliations by end of 1887, leaving at most one hundred thousand members in the organization in 1890. Many of them chose to join groups that helped to identify their specific needs, instead of the Knights who addressed many different types of issues. The final death blow to the Knights came in the form of the Panic of 1893. This financial panic greatly contracted the American economy and effectively eliminated any need for the Knights. They had also begun to see themselves slowly replaced by a new labor organization, the American Federation of Labor. Remnants of the Knights of Labor carried on until 1949, when the organization's last fifty member local dropped its affiliation.

         At its inception, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor operated more as a fraternal organization than it did as a union. This was the idea of Uriah Stephens, the head of the Philadelphia Tailor's Union in 1869, and his two partners, Daniel Spahr and Sam Catri, the lead member of the union. At first, the organization remained a local affair. However, after the the collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873, the Knights were set to fill a massive vacuum. Thousands of workers were now looking for a new organization to represent their interests against their corrupt bosses. Unfortunately, Stephens was not prepared for the national stage. The Knights got a boost in organization and developed a national vision when they replaced Stephens with Terence V. Powderly. The Knights also got a boost in popularity in the middle of the 1870s when they assisted Pennsylvania coal miners face their bosses during the economic depression that was going on then. This gave them what they needed to spread to other regions of the country. The Knights ran a diverse industrial union open to all workers. The leaders felt that it was best to have a versatile population in order to get points of view from all aspects of the worker's spectrum. Its members included low skilled workers, railroad workers, immigrants, and steel workers. As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began not only to emphasize cooperative enterprises, but to initiate strikes to win concessions from employers. Powderly opposed strikes, which he referred to as relics of barbarism, but the size and the diversity of the Knights afforded local assemblies a great deal of autonomy. Hence, strikes were a tool used by the Knights.

        By 1882, the rapid growth of the Knights had begun. In response to this, they dropped the pretense of being a fraternal organization and remove the words Noble Order from the title of their organization. This was also done to assuage the fears of their Catholic members and their church leaders, who wanted to avoid any resemblance to freemasonry. As has been noted, the Knights were initially averse to strikes as a method to advance their goals. However, the Knights did come around, and they helped with various strikes and boycotts. One of their most popular successes was the Wabash Railroad strike in 1885. Powderly finally supported a strike, and the Knights were successful in unionizing Jay Gould's Wabash rail line. After a meeting with Powderly, Gould agreed to call off his harassment campaign against the Knights of Labor. It was this harassment campaign that had caused the workers on the Wabash rail line to the strike in the first place. This victory and other simultaneous positive developments gave the Knights the momentum that they needed to expand even further. Thus, by the beginning of 1886, they had reached their height of over eight hundred thousand members. As they moved onward, the Knights' agenda was fairly straightforward. The pushed for an eight-hour day, they called for legislation that would put an end to child and convict labor, and they pressed for a graduated income tax. They were also eager supporters of cooperatives. Even more progressive for the day, was the fact that one of their officers was a woman. Leonora Barry worked as an investigator and described the horrific conditions in factories. She also reported on the abuse of women and children. These reports made Barry the first person to collect national statistics on the American working woman. The Knight's generally avoided getting involved in politics; however, Powderly was able to push a pro labor platform in the 1886 Mayoral Election in New York City, the city were many major companies kept their corporate offices.

        The Knights also made an asserted effort to bring people from many different cultural backgrounds into their organization. However, they were not exactly successful in this effort. They were extremely successful in uniting Catholic workers and Protestant workers. The Knights were appealing to these groups because various leaders in the organization were either Catholic or Protestant, so they could bring their group along. However, when it came to women and African Americans, they were less successful. It took them nine years to even partially incorporate those sectors into the organization. Once in the organization, though, they did advocate for the admission of African Americans and women into local assemblies. The biggest stain on their record in this area, though, was the toleration of segregation in the South. Locals in the South were permitted to exclude African Americans. To compound this, it was common for African Americans organized by the Knights to receive little to no help when local whites retaliated against strikers. Certain professions were also excluded from the organization. If you were a banker, a doctor, a lawyer, a stock broker, or a liquor manufacturer, you were not considered fit for the ranks of the Knights of Labor. Unfortunately, they same went for Asian Americans. The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and in November of 1885, the branch of the Knights in Tacoma, Washington worked, in a failed effort, to completely the expel the city's Chinese population, who amounted to nearly a tenth of the overall population at the time, from the city. That, however, was not the worst of it. In 1885, the Knights local in Wyoming conflicted with the Union Pacific Railroad when they refused to do overtime work at the standard rate of pay. They wanted more pay for the extra time. Rather than pay the Knights a higher wage for the extra work, the railroad hired Chinese workers to do the extra work at half the cost. The aftermath of this slight was not pretty. The Knights committed an act genocide, essentially, historically known as, the Rock Springs massacre. They killed over one hundred Chinese laborers, and then forcefully drove the remainder of the workers completely out of the territory.

        The Knights of Labor also built up a strong internal social culture. Further, though it is often overlooked, the Knights also contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs in the United States. The Knights frequently included music in their regular meetings, and encouraged local members to write and perform their work. In Chicago, James and Emily Talmadge, printers and supporters of the Knights, published the songbook, Labor Songs Dedicated to the Knights of Labor, in 1885. The song, "Hold the Fort," also known as, "Storm the Fort," a Knights of Labor pro labor revision of the hymn by the same name, was the most popular labor song in the United States, prior to Ralph Chaplin's IWW anthem, "Solidarity Forever." Pete Seeger often performed this song, and it appears on a number of his recordings. Songwriter and labor singer, Bucky Halker, includes a slightly altered version of the song, entitled "Labor's Battle Song," on his album, Don't Want Your Millions, released by Revolting Records in 2000. Halker also drew heavily on the Knights' songs and poems in his book on labor song and poetry, For Democracy, Workers, and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865-1895, which was published in 1991.

        The Great Southwest Railroad Strike took place in 1886. It was a labor union strike involving more than two hundred thousand workers. It began on March 1, 1886, when railroad workers in five states across the US southwest struck against the Jay Gould owned, Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads. During the strike, at least ten people were killed. The strike, however, completely collapsed within two months. This was the event that led directly to the collapse of the Knights of Labor. The origins of the strike lie in a pattern of labor actions, negotiations, and temporary agreements made with Jay Gould and the Union Pacific Railroad, all throughout 1885. These arrangements included the stipulations that no man should be discharged without due notice, or without proper and fair investigation. This was purportedly violated when a Knight in Marshall, Texas, named Charles A. Hall, was fired for attending a union meeting while on company time. Local District Assembly No. 101, under the leadership of Martin Irons, chose, in protest, to call for a strike. Irons was a popular labor leader, and within a week, in solidarity, more than two hundred thousand workers were on strike throughout Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. The strike made an immediate impact. A headline in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch read, "Traffic Throttled: The Gould System at the Mercy of the Knights of Labor." However, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen refused to honor the strike, and its members kept working. Further, Gould immediately hired strikebreakers to work the railroad. He also hired some Pinkerton detectives to work the rails so that they could be on site to resist any trouble that may be dealt about by the Knights.

        As of March 10th, no serious violence had been reported; however, one strikebreaker was assaulted in Fort Worth, Texas. However, as time went on, there were reports made of daring acts of sabotage. Some of the strikers were assaulting and disabling moving trains. There were also reports of threatening notes making their way to company officials and complimentary visits being made to engineers who refused to honor the strike. One incident got a particularly aggravated response on the national stage. A band of some six hundred Knights and additional sympathizers marched on a roundhouse in DeSoto, Missouri and drained the boilers in every engine they could find. This tactic was known as letting the locomotives go cold, which would then force the railroad to spend up to six hours slowly reheating the engines for use, thus, putting the company behind on freight deliveries and passenger travel. This did the job of bringing Jay Gould to the negotiating table. On March 19, 1886, Powderly, and other leaders of the Knights were invited to Kansas City, Missouri to meet with the state governors of Kansas and Missouri and senior officials of the Union Pacific Railroad. The goal for the governors and company officials, of course, was to bring an end to the strike. After two days of meetings; however, the parties were unable to reach an agreement. This was because Gould and his executives refused to meet any of  any striker's demands. Meanwhile, the violence escalated. On April 3rd, Tarrant County Sheriff's deputy, Richard Townsend, was shot and killed in a confrontation with protesters in Fort Worth, Texas. Two other deputies were also wounded. There was further violence on April 9th, in East Saint Louis, Illinois. There, eighty switchmen walked out on strike against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, another line own by Jay Gould. Violence broke out when a crowd of the strikers met with eight deputies guarding a freight train. The guards shot into the crowd. They killed six strikers and narrowly avoided shooting the towns mayor, Maurice Joyce. The strikers responded to the unprovoked killings by burning the company's railyard to the ground.

        Fearing that these incidents would cause the violence to spread, Gould requested military assistance from the governors of the affected states. The Governor of Missouri mobilized the state militia, the Governor of Texas mobilized both the state militia and the Texas Rangers, but the Governor of Kansas refused to call up his state's militia. Local officials in his state reported that there had been no incidents of violence, which was contrary to claims from railroad executives that strikers had seized control of trains and that rail yards were burning. On April 26th, a freight train was derailed near Wyandotte, Kansas. The incident took the lives of two crew members who had chosen not to strike. They were buried in wreckage and mud on the banks of the Kaw River. The incident was claimed by Knight affiliated strikers. Subsequently, six Knights were charged with murder and destruction of private property even though the only evidence against them, testimony from a paid informer, was purely circumstantial. Soon after, in retaliation for the workers killed by strikers just days earlier, a striker named John Gibbons was fatally shot by an undercover Pinkerton Detective, masquerading as switchman, in Saint Louis, Missouri. This blatantly subsidized murder set off more violence against the company. However, as the violence spread, public opinion began turned against the striking workers. Additionally, the Pinkerton agents, with company approval, stepped up their attacks against the strikers, and this scared thousands of workers into returning to work. The strike was officially called off a on May 4, a little over a week after the Wyandotte incident.

        The failure of the great Southwest Railroad Strike represented the first major defeat sustained by the Knights of Labor. When the strike did not draw the support of the engineers and other industrial workers, the Knights' vision of an industrial union withered, as well. Internal conflict broke out between various factions within the Knights. This paralyzed the union and made any further actions difficult to implement. The great Southwest Railroad Strike, the Haymarket Riot, and the collapse of the 1887 Sugar Strikes in Louisiana, one last effort by the Knights to organize workers, demoralized the Knights of Labor and encouraged companies to push back even harder. Employers adopted a model for stamping out strikes that called for holding firm and relying on the use of government troops. By 1890, membership in the Knights of Labor had plummeted by ninety percent. While the collapse of the railroad strike set the American labor movement back, it also made the organizational problems of the Knights of Labor glaringly apparent to leaders, who previously, had not seen them. This, then, motivated Samuel Gompers, of the Cigar Makers Union, Peter J. McGuire, of the Carpenters Union, among others, to organize what they hoped would be a more effective labor organization. On December 8, 1886, Gompers, McGuire, and dozens of other delegates from former Knights of Labor affiliated unions met in Columbus, Ohio to create the American Federation of Labor. The Knights were now effectively non existent.


  1. Brilliant article for this Brit who knows a lot about British union history but little about the States.