Knights of Labor

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Knights of Labor,

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 riotHaymarket Square riot,
outbreak of violence in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Demands for an eight-hour working day became increasingly widespread among American laborers in the 1880s.
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 (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 aims—an 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. Among the causes of its downfall were factional disputes, too much centralization with a resulting autocracy from top to bottom, mismanagement, drainage of financial resources through unsuccessful strikes, and the emergence of the American Federation of Labor. By 1890 its membership had dropped to 100,000, and in 1900 it was practically extinct.


See P. S. Foner and R. L. Lewis, ed., Black Worker: The Era of the Knights of Labor (1979).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Knights of Labor


(Noble Order of Knights of Labor), a mass organization of American workers in the last third of the 19th century. It played an important role in the development of the labor movement in the United States.

Founded in 1869 by a group of garment workers headed by Uriah Stevens, it operated as a secret organization until 1878. The Knights of Labor represented the first attempt to organize the American working class on a national scale. It brought together workers from various trades, particularly the unskilled, and also included nonproletarian and petit bourgeois elements. The organization pursued limited goals, such as creation of producers’ cooperatives and mutual aid societies and struggle for “fair” labor conditions. As a secret order, it had complex ceremonies and rituals.

The assumption of an open, legal status helped the Knights of Labor transform itself into the most influential labor organization in the United States. Its approximately 10,000 members in 1879 grew to more than 700,000 in 1886. The Knights of Labor led a number of successful strikes during this period. However, its influence and size declined after 1886, when its leaders turned away from the class struggle. In 1893 it had only around 70,000 members and by the end of the century had virtually ceased to exist.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Whatever the reason, the Knights of Labor and the newly-formed American Federation of Labor took a justifiably cynical tone.
Local chapters of America's largest voluntary federations (apart from AFL unions and the Knights of Labor) were also quite stable.
In 1883 Cardinal Emile Taschereau sent to the Holy See a copy of the constitutions of the Knights of Labor, which was gaining support among French-Canadian workers.
Between the mid-1880s and 1905, several thousand people from this new working class joined the Knights of Labor and a few other trade unions, but despite many, often violent, strikes, poor leadership and company enmity prevented any significant gains.
At present he is working on an article concerning the Knights of Labor in the East Liverpool ceramics industry.
But where the German Furniture Workers Union, the Knights of Labor and the Amalgamated failed, the Brotherhood succeeded in recruiting thousands of these Dutch immigrants.
Joseph O'Donnell, retired Executive Director of the Harvard University Trade Union Program, traces their roots back at least to the mid-1800's and the Knights of Labor, predecessor of the AFL.
The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was established in Philadelphia, Pa.
As leader of the cigar maker' union, he took the union out of the Knights of Labor, an industrial union, and established the American Federation of Labor, a federation of craft unions, in 1886.
Lause introduces readers to the emergence of immediate post-Civil War groups who presented political challenges the powerful: Patrons of Husbandry (Grange), Industrial Brotherhood (which became the Knights of Labor), and the Farmer's Alliance, while arguing that corporate and political powers chose to protect "their property, profits, and prerogatives" through violence and coercion rather than give in to workers' demands, (xii) The introduction sets the context for the rise of the cattle industry in the West, discussing the rise in national demand for beef, and the Red River War of 1874 against Texas Native Americans, who, once defeated and placed on reservations, opened immense territory for large-scale corporate ranching.
Terence Powderly combined membership in the Knights of Labor with membership in the Land League.
29,1888, from Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni of the Vatican's Propaganda Fide to Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons, permitting Catholics to join the Knights of Labor. The website also features the famous 1964 "Pettigrew for President" series in Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact, in which the Catholic comics considered the possibility of electing a black man as president (NCR, Oct.