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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.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.