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).

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.

References in periodicals archive ?
Historians have studied this pair of strikes when documenting the rise of the Knights of Labor during Toronto's industrial revolution, when narrating the story of Howland's colourful two-year term as mayor, and when analyzing the legal issues raised by the strikes.
But they were divided on the Knights of Labor, and so the case was referred to Rome.
Gibbons, who had heretofore not been notably sympathetic to the poor despite his own working-class background, wrote an eloquent letter to Pope Leo XIII, arguing that the Catholics belonging to the Knights of Labor were working to right injustices that "no one dares to deny," including the efforts of monopolies "to control legislation to their own profit" and "heartless avarice.
With the support of the Knights of Labor, then some 700,000 strong, the National Granite Cutters' Union boycott was effective enough that Wilke had difficulty finding skilled workers to train the prisoners to quarry and cut the granite in Burnet and the limestone that would be taken from the quarry at Oatmanville.
Some, like the Knights of Labor, were dedicated to effecting change on a level that would preserve the basic structure of American life; others, like the anarchists and socialists, sought a complete reshaping of society.
The idea was the brainchild of Peter McGuire, leader of the Knights of Labor.
Molly Maguires, Pullman Strikers, and the Knights of Labor into a sweeping narrative, Young does not present a simple, straightforward history of Debs.
Kellman: If I have to pick a few things, I usually point to the Populists and the Knights of Labor.
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.
Unlike Sabetti, Bouquillon's social views were similar to other Catholic liberals like the bishops John Ireland and John Keane, and Cardinal James Gibbons, who supported the 'Americanization' of immigrants, the establishment of the Catholic University of America, Catholic participation in the Knights of Labor, and support and participation in public education.
To undermine efforts by the Knights of Labor to organize these workers, mill owners relied on paternalism, which was best exemplified by the company town.
While Chicago and other cities were torn by strife, the furniture workers of Grand Rapids fared better under the conservative leadership of the Knights of Labor.