The Knights of Labor was a major American labor union in the 1880s.
Organized in 1869, it was the first effective labor organization that was more than regional in membership and influence. The Knights believed in the unity of the interests of all producing groups and sought to enlist in their ranks not only all laborers, but everyone who could be truly classified as a producer. The acceptance of all producers led to explosive growth after 1880.
The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was the most ambitious and significant labor organization of the Gilded Age. As the charismatic leader of this group, Irish Catholic Terence Powderly was America's first nationally known labor leader, the first to achieve a high degree of recognition from working people, industrialists, and politicians across the continent. To most Americans, Powderly was the Knights of Labor.
The Knights local chapters, in contrast to later AFL-affiliated unions, was built like the fraternal lodge—a popular institution in Gilded Age America. The lodges stressed ritual, sociability, social reform, and self-improvement. The structure of the Knights, however, facilitated dissension within the organization, and a number of competing groups offered alternative memberships for defectors. The Knights had overarching grandiose objectives for the reform of society, and many disgruntled members migrated to organizations with more focused religious, political, social, or economic objectives, such as fraternal lodges, temperance groups, and mutual-benefit associations. The oath of secrecy and sympathy for socialism proved to be stumbling blocks for maintaining Catholic members, since the Catholic bishops were highly distrustful of secret orders. The Knights ended secrecy in 1882 and were generally welcomed by the bishops. Most leaders were Catholics.
Under the leadership of Powderly, the Knights championed a variety of causes, sometimes through political or cooperative ventures. Powderly hoped to achieve their ends through politics and education rather than through economic coercion. They were willing to form political coalitions with farmers, radicals, and prohibitionists, but rarely won office beyond local city elections. They did induce many states to form bureaus of labor statistics to collect nonpartisan information on the condition of workers.
In 1883 the Knights greatly increased its membership after successful battles against railroad tycoon Jay Gould. But after 1886 skilled workers, became reluctant to join the Knights, because the Knights encouraged both skilled and unskilled laborers to join. The skilled workers, with years and decades of training, wanted more control of the workplace and did not wish to shared their gains with unskilled workers who came and left. The skilled workers much preferred the unions affiliated with the AFL (American Federation of Labor), which focused solely on labor issues and actions important to the skilled white men.
By the late 1880s the big strikes launched by the Knights had failed. The movement lost momentum in the wake of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, when their message was confused with that of bomb-making anarchists. The Knights faded away and were replaced by the American federation of Labor, which still exists.
Unlike the later AFL, the Knights were mildly tolerant of black workers. Thus during the railroad strikes of the 1880s, the Knights' biracial membership and alliance system spread to include urban communities as well as black farm laborers near railroad lines in Arkansas. The Knights generated a degree of working-class identity within the social realities of the South,
Like the later AFL, the Knights opposed Chinese labor aggressively. In typical western cities, the Chinese were perceived as a threat to white labor, especially as labor-management tensions escalated in the late 19th century. At the same time, the Chinese were viewed as 'morally inferior,' non-Christian, and heathen. Chinese businesses were boycotted, the Chinese were denied jobs, and there were incidents of intimidation and violence. The Knights generally were active participants in the anti-Chinese campaign across the West.
For example, Chinese workers in Utah experienced persecution from organized labor groups, including the Knights and others. Persecution reached its peak in 1885-86. The Knights organized a systematic boycott against Ogden's Chinese vegetable growers, which drove most of them out of town. In Seattle in 1886 the Knights led the anti-Chinese fight, claiming to defend the republic against industrial capitalism and its racially inferior tools.
- Commons, John R. History of Labour in the United States - vol 1 and Vol. 2 1860-1896 (1918) vol 2 online edition
- Grob, Gerald N. Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900 (1961) online edition
- Orth, Samuel P. The Armies of Labor: A Chronicle of the Organized Wage-Earners (1919) short overview online edition
- Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (2000) excerpt and text search, major scholarly study of Powderly and his Knights
- Van Tine, Warren R. The Making of the Labor Bureaucrat: Union Leadership in the United States, 1870-1920 (1973) online edition
- Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (1993) online edition
- Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor (1996) online edition
- Bibliography of online resources on railway labor in late 19th century