Backwaters of History No.9 – The Knights of Labour

America in 1869. Abraham Lincoln had been deal four years and Andrew Johnson was president, to be ousted in that year by the famous General Ulysses Simpson Grant. Brigham Young, who had proclaimed the doctrine of polygamy in 1852, was prophet and president of the Mormon state of Utah, to which he had led his persecuted followers five years earlier. In San Francisco the infamous Barbary Coast was at the height of its notoriety. Indian wars were being fought in Colorado. There was gold in Nevada. The westward flowing traffic on the Oregon trail was passing to the newly built Union Pacific Railway. Gun-slingers were rampant on Kansas. In the southern states, recently devastated by the civil war, the negroes, released from their chattel slavery, were being coerced into a form of serfdom through the medium of “protective legislation” and vagrancy laws. “Carpet-baggers” from the north and “Scallywags” from the south, were muscling-in on the war-torn states and creating the rackets that furnished the foundations for more than a few American family fortunes. In the northern states industry was flourishing. The European agents of American manufacturers were gathering together hundreds of thousands of willing worker emigrants, making contracts with them and herding them across the Atlantic to satisfy the hungry maw of the American labour market for cheap labour power.

Philadelphia—”city of brotherly love”—founded by William Penn, the Quaker, in 1682 as a city in which men of all races might live, each following, unpersecuted, his own religion. Philadelphia, with its growing industries, received its share of immigrants. Amongst them were many Germans, some of whom were political exiles and refugees and had experience with the International Working Men’s Association.

The condition of the American workers in 1869 was vile. Tens of thousands of women and children were working eleven and twelve hours a day. Overcrowded, ill ventilated, damp, insalubrious tenements and dwelling houses were a prolific cause of disease. Wages were kept low and strikes were smashed by the importation of more and more cheap labourers from Europe and Asia. Workers were imported from China for $100 each and paid wages of from $8 to $12 a month.

    “A shoe manufacturer in North Adams, Massachusetts imported 75 Chinese to displace striking members of the Knights of St. Crispin in 1870″— (The Workers in American History, James Oneal, p. 175.)

It required courage to stand up to the persecution and the outlawing black-list that threatened every worker who attempted to organise with his fellows, yet, despite these conditions, there arose some powerful working class organisations.

Amongst the garment workers of Philadelphia were some courageous men, including some of the German exiles. They were organised by Uriah S. Stephens into a secret society the name of which was not written but indicated by five stars whenever it was necessary to refer to it in print or writing. For nine years it preserved its secrecy with its passwords, handgrips and queer cabalistic signs chalked on the sidewalks and fences. Its ritual declared that,

    ” . . . open and public association having failed after a struggle of centuries to protect or advance the interests of labour, we have lawfully constituted this assembly and in using this power of organised effort and co-operation we but imitate the example of capital, for in all the multifarious branches of trade, capital has its combinations and whether intended or not it crushes the manly hopes of labour and tramples poor humanity into the dust.”— (Quoted by Mary Beard in A Short History of the American Labour Movement. pp. 116-117.)

In 1878 this society came into the open as the Noble Order of the Knights of Labour, called its first general assembly and elected its founder as Grand Master Workman. Stephens resigned shortly afterwards and was succeeded by Terrence V. Powderley. 

The Knights of Labour proclaimed a concern for all workers regardless of skill, sex or race. It took as its slogan, “An injury to one is the concern of all.” It refused to countenance craft exclusiveness, claiming that the solidarity of the workers could bridge all differences and secure “the physical well-being, the mental development and the moral elevation of mankind.” Anyone who worked for wages could become a member. Only saloon keepers, lawyers, doctors and bankers were prohibited from joining.

The organisation spread all over the United States. It was organised into locals of two kinds; trade locals comprising members of one trade only, and mixed locals with membership available to all. Delegates from five locals constituted a district assembly and delegates from the districts formed the general assembly which had the over-riding authority.

The aims of the K. of L. were not revolutionary and it did not recognise the class struggle. Amongst its aims were these: —

    ” . . . no conflict with legitimate enterprise, no antagonism to necessary capital . . . “

    “We shall with all our strength support laws made to harmonise the interests of labour and capital and also those laws which tend to lighten the exhaustiveness of toil.” — (Quoted by A. Bimba in The History of the American Working Class. pp. 173-174.)

The Knights did not start out to encourage strikes and the leaders frequently tried to suppress them. They aimed to replace a competitive society by a co-operative one which would give the workers the opportunity to enjoy fully the wealth they created. This was to be done by reducing the “money power” of the banks. They also aimed to secure the eight hour day, equal pay for equal work by women, abolition of child and convict labour, public ownership of mines, railways and other utilities, and the establishment of co-operatives.

The religious fervour with which the campaign for the eight hour day was conducted drew thousands of workers to the ranks of K. of L. Despite its original aims it was forced to participate in strikes and it entered into wage agreements with employers. Its locals organised stay-in strikes amongst miners, boycotts and sent funds to strikers.

On February 26th, 1886, the shopmen on the Wabash Railroad suffered a 10 per cent. cut in pay. The following day they were out on strike and were joined on March 9th by the shopmen of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, who had received a wage cut the previous October. Shortly there were 4,500 workers on strike. The Knights sent their Union Pacific Railroad man, Buckman, with $30,000 to lead and finance the strike and locomotives were immobilised by the removal of vital parts. The railway companies gave in but later that year they tried to break the power of the K. of L. by dismissing them from their employ. They were immediately faced with a threat of strike action by 20,000 workers, and Jay Gould, the owner of the south west railway system, surrendered.

Successes like this caused workers to flock to the K. of L. and its membership increased seven-fold in one year reaching the peak of 700,000, almost 10 per cent. of the industrial wage workers.

Later strike efforts were sabotaged by the Knight’s leaders on the plea that prolonged strikes caused suffering to the workers and their families. Strikes were even called off when they had been waged to the point of success. There was an instance in Chicago. In October, 1886, 20,000 butchers were locked out by the owners of the meat packing industry in an effort to re-establish the ten hour working day, the workers having achieved an eight hour day some time previously. Two regiments of militia were sent by the State governor to force the workers into submission and the packers association employed hundreds of Pinkerton agents and provocateurs to the same end. Organised by District Assemblies 27 and 54 of the K. of L., the men held firm till the employers weakened and offered concessions. On the eve of victory Terrence V. Powderley sent a telegram ordering the men back to work and so demoralised the ranks that the workers finally submitted to the employers’ demands.

In 1881 there had been formed the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour which in 1886 gave way to the American Federation of Labour with Samuel Gompers of the Cigarmakers; Union as its first president. It set out to organise the skilled workers on a craft basis based on ideas directly opposite to those held by the Knights. The A. F. of L. began to draw members from the K. of L. and a struggle began between the two organisations. At the height of its strength a rot set in in the Knights of Labour. It became the victim of that most destructive element, the labour fakir and job-seeker. When the American capitalist class was getting its biggest fright from the K. of L., that body began to crack. It had attracted to its ranks all kinds of cranks, reformers, careerists, anarchists, professional people and even a few employers. It became a battleground for all sorts of ideas. When the eight hour campaign fizzled out and the opposition of the A. F. of L. had to be met the Knights declined rapidly. The employers took advantage of their plight and with blacklist, ironclad and Pinkerton detectives set out to smash them. As the Knights crumbled the A. F. of L. rose on its ruins.

By 1900 the Knights of Labour had ceased to exist as a national organisation with any influence, although it continued in some localities until 1917. So the all inclusive “grand national union of industrial workers” passed into the limbo of dead experiments. Such is the fate of all organisations that set themselves a political objective and try to solve the problems of capitalism without aiming at its abolition. They have their day of popularity, gathering support from all kinds of people with varying ideas who will either divert it from its object or desert it, or both.


Books to read

Class Struggles in America, by A. M. Simons.

The Workers in American History, by James Oneal.

The History of the American Working Class, by Anthony Bimba.

History of Trade Unionism in the United States, by Selig Perlman.

A Short History of the American Labour Movement, by Mary Beard.

Brief History of the American Labour Movement, by the United States Department of Labour.

W. Waters

Leave a Reply