Knights of Labor (K of L), officially Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, was an American labor federation active in the late 19th century, especially the 1880s. It operated in the United States as well in Canada,  and had chapters also in Great Britain and Australia. Its most important leaders were Terence V. Powderly and step-brother Joseph Bath. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the working man, rejected socialism and anarchism, demanded the eight-hour day, and promoted the producers' ethic of Republicanism in the United States. In some cases it acted as a labor union, negotiating with employers, but it was never well organized or funded. After a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s, it suddenly lost its new members and became a small operation again.
It was founded by Uriah Smith Stephens on December 28, 1869, reached 28,000 members in 1880, then jumped to 100,000 in 1884. By 1886, 20% of all workers were affiliated, nearly 800,000 members. Its frail organizational structure could not cope as it was battered by charges of failure and violence and calumnies of the association with the Haymarket Square riot. Most members abandoned the movement in 1886–1887, leaving at most 100,000 in 1890. Many opted to join groups that helped to identify their specific needs, instead of the KOL which addressed many different types of issues. The Panic of 1893 terminated the Knights of Labor's importance. Remnants of the Knights of Labor continued in existence until 1949, when the group's last 50-member local dropped its affiliation.
In 1869, Uriah Smith Stephens, James L. Wright, and a small group of Philadelphia tailors founded a secret organization known as the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. The collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873 left a vacuum for workers looking for organization. The Knights became better organized with a national vision when they replaced Stephens with Terence V. Powderly. The body became popular with Pennsylvania coal miners during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, then it grew rapidly. The KOL was a diverse industrial union open to all workers. The leaders felt that it was best to have a versatile population in order to get points of view from all aspects. The Knights of Labor barred five groups from membership: bankers, land speculators, lawyers, liquor dealers and gamblers. Its members included low skilled workers, railroad workers, immigrants, and steel workers.
As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less of a secret organization. During the 1880's, the Knights of Labor played a huge role in independent and third-party movements. Local assemblies began not only to emphasize cooperative enterprises, but to initiate strikes to win concessions from employers. The Knights of Labor brought together workers of different religions, races and genders and helped them all create a bond and unify all for the same cause. The new leader Powderly opposed strikes as a "relic of barbarism," but the size and the diversity of the Knights afforded local assemblies a great deal of autonomy.
In 1882, the Knights ended their membership rituals and removed the words "Noble Order" from their name. This was intended to mollify the concerns of Catholic members and the bishops who wanted to avoid any resemblance to freemasonry. Though initially averse to strikes to advance their goals, the Knights did aid various strikes and boycotts. The Wabash Railroad strike in 1885 saw Powderly finally adapt and support an eventually successful strike against Jay Gould's Wabash Line. Gould met with Powderly and agreed to call off his campaign against the Knights of Labor, which had caused the turmoil originally. This gave momentum to the Knights and membership surged. By 1886, the Knights had more than 700,000 members.
The Knights' primary demand was for the eight-hour workday. They also called for legislation to end child and convict labor as well as a graduated income tax. They also supported cooperatives. The only woman to hold office in the Knights of Labor, Leonora Barry, worked as an investigator. She described the horrific conditions in factories employing women and children. These reports made Barry the first person to collect national statistics on the American working woman.
Powderly and the Knights tried to avoid divisive political issues, but in the early 1880s, many Knights had become followers of Henry George's radical ideology known now as georgism. In 1883, Powderly officially recommended George's book and announced his support of "single tax" on land values. During the New York mayoral election of 1886, Powderly was able to successfully push the organization towards the favor of Henry George.
The Knights of Labor helped to bring together many different types of people from all different walks of life; for example Catholic and Protestant Irish-born workers. The KOL appealed to them because they worked very closely with the Irish Land League. The Knights had a mixed record on inclusiveness and exclusiveness. They accepted women and blacks (after 1878) and their employers as members, and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies. However, the organization tolerated the segregation of assemblies in the South. Bankers, doctors, lawyers, stockholders, and liquor manufacturers were excluded because they were considered unproductive members of society. Asians were also excluded, and in November 1885, a branch of the Knights in Tacoma, Washington violently expelled the city's Chinese workers, who amounted to nearly a tenth of the overall city population at the time.The Union Pacific Railroad came into conflict with the Knights. When the Knights in Wyoming refused to work more hours in 1885, the railroad hired Chinese workers as strikebreakers and to stir up racial animosity. The result was the Rock Springs massacre, that killed scores of Chinese workers, and drove the rest out of Wyoming. About 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers organized by the Knights went on strike and were murdered by strikebreakers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana. The Knights strongly supported passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885, as did many other labor groups, demonstrating the limits of their commitment to solidarity. While they claimed to not be "against immigration," their anti-Asian racism demonstrated the limits and inconsistency of their anti-racist platform.
The Knights of Labor attracted many Catholics, who were a large part of the membership, perhaps a majority. Powderly was also a Catholic. However, the Knights's use of secrecy, similar to the Masons, during its early years concerned many bishops of the church. The Knights used secrecy and deception to help prevent employers from firing members. After the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in 1884, twelve American archbishops voted 10 to 2 against doing likewise in the United States. Furthermore, Cardinals James Gibbons and John Ireland defended the Knights. Gibbons went to the Vatican to talk to the hierarchy. In 1886, right after the peak of the Knights of Labor, they started to lose more members to the American Federation of Labor. It has been believed that the fall of the Knights of Labor was due to their lack of adaptability and beliefs in the old-style industrial capitalism.
Though often overlooked, the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs in America. The Knights frequently included music in their regular meetings, and encouraged local members to write and perform their work. In Chicago, James and Emily Talmadge, printers and supporters of the Knights of Labor, published the songbook "Labor Songs Dedicated to the Knights of Labor" (1885). The song "Hold the Fort" [also "Storm the Fort"], a Knights of Labor pro-labor revision of the hymn by the same name, became the most popular labor song prior to Ralph Chaplin's IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) anthem "Solidarity Forever". Pete Seeger often performed this song and it appears on a number of his recordings. Songwriter and labor singer Bucky Halker includes the Talmadge version, entitled "Labor's Battle Song," on his CD Don't Want Your Millions (Revolting Records 2000). Halker also draws heavily on the Knights songs and poems in his book on labor song and poetry, For Democracy, Workers and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865-1895 (University of Illinois Press, 1991).
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Grand Master Workmen
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- Terence V. Powderly (1879–1893)
- James Sovereign (1893–1901)
- John Hayes (1901–1917)
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