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The Knights of Labor, also known as Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, was one of the most important American labor organizations of the 19th century. Founded by nine Philadelphiamarker tailors in 1869 and led by Uriah Stephens, its ideology may be described as producerist, demanding an end to child and convict labor, equal pay for women, a progressive income tax, and the cooperative employer-employee ownership of mines and factories.


The Knights of Labor had a mixed history of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, accepting women and blacks (after 1878), and their employers as members and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies, but turning a blind eye to the segregation of assemblies in the South. Mary Harris Jones, known as "Mother Jones", helped recruit thousands of women to the Knights of Labor. She was greatly feared by factory owners, but loved and respected by union members and workers, which is how she earned her nickname "Mother Jones". 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, Washingtonmarker worked to expel the city's Chinese, which amounted to nearly a tenth of the overall city population at the time. They were also responsible for race riots that resulted in the deaths of Chinese Americans in the Rock Springs Massacre. The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885, as did many other labor groups.

The Knights of Labor grew rapidly after the collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873, and especially after the replacement of Uriah Stephens with Terence V. Powderly. As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union, and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began to emphasize not only cooperative enterprises, but to initiate strike to win concessions from non-Knights employers. 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.

The Knights found that secrecy interfered with the organization's public work and inhibited its response to critics. Carroll Wright, U.S. Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor, characterized the Knights of Labor as a "purely and deeply secret organization" that drew heavily on Freemasonry for its ideas and procedures. In 1881, the Order's General Assembly agreed to make its name and objectives public and to abolish its initiating oaths. Most rituals associated with the order continued, and the Knights entered its period of greatest growth.

Though initially afraid of the strike as a method to advance their goals, the Knights aided various strikes and boycotts. Arguably their greatest victory was in the Union Pacific Railroad strike in 1884. The Wabash Railroad strike in 1885 was also a significant success, as Powderly did not follow his usual practice and supported what became a crippling strike on 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. These positive developments encouraged new membership, and by 1886, the Knights had over 700,000 members. While the Knights were in no way involved, the Haymarket affairmarker nonetheless significantly tarnished their reputation.

The Order was brought to Australia around 1890. The Freedom Assembly, which operated in Sydneymarker during the tumultuous period of 1891-93, had as members well known Australian labor movement people such as William Lane, Ernie Lane, WG Spence, Arthur Rae and George Black. A similar assembly operated in Melbourne.

Members held meetings in secret because employers fired workers who joined unions.


Membership declined with the problems of an autocratic structure, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes. Disputes between the skilled trade unionists (also known as craft unionists) and the industrial unionists weakened the organization. There was widespread repression of labor unions in the late 1880s, such as the violence against strikers in the Haymarket Riotmarker of 1886. The Knights were unsuccessful in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 and lost many craft unionists that year when the rival American Federation of Labor was founded.

In 1890, it had fewer than 100,000 members. At the same time, the Knights received political support from the People's Party. Terence Powderly was replaced as Grand Master Workman by James Sovereign in 1893. Two years later, members of the Socialist Labor Party left the Knights to found the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance as a Marxist rival. Membership was reduced to 17,000. The majority of New York City's District Assembly 49 joined the Industrial Workers of the World at its 1905 foundation. Although, by 1900, it was virtually nonexistent as a labor union, the Knights maintained a central office until 1917 and held conventions until 1932. At least a few local assemblies lasted until 1949.

Though little documented by historians, the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs in American. 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" (1886). The song "Hold the Fort" [also "Storm the Fort"], a Knights of Labor pro-labor revision of the hymn by the same name, because the most popular labor song prior to Ralph Chaplin's IWW 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).


See also

Further reading


  • Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism. New York: International Publishers, 1955. Cloth ISBN 0-7178-0092-X; Paperback ISBN 0-7178-0388-0


Contemporary accounts

by Knights

by others


  1. Perlman, Selig, A History of Trade Unionism in the United States, The MacMullin Company, New York, 1922.
  2. Knights of Labor -
  3. General Interest Business and Industry Knights of Labor -
  4. But other than that, the Knights of Labor accepted many people: skilled and unskilled women and men of any profession.
  5. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism, 1955, pp. 160-161.
  6. Weir, Beyond Labor's Veil, p. 322.

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