Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor was the largest and most successful attempt at an all-inclusive labor union in American history. When most labor organizations were based upon skill, trade, and white male exclusivity, the Knights of Labor was unique in the collective organization of skilled and unskilled labor, along with African Americans and women. Uriah Smith Stephens, James L. Wright, and a small group of Philadelphia tailors founded a secret organization known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor in 1869. The Knights of Labor reached its zenith in the early to mid-1880s with several prominent and highly visible victories against the railroad industry. By most estimates, the union counted close to 700,000 members at its height in early 1886. The organization was characterized by a rapid rise in membership and a meteoric decline following the tumult of the Haymarket Square Riot of May 4, 1886. Remnants of the union continued to operate until 1949, when the last 50-member local terminated affiliation with the order.

Although the Knights of Labor is typically categorized as a labor union, it only acted as such on occasion. Uriah Stephens and his fellow Philadelphia tailors founded the organization to promote the producer's ethic of republicanism and for the social and cultural uplift of American laborers. The guiding vision of the Knights of Labor emphasized cooperation with management over division and always rejected any hint of socialism and radicalism. According to the order's constitution, the Knights existed to challenge “the recent alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth” by industrialists, bankers, and stock speculators, as the Knights feared that these conditions would give way “to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses (Powderly 128 ).” The Knights of Labor called for an end to convict and child labor, for equal pay for men and women, and agitated for the eight-hour work day at the same wage as a longer shift. To promote greater prosperity for working people, the Knights of Labor lobbied for state bureaus of labor to oversee workplace conditions on a state-by-state level and worked toward the formation of labor cooperatives to promote greater fairness within the capitalist system.

Both the highest level of membership, power, and prestige and the precipitous decline of the order were overseen by Terence Powderly, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants of Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Powderly joined the Knights of Labor in 1876, rose to the position of secretary of a district assembly the following year, and led the Knights as grand master workman between the years 1879 and 1893. Powderly was a strict advocate of moderation and cooperation between labor and management. The grand master workman condemned striking as a “relic of barbarism,” much to the chagrin of the more radical elements of the growing organization. Powderly's dual commitment to moderation and Roman Catholicism paid off in 1882. In that year, Powderly secured a concordat with Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore. Powderly dropped the prefix “Noble and Holy Order” and any vestige of freemasonry from the Knights, and Gibbons agreed to remove the sanctions against Catholics joining the Knights, officially providing the organization with a valuable new demographic.

While Powderly emphasized lawful cooperation, the rank and file of the organization called for more direct action in the early 1880s. Authority within the Knights of Labor was decentralized, leaving the grand master workman with very little practical authority on regional and local levels. A desire for more immediate action and tangible gains caused the Knights to take a more radical turn in the 1880s and to more closely resemble a labor union. The Knights waged a successful and highly visible strike against the Union Pacific Railroad in 1884 and followed up with a victory against Jay Gould's own Wabash Railroad the following year. Success against the railroads caused membership to skyrocket in the mid-1880s, and enthusiasm for striking among the members (despite Powderly's ambivalence) continued to rise. By 1886, membership numbers stood at around 700,000. The organization included an estimated 10,000 women and, despite segregated locals in the American South, 50,000 African Americans. The rapid growth of local organizations forced Powderly to place a moratorium on the issuing of new charters. While the organization was open to the skilled and unskilled, women, and African Americans, Chinese workers were uniformly excluded. Terence Powderly was an avid supporter of the Chinese Exclusion Act and encouraged West Coast branches to campaign for passage of the legislation.

Allegations of radicalism, anarchism, and terrorism caused membership of the Knights of Labor to plunge. The decline of the Knights of Labor correlated with the rise of Samuel Gompers's new American Federation of Labor, which focused exclusively on trade unionism rather than on the all-inclusive labor concept and thereby drew skilled workers away from the Knights of Labor. By 1890, membership in the Knights of Labor had dropped to 100,000. James Sovereign replaced Terence Powderly as grand master workman in 1893. In 1895, the union took another blow when members of the Socialist Labor Party bolted from the Knights to found a more socialist-based rival organization known as the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. By the turn of the twentieth century, membership of the Knights of Labor stood at a paltry 17,000 workers.

Jason Hostutler

See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Depression of 1873 ; Eight-hour Day ; Gilded Age ; Gompers, Samuel (1850–1924) ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; Powderly, Terence V. (1849–1924) ; Robber Barons ; Union Pacific Railroad


Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Powderly, Terrence. Thirty Years of Labor: 1859–1889. Columbus, OH: Excelsior Publishing House, 1889.

Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Weir, Robert E. Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in Gilded Age Social Movement. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

Wright, Carroll D. “An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 1 (2): 137–168.