The Knights of Labor (KOL), officially known as the "Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor," was founded on December 28, 1869, when both American capitalism and the labor movement were young and relatively disorganized. It began as a secret society, but quickly grew into the largest and most significant labor organization in the U.S. by the 1880s. The Knights are considered by many to be a predecessor to the more well-known Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like its more radical cousin, the IWW, the KOL called for the abolition of the wage system and fought to organize all workers into one big union, including women and immigrants. And, like the IWW, one of the KOL’s slogans was, “An Injury to One is the Concern of All.”
The KOL was founded by seven members of the Philadelphia tailors' union, led by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright. However, the Knights’ most rapid growth occurred under the leadership of Terence Powderly, who replaced Stephens as Grand Master, and convinced the organization to give up its secrecy. The Knights originally denounced strikes, socialism, anarchism and radicalism. Yet the organization became a hotbed of radicalism, with members that included Daniel De Leon, who would go on to later cofound the IWW and lead the Socialist Labor Party, as well as Albert Parsons and other future Haymarket martyrs
. Furthermore, as the organization grew, it began to launch and win its own strikes (due primarily to the overwhelming demand of its membership, which was far more radical than its leadership), including the Union Pacific Railroad
strike in 1884 and the Wabash Railroad
strike in 1885. The success of these strikes inspired hundreds of thousands of workers to join the organization in just one year, mushrooming from 100,000 in 1885 to nearly 700,000 members in 1886.
One of the things that made the KOL so successful and so significant is that, unlike the majority of trade unions of the time (and today), they reached out to all working people, not just those in a single trade. Their assemblies included workers from all industries, skilled and unskilled, women as well as men, and blacks as well as whites. They fought for equal pay for equal work, the 8-hour day, and the abolition of child and convict labor.
|6th Regiment Fighting Workers in the Streets of Baltimore During the Great Upheaval| The Knights of Labor were closely identified with the Great Upheaval and rail strikes of 1877. Though the workers were ultimately defeated in this mass working class uprising, the KOL was still seen by many as their best bet against capital, in part for their victories early in the revolt, and membership in the organization gradually began to rise during this era. Chicago’s branch of the KOL was inaugurated in the wake of the Great Upheaval and included many of the city’s leading radicals. The Chicago KOL initially supported socialist and “pro-labor” candidates and won some early favors from Mayor Carter Harrison.
Over time, however, Chicago capitalists pressured Harrison to take a harder line on labor, leading to increasing violence by the police against striking workers. At the same time, the capitalists were replacing skilled laborers with machines whenever possible. These trends contributed to the growing radicalization of the labor movement. Many began to see trade unionism as a dead end, as it isolated workers by trade and focused on untrustworthy politicians. More and more looked to the Knights, not only for the class solidarity the organization provided, but because of its recent victory against Robber Baron Jay Gould’s Wabash Railroad. By mid-1886, workers were joining the KOL at the rate of 1,000 per week.
The Knights of Labor were full of contradictions. While they espoused class solidarity and the abolition of the wage system, their leadership criticized the militant tactics of the anarchists and even called for summary punishment for those “responsible” for the Haymarket bombing, despite the fact that there wasn’t a shred of evidence linking any of the 8 Haymarket suspects to the bombing. Ultimately, when it became clear that it was a legal lynching by a kangaroo court, the rank-and-file of the KOL pushed for a new leadership that defended the Haymarket anarchists as victims of a labor witch hunt.
|Chinese Massacre at Rock Springs, WY| The Knights also had a mixed history in terms of race and immigrant laborers. They accepted women and black workers as early as 1878, yet they tolerated segregation in the South (including in their own assemblies) and Asians were often excluded. The Knights organized black sugar cane workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana. However, their 1887 sugarcane strike turned into a race riot, in which white vigilantes slaughtered between 50 and 300 unarmed black sugarcane workers. The event is known as the Thibodaux massacre. While some might blame this tragedy on naiveté and poor organizing by a union that otherwise was a supporter of black workers, their attitude toward Chinese immigrants was notoriously hostile. In Tacoma, Washington, the KOL worked to expel the city’s Chinese population and white members of the Knights participated in the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, which led to the deaths of 28 Chinese Americans. They also strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law.
Powderly’s rabid hatred of radicals nearly killed the KOL, but his collaborationist wimpiness, authoritarian leadership and general mismanagement ultimately did the organization in. In 1886, for example, he intervened in a packinghouse workers strike, ordering workers back on the job when a compromise with the bosses appeared imminent. He feared that a strike at this point would have led to a wave of strikes that could have crippled the organization. This may have been true, but only because his disdain for strikes prevented the necessary organizing and preparation. Yet his weakness and unwillingness to fight led the defeat of the packers and contributed to the mass exodus of workers from the organization that effectively killed the Knights anyway.
He also withdrew KOL support for the May 1, 1886 General Strike that had been called in Chicago to fight for the 8-hour day. This certainly weakened the Knights, as the fight for the 8-hour day had grown into a national movement, supported by working people of all persuasions including many mainstream trade unions, as well as socialists and anarchists. Yet the ruling elite were blaming outsiders, foreign radicals, bomb-throwing anarchists, in hopes of diffusing support for the movement, and Powderly, who was still viciously anti-radical, hoped to rescue the image of his organization by distancing it from the movement, even though the Knights had been early supporters of the 8-hour day.
There were also numerous disputes between skilled trade unionists in the KOL, who wanted an organization that represented primarily their relatively privileged status, and industrial unionists, who wanted an organization that built solidarity between all workers in a given industry. The latter, of course, has greater potential to win strikes, as it makes it harder to pit workers against each other, but it requires organizing the so-called “unskilled” and “semi-skilled” workers, who many believed couldn’t be organized. The IWW, which was an industrial union, later proved that it was possible and very effective to organize these workers.