In the late nineteenth century, the Knights of Labor attempted to organize workers of all kinds into a union to improve working hours and conditions for laborers. 

Overview

  • Labor unions arose in the nineteenth century as increasing numbers of Americans took jobs in factories, mines, and mills in the growing industrial economy.
  • The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, was the first major labor organization in the United States. The Knights organized unskilled and skilled workers, campaigned for an eight hour workday, and aspired to form a cooperative society in which laborers owned the industries in which they worked.
  • The Knights’ membership collapsed following the 1886 Haymarket Square riot in Chicago. By 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an alliance of skilled workers’ trade unions, was growing.

What's a union, and how does it work?

Modern labor unions arose in the United States in the 1800s as increasing numbers of Americans took jobs in the factories, mines, and mills of the growing industrial economy during the Industrial Revolution. For the first one hundred years of its history, the United States had been a nation composed mainly of small farmers, but by 1880 the American economy had shifted to industry. For the first time in the country's history, more people worked for other people for wages than for themselves as farmers or craftsmen.1^1
In these early years of industrial capitalism, government played little to no role in regulating businesses. Monopolies (single entities which control an entire industry, eliminating competition) could set prices for goods and services as high as they liked. Likewise, industries could conspire to keep workers' wages low. Wealthy business owners routinely bribed judges and members of Congress to side with them in disputes. With such enormous resources at their disposal, business owners could easily overpower any individual worker who might complain about his or her treatment.2^2
Labor unions attempt to reconcile the disparity in resources between large businesses and individual workers in order to improve the conditions of workers. Unions are organizations of workers who join together as a group to bargain with the owners of the businesses that employ them. Unions bargain with owners for higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions, and union recognition.
A union’s power lies, in part, in its ability to strike. A strike is when workers refuse to work (and prevent others from working in their place if possible), leaving factories and mills idle and costing businesses valuable production time. Unions are valuable to their members because they protect individual workers’ jobs and enforce ongoing labor-management contracts.
Owners, in turn, have a variety of options available to combat strikes. Owners can, for example, fire striking workers and hire new workers, or hire short-term workers for the duration of the strike (known as strikebreakers or scabs).

The Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor was a union founded in 1869. The Knights pressed for the eight-hour work day for laborers, and embraced a vision of a society in which workers, not capitalists, would own the industries in which they labored. The Knights also sought to end child labor and convict labor.
The Knights of Labor was an exceptionally progressive organization for its day. Most earlier unions restricted membership to skilled laborers (those with specialized training in a craft) and to white men. Led by Terence V. Powderly, the Knights welcomed unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers into their ranks. Immigrants, African Americans and women were also welcome as members. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Knights of Labor found support among coalminers in Pennsylvania, and among railroad workers following a successful 1885 strike against the Wabash Railroad.
By 1886, thanks to a number of successful strikes, the Knights claimed more than 700,000 members nationally.3^3
Print showing the leaders of the Knights of Labor. Terence Powderly is pictured at center. At the corners are imagines of loggers, miners, blacksmiths and railroad workers.
Print showing the leaders of the Knights of Labor. Terence Powderly is pictured at center. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Haymarket Square riot
On the evening of May 4, 1886, hundreds of people gathered at a rally in support of the eight-hour work day in Chicago's Haymarket Square. Among them were a number of anarchists (radical socialists who advocated the violent overthrow of the American government). Someone—to this day, no one knows who—threw a dynamite bomb, and in the mayhem that followed seven Chicago policemen and four citizens were killed. In the aftermath, eight anarchists were charged with preaching incendiary doctrines and sentenced to long prison terms or death, though there was no evidence tying them directly to the bombing. In addition, the public came to associate the Knights with anarchism and violence. Membership in the organization collapsed.4^4
Anarchy and violence weren't the only problems the Knights faced. It also proved difficult to organize unskilled workers, as owners could easily replace them if they went on strike. Skilled workers, whose specialized knowledge gave them a leg up in bargaining with owners, began to believe that their alliance with unskilled laborers was hindering, rather than helping, their cause.5^5
Engraving depicting the Haymarket Square riot, published in Harper's Weekly in 1886. Image courtesy Chicago Historical Society.

American Federation of Labor

In the late 1880s, skilled workers fled the beleaguered Knights of Labor and joined the newly-formed American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was an umbrella organization that brought together craft unions—unions of skilled workers who organized together by individual trade, such as carpenters, stonemasons, and printers. Led by Samuel Gompers, head of the Cigar Makers Union, the AFL focused on higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions for its members. By 1900, the AFL had 500,000 members.6^6
Despite the agitation of the labor movement, which staged a combined 23,000 strikes between the years of 1881 and 1900, unions made relatively little progress in this era. As of 1900, only about three percent of working people belonged to a union. Not until the mid-twentieth century would organized labor become a significant force in the American economy.7^7

What do you think?

What social and economic consequences accompanied the United States' transition from a nation of farmers to a nation of wage laborers?
How did unions in the nineteenth century shape the labor system and the workplace in the United States?
Why did the Knights of Labor grow so large as an organization? Why did its membership decline?
Article written by John Louis Recchiuti. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. See David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 530.
  2. See Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 521-525.
  3. For more on the Knights of Labor, see Leon Fink, Workingmen's Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983).
  4. See Fink, Workingmen's Democracy.
  5. See Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 533.
  6. See Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 536.
  7. For more on the history of unions in the United States, see G. William Domhoff, "The Rise and Fall of Labor Unions In The U.S. From the 1830s until 2012."
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