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The Knights of Labor

KC‑6.1.II.C (KC)
Unit 6: Learning Objective E
WXT (Theme)
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. 


  • 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.start superscript, 1, end superscript
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.squared
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.cubed
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.start superscript, 4, end superscript
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.start superscript, 5, end superscript
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.start superscript, 6, end superscript
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.start superscript, 7, end superscript

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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user AbigailB3
    So definition wise what is the 'Gilded Age'?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Theodore
    Are labor unions still effective at getting what they want today?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user petesny38
      They can be, but some unions have not succeeded because they have pushed companies out of the US.. Companies, that after weighing the costs of moving their operations to other countries have found that meeting union demands is too costly; requiring higher prices for their product(s). Making a more costly product reduces the demand for the product, especially in international markets. Public service unions have been typically more successful, but are now the object of backlash against their gains that have put extreme pressure on public money coffers. Union workers that become part of the ownership of the enterprise are the most successful.
      (7 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user DACherdak
    Who do you think made more progress for workers rights in the Gilded Age? The Knights of Labor or the AFL?
    (1 vote)
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    • spunky sam red style avatar for user Adam Y. Soliman
      As the article said, unions in general made little progress during the Gilded Age. However, the AFL has been one of the most successful unions in American history in general. Still existing to day (now the AFL-CIO), its focus less on politics and more on actual working conditions was a contributing factor to its success.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Ava Cahill
    What questions could be asked to defend Albert Parsons, an anarchist who attended the Haymarket Square? This would be from the perspective of a public defense attorney.
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user moore.nolan25
    what ways were unions effective
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Robert Nesbitt
    For negotations to work, each side has to have something that the other side wants. For skilled workers, they could control access to those skills, but for unskilled workers they could bring nothing to the table.

    So the only way to protect unskilled workers was for there to be legislation on things like health and safety at work. In the gilded age, because the monopolists could buy the politicians and the judges, corruption meant that those laws would struggle to get passed and unskilled workers were helpless.
    (1 vote)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Jaheim Williams
    What social and economic consequences accompanied the United States' transition from a nation of farmers to a nation of wage laborers?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Use of clocks became more important. In an agricultural economy, people work from sunup to sundown. In an industrial one, wage slaves have to keep hours. Fewer people were bosses in the industrial economy. In agriculture, each farmer is his or her own boss, but in a wage slave economy, one boss oppresses many people. Money became more important. In agriculture, one needs money, but has resources from the earth. Wage slaves who have no money are just flat out of luck.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Jane Buck
    What was the primary difference between the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor? I'm still confused because they sound pretty similar. If the Knights of Labor were associated with anarchism and violence, then what was the AFL primarily known for or associated with?
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mariann echevarria
    How many labor strikes were there during the Gilded Age?
    (1 vote)
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  • starky seedling style avatar for user Gbemiro Omokayode
    What were companies responses to workers after the Hay market square strike?
    (1 vote)
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