About the Knights of Labor then , and now

Our Mission

It is the Knights of Labors Mission to inform , and support working families, and to organize them to better represent their rights , and needs in the work place, and in government. The Knights of Labor stands in support of three principles work, which is the base of the middle class , Family which supports the middle class, and Brotherhood , which is the cement that keeps the middle class together.

The First Knights of Labor

Capitalism, with its widening of the gap between rich and poor, generated the union movement’s transformation in the 1800’s. Today those same factors is driving working men and women towards the Occupy movements and other working peoples movements. Unions are declining , this is hard to understand. It is our belief that that is primarily due to the fact that Unions have become the Big Business of representing workers. That is one reason why it is important to re-energize the Knights of Labor . Some of the original principals fit today’s society. Strikes are becoming obsolete, While collective bargaining is still a good way to maintain Wages and benefits , the problem lies in the fact that the Global economy makes it easier for Corporations to just pack up and move off shore , thus taking away the power of collective bargaining. In today’s world Working men and women have a hard time making ends meet . The rise of Prices , and the stagnation of wages has driven many to work two or more jobs. The real power is organization . By including all workers , the power of many voices can , and does move mountains.

In 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, which initially offered a more reasoned approach to solving labor problems, was established in Philadelphia. At its inception, the KOL comprised nine tailors whose leader was Uriah S. Stephens. The organization believed that its predecessors had failed by limiting membership; the Knights proposed to organize both skilled and unskilled workers in the same union and opened their doors to blacks and women. In its early years, the organization was highly secret since in many areas union members were summarily fired. The Knights developed ornate rituals, drawn from Freemasonry, to govern their meetings. By the early 1880s, the group had emerged as a national force and had dropped its initial secrecy. They sought to include within their ranks everyone but doctors, bankers, lawyers, liquor producers and gamblers.

The aims of the Knights of Labor included the following:

  • An eight-hour work day
  • Termination of child labor
  • Termination of the convict contract labor system (the concern was not for the prisoners; the Knights of Labor opposed competition from this cheap source of labor)
  • Establishment of cooperatives to replace the traditional wage system and help tame capitalism’s excesses
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Government ownership of telegraph facilities and the railroads
  • A public land policy designed to aid settlers and not speculators
  • A graduated income tax.

In its early years, the Knights of Labor opposed the use of strikes; however, new members and local leaders gradually radicalized the organization. By the mid-1880s, labor stoppages had become an effective tool. The KOL won important strikes on the Union Pacific in 1884 and the Wabash Railroad in 1885. However, failure in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 and the Haymarket Square Riot of the same year quickly eroded the Knights’ influence—although no member was implicated in the latter event. In the public mind, the eight-hour work day and other demands by the KOL had become radical ideas; to many, the terms “unionism” and “anarchism” were synonymous. Labor leader Terence V. Powderly‘s organizing skills had brought the group’s membership to more than 700,000 in the early 1880s, but by 1900 that number had dropped to approximately 100,000.

The Knights of Labor (K of L) (officially “Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor”) was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. Its most important leader was Terence V. Powderly. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman, rejected Socialism and radicalism, demanded the eight-hour day, and promoted the producers ethic of republicanism. In some cases it acted as a labor union, negotiating with employers, but it was never well organized, and after a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s, it suddenly lost its new members and became a small operation again.

It was established in 1869, reached 28,000 members in 1880, then jumped to 100,000 in 1885. Then it mushroomed to nearly 700,000 members in 1886, but its frail organizational structure could not cope and it was battered by charges of failure and violence. Most members abandoned the movement in 1886-87, leaving at most 100,000 in 1890.[1] Remnants of the Knights of Labor continued in existence until 1949, when the group’s last 50-member local dropped its affiliation.

 

Origins

Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor during its meteoric rise and precipitous decline.

On December 1869, seven members of the Philadelphia tailors’ union, headed by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright, established a secret union under the name the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. The collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873, left a vacuum for workers looking for organization. The Knights became better organized with a national vision when they replaced Stephens with Terence V. Powderly. The body became popular with Pennsylvania coal miners during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, then it grew rapidly.[2]

As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began not only to emphasize cooperative enterprises, but to initiate strikes to win concessions from 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.

In 1882, the Knights ended their membership rituals and removed the words “Noble Order” from their name. This was to mollify the concerns of Catholic members and the bishops who wanted to avoid any resemblance to freemasonry.[3] Though initially averse to strikes as a method to advance their goals, the Knights aided various strikes and boycotts. 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 finally supported what became a successful 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 gave momentum and a surge of members, so by 1886, the Knights had over 700,000 members.

As you can see by deviating from their original stance , the KOL started to fall from grace . We believe that getting back to basics , we can change the way Big Business looks at Labor today, The fraternal orginizational model is what is neede dtoday , because after all we are all in the same boat regardless of who you are , or what you do for a living.

 

Ideology

The Knights primary demand was for an eight hour day; they also called for legislation to end child and convict labor. They were eager supporters of cooperatives.

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 tolerating the segregation of assemblies in the South. 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, Washington worked to expel the city’s Chinese, who amounted to nearly a tenth of the overall city population at the time. The Knights were also responsible for race riots that resulted in the deaths of about 28 Chinese Americans in the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, and an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana. The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Actof 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885, as did many other labor groups, although the group did accept most others, including skilled and unskilled women of any profession.

The Knights of Labor attracted many Catholics, who were a large part of the membership, perhaps a majority. Powderly was a Catholic. However, the Knights’s use of secrecy, similar to the Masons, during its early years concerned many bishops. The Knights used secrecy to help prevent employers from firing members. After the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in 1884, twelve American archbishops voted 10 to 2 against doing likewise in the United States. Furthermore, Cardinals James Gibbons and John Ireland defended the Knights. Gibbons went to the Vatican to talk to the hierarchy.[4]

Inclusiveness Needs to be complete , not selective. But again the basic principals are a solid foundation to build a movement. We believe that by allowing ALL workers in , will bring with it the strenght of numbers. The brotherhood should look out for one another, this will establish a bond that will be hard to break.

Legacy

Though often overlooked, the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs in America. 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, became 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).

Music is a big part of working , be it the Old blues songs , that gring forther the Days of hard labor , or the Simple pleasures of listening while you work.

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Kemmerer and Wickersham, (1950
  2. ^ Ware, (1929) pp 23- 37
  3. ^ Robert E. Weir, Beyond labor’s veil: the culture of the Knights of Labor (1996) p 94
  4. ^ James Hennesey, American Catholics, Oxford University Press, 1981, page 188.
  5. ^ Joseph G. Rayback, A History of American Labor (1966) pp 166-76
  6. ^ Robert E. Weir, Beyond Labor’s Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996; pg. 322.

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