On this date in 1869, the Knights of Labor were founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The organization grew slowly, but by the late 1870s, the Knights had become the nation’s largest labor union, remaining so until 1886.
Labor was at a crossroads in post-Civil War America. The Civil War helped spur the growth of large factories and capitalists like John D. Rockefeller began expanding their economic reach into what became the monopoly capitalism of the Gilded Age. Workers found the ground caving under their feet. Working-class people began criticizing the new economic system, but it took several decades for modern radicalism to become a common response for the working classes. All sorts of ideas were floated out there. Henry George had his single tax. Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backwards and Americans were deeply taken with the work.
As Leon Fink notes in his classic treatise on the Knights of Labor, Workingmen’s Democracy, labor was not in 1869 nor in 1885 at a point where revolutionary consciousness was really on the table for most workers. They were essentially pre-Marxist critics of the growing wage labor system. They rejected that system, but also called for the operation of “natural law” in the marketplace and did not reject the idea of profit. They believed in an idea of balance between employer and employee, but recognized that this balance had been thrown out of whack by the massive aggregation of capital into the hands of the few. These were people who had come of age during the Civil War and the rhetoric of slavery was strong with them. So terms like “wage slavery,” which the South had used effectively to critique northern labor relations in the 1850s, meant a lot to working people in the early Gilded Age. They felt they had become involuntary servants to wage labor and thus the system needed to be abolished like African slavery during the war.
This does not mean that Knights were not radical for their time. Fink makes a strong case that they indeed were radical in their own terms, rejecting the fundamental economic relationship of their time for a vision of the “nobility of toil” and a respectable working-class life that encompassed everyone who “worked” in their view–which was basically all but bankers, speculators, lawyers, liquor dealers, and gamblers. These were the groups feeding off the blood of the working man either financially or morally. Capitalism itself meant not a system of economic gain based upon profit, but the systematic exploitation of working-class people. Which meant that you could be a business owner and be a workingman if you treated your labor with respect.
The Knights were essentially a working-class fraternal organization in its first years. But in 1879, Terence Powderly took over the organization. The mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Powderly was as unclear as many workers on how labor should fight the growth of monopoly capitalism. He opposed strikes, even though he did occasionally engage in them as the Knights grew. He was however a superb organizer and could keep this unwieldly organization alive in the first years of its rapid growth, though his actual authority over what chartered locals did was very limited.
Powderly eschewed electoral politics despite his own history, noting the failure of the Greenback-Labor party in the late 1870s and the extreme corruption of Gilded Age life. This led Powderly and other Knights leaders to believe that electoral politics was a dead-end for the working class. But the huge growth of the Knights after the Panic of 1883 led to a rethinking of this idea precisely because the organization grew so large that many wondered if it could take over American political life. By 1886, the Knights began running labor tickets for office around the country, winning many races. This fell apart soon after due to the Haymarket backlash and infighting, but suggested the power of labor to transform American life if it were organized.
By the mid-1880s, new elements were entering the American working class. The rapid growth of European immigration after 1880 brought new ideas into the Knights, ideas that did not make people like Terence Powderly comfortable. The simple and eloquent platform of the 8 hour day galvanized working-class people across the country, many of whom joined the Knights for this reason but sought to make the organization their own. This included anarchists, a political ideology new to American shores at this time.
These immigrants flocked to an organization that supported their dream of an 8-hour day. Given the decentralized nature of the Knights, anarchists could have significant power with workers even if Powderly directly opposed their ideas. In Chicago, the growing immigrant and anarchist communities played a major role in the 8 hour movement. In response to the killing of two striking McCormick Harvesting Machine workers, the increasingly radical Chicago movement called for a large demonstration. Although turnout was small, it became one of the most important events in American labor history when an unknown anarchist (still unknown today) threw a bomb into a crowd of police officers, killing 8. The police then fired into the crowd, killing 8 strikers. Leading anarchists were arrested, thrown in jail, convicted, and 4 executed.
The Knights declined precipitously after Haymarket. Powderly was not ideologically prepared for mass violence nor for radical ideologies. The crushing of the Knights and the 8 hour movement after Haymarket left Powderly without much direction on where to take the organization and workers left it as quickly as they had joined the year before. The American Federation of Labor would soon rise to become the dominate working-class organization in America, but its conservative bent excluded the mass of unskilled and often foreign-born industrial labor that lent such immediacy to the 8 hour day campaign of 1886. These workers would fight and die for another half-century before successfully unionizing.
Powderly remained active in labor issues throughout his long life. Although he had headed the first large radical organization in the United States and was mayor of Scranton on the Greenback-Labor ticket, he was fundamentally conservative and became a Republican. He opposed immigration and had supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He and William McKinley became close; McKinley named Powderly U.S. Commissioner General of Immigration in 1897 and he remained a high-profile immigration official until 1921 with the exception of a few years in the mid 1900s.