This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1869

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.

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