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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 253

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This is the grave of Terence Powderly.

Born in 1849 in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, the 11th child of Irish parents, Powderly lived the childhood of the Irish-American poor. He got sick as a kid, contracting measles and losing hearing in an ear. Then he started laboring at 13, as a switchman for the Delaware and Hudson Railway, which does not seem like the right job for 13 year old, but then having read plenty of books about early railroad safety, the utter indifference to the lives of workers or passengers is amazing. Anyway, Powderly worked a whole bunch of jobs as a kid before entering into an apprenticeship as a machinist, working for railroads. He became active in his local union from a young man and rose rapidly, becoming secretary in 1872. He was then fired the next year for his union activity. There wasn’t much that could be done. This was a period long before labor law and employers could effectively do whatever they wanted. Powderly went to Canada for a year, then moved to Oil City, Pennsylvania, center of the early oil boom. He got involved with unionism again there, moved to Scranton working as a machinist and was dismissed when the same jerk who fired him for unionism earlier saw him again. But he appealed to his boss, saying that he was a unionist because of the insurance policy on his life the union provided and that got him his job back.

Anyway, Powderly stayed involved in local unionism and local politics and was elected mayor of Scranton in 1877 as a member of the Greenback-Labor Party. He served three two-year terms, which is pretty impressive for a third party. In 1874, he joined a small fraternal organization of workingmen called the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, it was a pretty small organization of workers trying to create something like a national labor organization. Powderly had a much better vision for this than its other leaders and he became the head of the Knights in 1879. He did a bunch of things that helped the movement grow. First, he got rid of the secret proceedings that reminded lots of people of freemasonry, which was still controversial at this time. Second and related, he worked with the Catholic Church to convince the Vatican to end its opposition for Catholic workers to join American unions, an opposition that was rooted in the freemason rituals. Third, and this is less fortunate, he connected the Knights up with other workingmen groups in this era in opposing Chinese immigration to the United States. Under his leadership, the Knights also took anti-immigrant stances against other groups, especially the Hungarians, which they saw as unable to assimilate into American practices. Interestingly, the Knights were quite open to black lodges because African-American workers were Americans and understood American unionism. So all of this was rooted in complex and contradictory racial ideologies that were far from uncommon in this era.

Now, Powderly was no radical. He wasn’t a socialist. He was a generation too early for that. He was firmly rooted in the producerist mentality of American reform, those people who so desperately wanted to believe that American capitalism could be fixed and move back to its natural state of sharing resources reasonably equitable if only something could be changed. By the 1880s, for the Knights that meant the 8-hour day. The organization grew rapidly in the 1880s, really too fast for its own good. Powderly disliked strikes and yet it was the labor militancy of many locals that convince workers it could help them. He was more interested in cooperative activities than labor militancy. But the KOL continued to grow at a pace far faster than Powderly could control, plus it was a loose organization anyway so local chapters could more or less do what they wanted. When major strikes did happen, such as on Jay Gould’s railway in 1885, Powderly came in and helped settle the strike to the union’s benefit. That only helped it grow, but when the Great Southwest Strike happened on the same railroad in 1886, Powderly again wanted to deal with Gould, but the tycoon pretty much told him to go jump off a railroad bridge and he crushed the union. That happened just a couple of days before the Haymarket Riot, when an anarchist in Chicago threw a bomb at a group of cops trying to clear a square at an anti-police violence rally after the cops had killed some people in the 8-hour strikes that were defining the Knights that year. Even though the anarchists and the anti-police violence rally had nothing to do with the Knights, it helped taint them in the eyes of the public. Given that and employers combining to crush the Knights wherever it organized, and especially when that involved black Knights, the KOL faded quickly. Powderly simply was not capable, either administratively or temperamentally of dealing with this well. Maybe no one could have done much better.

In the aftermath of all this, Powderly tried to rebuild the organization. But he refused to allow Knights to engage in political activity at a time when a lot of workers’ parties were developing and this alienated more people. He was finally evicted from leading the organization in 1893. He started a law practice and remained peripherally involved in politics. He was a big supporter of Henry George’s Single Tax, another one-off attempt to fix the “natural order” of American capitalism and maintained a long friendship with Mother Jones, even as she moved into the type of direct action organizing and striking that he never could abide. Interestingly, Powderly had a whole second career working on immigration issues. William McKinley named him Commissioner General of Immigration in 1897, serving there until Theodore Roosevelt fired him in 1902. But while there, he improved the conditions for immigrants at Ellis Island and fired 11 employees who were deemed awful. He still was a Special Immigration Inspector under Roosevelt and conducted investigations of immigration that among other things suggested the nation work to move immigrants more uniformly around the country rather than allowing them to concentrate in a few cities and neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side. In fact, the Immigration Service created a new division called the Division of Information designed to do this very thing and Powderly was named to head it.

Powderly died in 1924. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

If you would like this series to cover the lives of other American labor leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mother Jones is in Mt. Olive, Illinois, for example. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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