The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (1869-1949)
By: Michael Barga
Introduction: The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor were the most prominent labor organization of the 1880’s. Specifically, the organization grew between the end of the Depression and the beginning of the Great Upheaval (roughly 1879-1886) under the tenure of Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly. By the end of the 1880’s, their influence and membership dropped dramatically, and the last remnants of the Knights disbanded in 1949. Characterized by its oath-bound secrecy, its emphasis on autonomy of local Knights and non-violence, and its broad sense of solidarity, it is considered by many to be a failed experiment in the labor movement which did not capitalize on the action-mindedness of the Great Upheaval moment.
Background: The Knights of Labor were formed in 1869 by eight garment cutters in Philadelphia to replace the local union by Uriah Stephens. At the time, they were just a small part of the young modern labor movement which had materialized only within the last fifty years. The earliest unions were before industrialization and formulated out of the increasingly strained relationship between journeymen and masters in the skilled or artisan labor sector, a system reminiscent of the guild system. In the mid-1830’s, the General Trades’ Union allowed these wage earners to identify their shared grievances. As collective action picked up, employers felt the groups held too much power over individuals and maintained that economic demand, not employers themselves, truly decided wage levels.
The distinction between skilled and unskilled laborers was still made in the early 1870’s, yet changes created by industrialization placed the groups in greater contact, often in the factory. This opportunity to bridge the divide of the workers was part of the reason the Knights of Labor formed. The craft unions of previous times, composed almost solely of skilled workers, were ineffective. He saw the arrangement of labor and capital as a systemic problem that resembled the slavery of the past, and Stephens hoped for a brotherhood to provide education, mutual aid, and cooperation for challenging the labor-capital arrangement. Others, like the National Labor Union, had tried to organize a similar national and political movement starting in 1866, but the organization lost prominence after a number of disastrous political setbacks and the economic downturn of 1873.
Formation and Early Years: The secrecy of Knights of Labor membership was considered a positive feature of the group by some and only something to be tolerated by others. The union also banned politicians, lawyers, and physicians since they were considered of low moral character or at high risk of breaking secrecy. The lack of distinction between skilled and unskilled workers departed from the early labor models in hopes to take advantage of the new industrialized arrangement. The Knights, originally a local Philadelphia union, had spread throughout the area in its initial few years, especially in New Jersey and the coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania. After the 1873 Depression subsided and unemployment declined, previous unions were re-created under the auspices of the Knights of Labor.
In 1878, it was deemed necessary to have a General Assembly which invited representatives from all the local assemblies. Stephens was at the helm at this first General Assembly, but he resigned within two years. Interestingly enough, the general principles of the Knights had not been explicitly declared despite its structural formation. The secrecy of the organization was the main reason for this slowness to communicate the mission of the union. The initiation practices and secrecy of even the name of the Knights of Labor were altered by 1879 to eliminate some of the religious overtones partly to accommodate Catholics. While this was a step towards reconciliation, the tension between the Catholic hierarchy and the Knights would significantly persist for almost another decade.
By 1879, Terence V. Powderly took over the position of Grand Master Workman with a membership of 9,300 workers who were diverse by trade including garment-cutters, miners, shoemakers, machinists, locomotive engineers, stationary engineers, glass-workers, moulders, printers, coopers, blacksmiths, boiler-makers, nail-packers, teachers, and carpenters.1 Powderly had helped found the Knights of Labor in the Scranton area in 1876.
After the Knights lifted a ban on political discussion following a railroad strike in 1877, Powderly helped organize the “Greenback-Labor Party” in hopes of contending for local political offices. He quickly rose to Master Workman for the Scranton Knights and successfully navigated a period of severe divisiveness due to members’ differences in ethnicity and religion. In 1878, he was elected mayor of Scranton for the Greenback-Labor party.
Powderly was not the only political success for the Knights of Labor. The organization, which now had spread to other regions of the United States, took a handful of other political offices in places like Maine and Massachusetts. Still, Powderly had made contact with many local assemblies and stood out to Knights of Labor leadership through his many various organizing activities. Such demonstrated commitment to the Order, even when his own local assembly membership had limited growth in 1879, complimented the recognition of Powderly’s other skills in writing and oration.
Under Grand Master Workman Powderly, the general assembly declared strikes an option of last resort and that the name and objects of the Order were made public in the early 1880’s. One of the more progressive moves of the Order at this time was declaring women to be admitted with equal standing as men. The ritualistic aspects of the Knights were also revised in hopes of increasing membership. The unexpected factor that appears to have boosted membership significantly was the strike victories in 1882 and 1885 that became associated with the Knights of Labor.
The Union Pacific Railroad had cut wages, yet through the aggressive leadership of Joseph R. Buchanan the original wages were restored. Buchanan reproduced the success in a number of other railroad strike incidents, all of which became associated nationally with the Knights of Labor despite their mostly local nature. The Knights of Labor had an explicitly anti-strike mentality, but the local autonomy of assemblies had allowed their name to become known as a powerful and assertive group, including financially, which could create sensational successes in assertive worker action. This hyped image was reinforced when local Knights called for help in an effort against notorious and unscrupulous railroad financier Jay Gould.
The national Knights of Labor leaders, including Powderly, recognized that the existence of the Order may be in danger if the 1885 strike was not supported. Despite the hope to keep the anti-strike mentality, Knights of Labor had been steadily laid off by Baron’s railroad companies in a seemingly deliberate effort to disband the local assemblies. The executive board called for Knights to strike and trains were stopped and the cars uncoupled, engines were “killed,” and widespread sabotage, in some cases leading to disorder and violence, spread throughout the Southwest.2 Gould realized the immediate threat to his entire transportation system and accepted a series of negotiations with the Knights of Labor’s national leadership. Such a demonstration of labor’s power had never occurred in the U.S., and the already inflated prestige of the order became all-the-more sensationalized.
Newspapers across the country covered the story, and people of all trades were inspired by an immense confidence in the organization. Rumors ran wild that the membership was 2.5 million people and the treasury held 12 million dollars, and consequently, the number of new local assembly initiations was overwhelming to the national Knights of Labor. These new groups sang combative songs and hazardously took part in strikes, thinking the national organization could fuel a victory. Gould regrouped and easily defeated the largely unorganized strikes and assertive actions by local Knight assemblies. These failures were credited as defeats for the Order nationally even when no encouragement or approval had been given by Powderly or others in the executive board.
By 1886, there were an estimated 700,000 members in the Knights of Labor. While defeats had already begun, the Knights ultimate let-down to overenthusiastic supporters occurred in relation to the Haymarket Affair in Chicago. After a group of demonstrators were falsely convicted of setting of a bomb, many called for Powderly to challenge the authorities and assert the Knights of Labor power. Powderly had actually written to local assemblies to avoid the May 1st strikes and actions which had led to the Haymarket Affair disaster. Both those who disagreed with Powderly about the strikes beforehand and those who called for support after the actions became detractors of Powderly and the Knights of Labor leadership.
While in the South there was still great numbers of the Order, many defected to more radical labor elements and groups which appealed to their skill more specifically, like the American Federation of Labor. Similar to the 1873 Depression, the Great Upheaval of 1886 brought in a period of declining employment stability for wage earners which had a negative effect on workers’ willingness to risk losing their jobs by joining or maintaining union membership. When Powderly lost re-election as Grand Master Workman in 1893, the Knights had fallen to a membership of roughly 75,000 and would never recover. By 1949, the last remnants of the Order would disband, and the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor would only have a presence in the history books.
Looking back on the mix of local autonomy and progressive solidarity which were staples of the Knights of Labor, a particularly significant moment was the 1886 General Assembly in Richmond, VA. A black delegate of District Assembly Number 49, Franklin J. Ferrell, introduced Powderly to the convention. In Richmond, the local assemblies were separated by color, despite the fact that there was an official ban on color discrimination by the Knights of Labor. District Assembly no. 49 was needed support for Powderly, yet earlier in the convention local hotels and other institutions had given Ferrell trouble. This created a tension which Powderly could have dealt with in many ways and for many reasons.
It is debatable if the true motivations for having Farrell involved significantly in the assembly were for Powderly’s political expediency or on principle. Some believe Powderly and the Knights practiced a disguised discrimination model. Still, the incident was certainly a unique moment in the history of the Knights, a movement of tenuous solidarity for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, there was very little progressivism in terms of inclusion of Asian immigrants, and Powderly was in favor of closing the borders in this regard.
Another significant moment for the Knights of Labor was the 1888 reconciliation between the Knights of Labor and the Catholic Church. The ritualistic and masonic-like elements, in addition to the radical nature of the group, were met with great suspicion by the Roman Catholic Church. While measures were taken to lessen the measures offensive to Catholics, most clerics were opponents of the Order, especially in Canada where an official stand was taken against the organization. Through work with Cardinal Gibbons, Powderly got Vatican approval for membership by Catholics. While the Knights were on the decline at this point, it was an important step for friendly relations between the Catholic Church and the labor movement as a whole, setting the stage for the next generation of labor-priests and religious.
Conclusion: The Knights of Labor rose to prestige quickly in the 1880’s, and Powderly was considered the voice of labor, the head of an organization that could deal blows to even the likes of Jay Gould. While the reasons for the decline of the Order are debated, the economic conditions of the time, like for the National Labor Union, appear to be a factor. Also, the high level of local assembly autonomy appears to be a major contributing factor to both the union’s increased and eventual decreased membership.
The Knights are considered a failed experiment in the labor movement and yielded very few lasting contributions, yet defection to other unions, like the American Federation of Labor, may suggest that the energy of the labor movement was shifted rather than lost. In any case, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor stand as a significant organization in a unique moment in the young history of the labor movement in the United States.
1. “An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor” by Carroll D. Wright, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jan. 1887): 149.
2. Labor in America, Fourth Edition, by Foster Rhea Dulles & Melvyn Dubofsky, Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1984: 133.
Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor by Craig Phelan, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
“Terence V. Powderly and Disguised Discrimination” by Herman D. Bloch, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 33(2), April 1974: 145-160.
American Catholic History Classroom – http://cuomeka.wrlc.org/exhibits/show/knights/kol-intro/kol-intro3
The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century by Kim Voss, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Knights of Labor insignia – http://afge1504.org/page6.php
Railroad Strikes – http://romitasx.tripod.com/id1.html
Ferrell Introduces Powderly – http://www.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/IH024307/engraving-of-knights-of-labor-assembly
For More Information: Visit the American Catholic History Classroom online at http://cuomeka.wrlc.org/exhibits/show/knights/kol-intro/kol-intro3 or see “An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor” by Carroll D. Wright, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jan. 1887): 137-168.