Knights of Labor

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Knights of Labor seal

The Knights of Labor was a labor union founded in secrecy in December 1869, by a group of Philadelphia tailors led by Uriah S. Stephens. Originally called 'The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor', it was designed to protect all who worked for a living. Labor Day can be traced to two Knights' parades in New York City in 1882 and 1884.


Structure and membership

Most unions of that era organized workers by trade and skill level. The Knights grouped workers by industry, regardless of trade or skill.

With the motto "an injury to one is the concern of all", the Knights of Labor attempted to attain its goals of:

  • an 8-hour work day
  • the end of child labor
  • equal pay for equal work
  • the elimination of private banks.

The Knights had a reputation for being all-inclusive. Women, blacks (after 1883), and employers were accepted as members. Bankers, lawyers, gamblers, stockholders, doctors, and liquor manufacturers were excluded. According to Carroll Wright, US Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor, the Knights of Labor was a 'purely and deeply secret organisation' and drew heavily on Freemasonry for its ideas and procedures. In 1881 the Order's General Assembly agreed to make its name and objects public and to abolish its initiating oaths, however most rituals associated with the order continued.

The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885, as did many other labor groups. The Knights also made little headway toward organizing Irish-Americans due to the secretive Freemason-like beginnings of the organization.

The Knights of Labor grew rapidly after the collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873. The Knights aided various strikes and boycotts, winning the important Union Pacific Railroad strike in 1884 and the Wabash Railroad strike in 1885. By 1886, the Knights had over 702,000 members.

The 'Order' was secretly brought to Australia around 1890. The Freedom Assembly, which operated secretly in Sydney during the tumultuous period of 1891-93, had as members well known Australian labour movement people such as William Lane, Ernie Lane, WG Spence, Arthur Rae and George Black. A similar assembly operated in Melbourne.


In decline

There was widespread repression of labor unions in the late 1880s. In addition, the Knights were unsuccessful in the Missouri Pacific strike in 1886. Violence among strikers, including the Haymarket Riot, and intensified disputes between the skilled trade unionists, also known as craft unionists, and the industrial unionists weakened the organization. The Knights lost many craft unionists in 1886 when the American Federation of Labor was founded.

Membership declined with the additional problems of an autocratic structure, mismanagement, and further unsuccessful strikes. By 1890, it had less than 100,000 members. By 1900, it was virtually nonexistent.

See also


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