History: The rise and fall of the Knights of Labor

Stephen Parfitt looks at the legendary US workers’ organisation from its founding in 1869 to its collapse in the 1890s and considers what lessons can be drawn by modern militants.

May 4th, 1886: anarchists lead a protest in Haymarket Square, Chicago, against the violence of police against workers on strike around the city. They do so in the middle of what historians now call the “Great Upheaval,” a huge wave of strikes, boycotts and political agitation across the United States between 1885 and 1887. As the anarchists and their supporters are about to wind up the meeting, ranks of uniformed police arrive. Suddenly, a bomb is thrown. It explodes. Gunfire rings out in the square. By the time the firefight is over, four of the protesters and seven police are dead. Eight men, all anarchists, will eventually be charged and then convicted of conspiracy to throw the bombs that night, even though none of them were present at the protest. Four will be executed, two more with their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, another receiving 15 years, and the eighth committing suicide in jail.

This event, the Haymarket Affair, remains a dramatic event in US history and one of the defining episodes of US anarchism. Many on the left still see the conviction of the eight men as a frame-up, as the classic case of radicals railroaded to jail or the gallows not for what they did, but for what they said and thought. Little evidence, they argue, tied the bomb to the convicted anarchists, or to any anarchists in particular: it might as easily have been thrown by an agent provocateur who wanted to tarnish the left and the labour movement with violence.

Haymarket was also a defining moment in the history of the first truly national movement of US workers, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. On Thanksgiving Day 2019 the Knights celebrated their 150th birthday – or they would have, if they hadn’t been forced into retreat after Haymarket, then decline, then dissolution in 1917.

They were founded in 1869 by seven tailors in Philadelphia who wanted to replace their old defunct union with something new and more ambitious. Uriah Stephens, their founding father (if that is the right phrase), had long thought about a movement that, as he put it to a friend in 1861, would:

“Cover the globe. It will include men and women of every craft, creed and color: It will cover every race worth saving. It will come in my time, I hope. Its groundwork will be secrecy, its rule obedience, and its guiding star mutual assistance. It will make labor honourable and profitable and lessen its burdens; it will make idleness a crime, render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines.”

This was a goal worthy of the most utopian of nineteenth-century radicals. Stephens did not think of himself as a socialist or anarchist, and distrusted those who did. But he and his successors looked forward to a world where private competition would be replaced by public co-operation, or what they called the “co-operative commonwealth” where, to quote the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, “individual and moral worth, not wealth,” would become “the true standard of individual and national greatness.”

The Rise and Fall

This was not anarchism, but nor was it a million miles away. The Knights operated as a trade union, as a semi-Masonic order, with secrecy and a ritual, as an educational society, providing libraries and reading rooms for workers to educate themselves, as a political club, and as the basis for hundreds of co-operative enterprises, owned and run by the workers themselves.

They came of age in the 1870s, a decade of crisis. A financial crash, the Panic of 1873, led to a long depression. The election of 1877 ended one of the most hopeful periods in American history, Reconstruction, which began with the end of the Civil War in 1865 when newly-freed slaves asserted their new political rights. Those rights were taken away from them by white men in sharp suits and white hoods. Amid these events, many trade unions fell apart. The Knights did not. By 1884, more than 100,000 men and women, white and black — for the Knights opened their doors to women and black workers — were members.

Gould depicted as the master of Wall Street by Frederick Burr Opper in 1882

In 1885, the Knights led major strikes on railroads across the southwest of the country, all owned by the notorious robber baron Jay Gould. They forced Gould to the negotiating table, an outcome that was seen by many people in the USA and beyond as one of the most significant victories ever won by workers against their bosses. Partly as a result of that victory, hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked to the Knights. At the beginning of 1886, it seemed likely that the organisation would pass more than a million members and that the thousands of strikes, boycotts and other actions that took place between 1885 and 1887 would not only continue but increase.

Just as bad for the bosses, Knights entered the political arena. Sometimes they took over their local Democrat or Republican parties, but just as often they formed local labour parties. Labour candidates won office at local, state and even federal levels, and the economist Henry George, standing for the United Labor Party, nearly won the mayoralty of New York in 1886. The two-party system briefly seemed in crisis. To crown it all, calls grew louder for a mass strike on May 1, 1886 to win a long-cherished demand of working-class movements all over the world, the eight-hour working day. This, incidentally, was one of the origins of May Day as an international workers’ day. Tens of thousands of American workers answered the call.

Then Haymarket happened. The government, the press, and the bosses all screamed that the US might at any moment descend into anarchy and violence, and the Knights of Labor were to blame. They became the object of the USA’s first Red Scare, even though most leading Knights vainly tried to distance themselves from the eight accused anarchists and, worse, refused to appeal to the authorities for clemency on their behalf. After 1886 the movement began to decline.

As the Knights were battered from without, they fragmented from within. Different factions vied for control of the leadership, some based on political grounds and others on personal cliques. Splits followed, and great chunks of the movement simply disappeared. Others were lured to reviving trade unions, gathered from 1886 in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). A war of unions against the Knights reduced the latter’s numbers still further. By 1890 the 750,000 members of 1886 had dwindled to around 100,000. Four years later, the Knights had split and declined to something like 40,000. By this time, they were the has-beens of the US labour movement.   

The Training School of Trade Unionists

Why should we bother to remember a movement that rose and fell so quickly, so long ago? In the first place, because were the first national working-class movement to appear in the United States. Because they grew so big, so fast, they included pretty much all the political tendencies of the country. Some Knights became an important part of the People’s Party, the original Populists, in the 1890s. Others came out of the Marxist tradition, through parties like the Socialist Labor Party, and would go into the Socialist Party when it started in 1901. The working-class wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties were well represented, especially among the Knights’ leaders. Some historians have likened the Knights to a school where all the major leaders of the US labour movement received their early education.

The Knights have a special place for the anarchist reader. Aside from the Haymarket Martyrs, influential anarchists joined the movement and, to some extent, shaped it. Joseph Labadie, a printer from Detroit, was a case in point. He set up the first assembly of Knights in that city in 1878, and extolled the movement in his writing for numerous socialist and anarchist magazines. Like many other anarchists — not to mention socialists — he saw the Knights as a step towards the real unity of American workers regardless of gender, race, origin and occupation. Like many of them, his membership only ended when the leaders of the Knights of Labor distanced the movement from the Haymarket anarchists, and even attacked them in public.

A direct line also connects the Knights with the Industrial Workers of the World, the great syndicalist movement of the early twentieth century and afterwards. Many members of the Western Federation of Miners, one of the most powerful early affiliates of the IWW, earned their trade union apprenticeship in the Knights of Labor. They inherited the Knights’ rivalries with the American Federation of Labor, and saw the federation and its leadership as conservative, uninterested in organising workers outside the skilled trades, and unwilling to challenge the system of exploitation that kept wage earners down. The cooperative commonwealth of the Knights of Labor was the direct ancestor of the IWW’s One Big Union.

The rich cultural legacy of the Wobblies owed much to the Knights. Many of the songs that appear in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book were first sung by members of the Knights of Labor: when the early Wobblies sang “Hold the Fort” as they marched off to the class war, they might not have been aware that the start of the original chorus ran:

Hold the fort, ye Knights of Labor
Union men be strong…  

The longstanding leader of the Knights, Terence Powderly, liked to say in later life that his movement was the unacknowledged author of most progressive legislation in the United States. As a preacher of class harmony and not class war, he probably didn’t approve of the fact that his movement trained the first generation of militant Wobblies. Irony is seldom appreciated when it comes at your expense.

Prophets and Militants

The Knights of Labor remind us of what we still need to do now. They managed to build local movements all over the United States, based at the local assembly hall, and surrounded by a network of libraries, reading rooms, theatres and the local co-op shop or workshop. Their integration into the local community allowed many branches to put forward a working-class candidate for office against the two major parties, and for a time win many elections. That community spirit then allowed many branches to survive long after the national movement had fallen apart. The Knights prove that it is possible to build solidarity at the local level in a short space of time.

The same applies to building a global movement. The Knights not only attracted hundreds of thousands of American members, but thousands of others in assemblies from Canada to Europe, Australasia and South Africa. Their branches in Britain and Ireland numbered as many as 20,000 workers at their height. Their Belgian assemblies became a major force in the industrial region around Charleroi, and in the luxury trades of Brussels. Historians have estimated that at one point, nearly a third of the MPs in New Zealand’s colonial parliament were members of the Knights of Labor. They had a sizeable presence in Australia, France and Italy as well.

The impetus for this global movement came first from the desire of many US Knights to reduce immigration. They wanted to do this without building up walls, but by organising workers overseas so that they would not need to migrate to the US simply in search of work or higher wages. In this they followed a pattern set by the International Workingmen’s Association, or First International of 1864-1876: international solidarity would work best when workers and their unions regulated the flow of people from one place to another. We might not want to follow that logic. But we can certainly learn from the determination with which Knights spread their gospel around the world.

As with any movement from so long ago, there are things that they said and did that we can safely consign to the past. The Knights joined the general mania against Chinese immigrants, supported their exclusion from the country, and refused as a national movement to admit them as members (although some branches recruited them anyway). Knights were implicated in pogroms against Chinese workers at Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885, and in other places. Some Knights extended that hostility to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, although the movement included tens of thousands of them. While the Knights tried with great success to organise black workers, their record on other racial questions was and is not defensible.

Depiction of the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885

They were also stuck between their dislike of capitalism and the unwillingness of their leaders to challenge individual capitalists. Leaders like Powderly liked to boast in later life that they had never ordered a strike, and they saw militancy of any kind as a kind of juvenile phase that would soon give way to orderly negotiations between employers and employed. We have all seen how that kind of approach has turned out in practice, and we now look instead to the revival of trade union militancy through new unions like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) or the United Voices of the World (UVW). The IWGB and UVW have both proved that even the most precarious and unappreciated workers can win big if they are prepared to strike and make a lot of noise. Today, we need less Powderlys and more militants.

The Knights, in any case, are not coming back. They belong to the nineteenth century, and their enthusiasm for mystical symbols and Masonic ritual would not survive for long in the social media age. They remain relevant for us because they form an important link in the chain that connects us with the workers and radicals of the past. They show us that a determined movement of workers can build solidarity at the local level and around the globe. They had an optimism about the future, and that the future could be better and fairer and transformed, that we now lack. When the end of austerity becomes the outermost limit of our ambition, the dream of Uriah Stephens for an organisation that would “render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines,” is still worth remembering, and still worth fighting for.

~ Stephen Parfitt


Pic: Knights leader Terence Powderly holds a boss and scab apart in an illustration by satirical cartoonist Joseph Keppler, circa 1886