FOCUS: Why the Knights of Labor Still Matter

FOCUS: Why the Knights of Labor Still Matter

Steven Parfitt

Members gathered together in a circle to welcome the new recruits. The Worthy Foreman and the Venerable Sage took up position at their proper station. After the Master Workman asked the assembly if any of them objected to the candidates for membership, the Unknown Knight quizzed those candidates as to their willingness to abide by the vow of secrecy, obedience and mutual assistance that membership required. If all went to plan, and they passed the test, the Master Workman would then administer the pledge of allegiance. ‘I do truly promise, on my honour,’ they would repeat, ‘that I will never reveal to any person or persons whatsoever, any of the signs, or secret workings of the Order that may be now or hereafter confided to me, any acts done or objects intended, except in a lawful and authorized manner, or by special permission of the Order granted to me…’

This scene seems strange to us, closer to the stuff of a Dan Brown novel than an important chapter in American history. Yet it played out innumerable times across the United States and other parts of the world between 1869 and 1917 as part of the initiation ritual for the Order of the Knights of Labor. The Knights were not, as their name or ritual might suggest, just another Masonic sect or a gang of racist outriders like their contemporaries, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In the words of Friedrich Engels in 1887, they became ‘the first national organization created by the American working class as a whole,’ and reached nearly a million members in 1886. Knights confronted problems remarkably similar to ours, from the aftereffects of a global financial crash, the Panic of ’73, to the yawning wealth and income inequalities of what Mark Twain termed the Gilded Age with its racial tensions stoked by nativists and white supremacists, difficulties of labour and populist politics, and gender mores designed to keep women in their lowly place.

In 2019 the Knights of Labor turn 150. Few people will even remember their birthday. Yet they need not, and should not, remain buried somewhere in the dustbin of history. The Knights of Labor not only faced similar problems to us, but the solutions they proposed for these problems remain some way over the horizon. They wanted to replace competition with cooperation, exploitation with the worker receiving the full value of their work, and other things that the American labour movement no longer dares demand. On their 150th birthday, American unions struggle on with only a fraction of their former strength. Their numbers have fallen, from 17.7 million people in 1983 to 14.8 million in 2017. Their proportion of the total workforce has halved, from 20.1 percent to 10.7 percent in the same period, about the same proportion that Knights organised in the mid-1880s. With that record, this is a good time to remember the Knights, think about who they were and what they tried to do, and end with a troubling question: 150 years on, how far has the American labour movement really outgrown the Knights of Labor?

The Borders of Solidarity
The Knights were a broad church with even broader ambitions. They began in 1869 with a handful of tailors in Philadelphia, and as they expanded across the Northeast and into Canada and the Midwest in the 1870s, they developed the ambition to go beyond existing trade unions and form a single organisation uniting all the ‘producing classes’, including industrial workers, farmers and even some small capitalists, against the powerful financiers and corporations that dominated American life. Membership was denied only to lawyers, gamblers, speculators and the sellers of alcoholic beverages, and assemblies or branches of the Knights of Labor were divided in two broad categories: the trade assembly, restricted to the members of a specific trade or craft in the area, much like the average trade union, and the mixed assembly, which brought together workers of many trades. That second type allowed what we would now call precarious workers, moving frequently between jobs and industries, to take their place in the labour movement. It reaffirmed the Knights’ stated desire to organise all those who toiled from the highest-paid to the lowest. That desire should remain undimmed in the age of Uber.

Remarkably, they also extended membership to wage earners widely considered beneath notice: women and black Americans. By 1886, each accounted for about ten percent of the total membership. In racial terms, the Knights were heirs to the radical abolitionism of the years before and during the Civil War. They demanded full political and economic rights for formerly enslaved people, North and South, not just out of a commitment to racial egalitarianism but because the subjugation of black workers threatened the wages, condition and even the rights of white workers. In this, as in many other things, they pushed against major trends in American history. During the decade or so of Reconstruction, from about 1865 to 1877, black Americans exercised their political rights under the protection of northern soldiers, and even formed majorities in some state legislatures. As northern soldiers withdrew in the 1870s, white supremacist “Redeemers,” led by the old slave-owning class, reasserted their power and laid the basis for Jim Crow.

The Knights collided with southern segregation in 1886, when they held their General Assembly or national convention in the capital of the old Confederacy, Richmond. The Order’s General Master Workman (President), Terence Powderly, was introduced by a black delegate from New York, Frank Ferrell, and respectable white society was further scandalised when the biracial New York delegation energetically desegregated several Richmond theatres and refused to observe the colour bar at their lodgings. Nor did they stop at grand gestures. Many white Southern (and some northern) Knights refused to enter assemblies with their black co-workers, and the idea of the Knights as a colour-blind organisation is a nonsense, yet many biracial assemblies did indeed open and Knights led numerous organising drives and strikes across the colour line. Some organisers, white and black, even paid for their work with their lives, lynched by racist Redeemers. Their determination did not go unrecognised by black Americans, who remained unusually loyal to the Knights even when the movement began to decline at the end of the 1880s. They were right in their loyalty: the unions of the American Federation of Labor, which supplanted the Knights in the 1890s, were much less amenable than Knights were to black members, and only in the 1930s would African Americans again play such an important role in the American labour movement as they had in the 1880s.  Though they may not know it, campaigns like Fight for $15 move along terrain first cleared by the Knights of Labor.

The same applied to women. Campaigners for women’s rights worked with American unions before the Order came on the scene, but the Knights took the issue of gender equality much further than their predecessors. From 1881 they organised women as full members, some in mixed assemblies, some in assemblies of their own. Women led some of the largest concentrations of the Knights of Labor: Elizabeth Rodgers, mother to ten children, led 50,000 male and female members in Chicago in the mid-1880s. Leonora Barry, an Irish-born tailor, headed up one of the Knights’ many innovations, a Department for Women’s Work, created to investigate the conditions that women laboured in and, where possible, to organise them. In their Declaration of Principles the Knights made a demand that still resonates in our age of the gender pay gap: equal pay for men and women for equal work.

Not all male Knights welcomed women into their Order. Some thought that gossiping females would spill the secret ritual to the public, or else wished that women would return to home and hearth and leave the labour movement to them. Even the demand for equal pay was, to some people, a hope that employers would cease employing women if they cost as much to hire as men, and Knights did not seriously challenge the Victorian idea of separate spheres – that men should inhabit the public sphere of work, politics and trade, while women belonged in the private, domestic sphere of housework and childrearing.

Yet the Knights reinterpreted these ideas in surprising ways. Many pushed for full female suffrage and for temperance, a demand that appealed to the women’s movement at a time when a drunken husband could mean penury or domestic abuse. Knights also saw (mainly female) reproductive labour as equally important to (mainly male) industrial labour. Once decoupled from the assumption that woman’s natural place is in the home, that argument remains radical today. And as with black Americans and the labour movement, the community of interests and membership between feminism and trade unionism was first fully recognised by the Knights of Labor.

It should not be forgotten that their commitment to an organisation of all producers had limits. The late nineteenth century was, even more than our time, an age of mass migration. Combined with a lingering economic crisis, large-scale immigration to the United States then, as now, bred nativism and exclusion. The main targets of the nativists were Chinese, blamed for immoral practices such as opium smoking but also, by many trade unionists, for supposedly acting as the low-wage tools of big corporations who wished to reintroduce a kind of chattel slavery by the back door.

The Knights did not begin this agitation against Chinese immigration but they certainly joined it. They were among the organisations that took credit for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a precedent for Trump’s Muslim travel bans and anti-Mexican wall. Several times Knights called on the General Assembly to admit Chinese members, and each time they were voted down. The intensity of anti-Chinese feeling only began to cool, but not cease, in 1885 after white miners, some of them Knights, launched a bloody pogrom of Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, killing 28.

Racialised hatred of the Chinese marked the borders of Knights’ solidarity. Their attitude towards other immigrants was less hostile. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the composition of immigrants to the United States changed, as the proportion of southern and eastern Europeans began to outweigh northern and western Europeans. Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and other nationalities now became targets for nativists, especially if they were Catholics or some other non-Protestant. Yet the Knights as a movement refused to join in the anti-immigrant clamour of nativist organisations such as the American Protective Association, formed in 1887, as they had with the calls for Chinese exclusion. Knights often wrote and spoke harshly of the new immigrants but organised them anyway. Many organisers even learned a smattering of up to a dozen European languages so they could turn them into fully-fledged members.

This, then, was a movement in some ways far ahead of its time and in other ways very much of it. Welcoming to black Americans when the radical potential of the Civil War had ebbed away, friendly to women when the prevailing wisdom urged them to stay at home, open in practice to many immigrants otherwise treated by trade unionists with disdain, the Knights never stretched their definition of the producing classes to include workers from Asia. There is much to celebrate, much to lament and much even to learn from in that record – both how and how not to align class interests with racial and gender ones, and how to construct an organisation more open to “unskilled” or precarious workers than the average trade union. That is, indeed, even before we consider their work in politics and on the global stage.

Politics and the World
The Knights of Labor was a movement of many parts. It operated as a fraternal order, with a ritual borrowed from Freemasonry, and conceived of solidarity as “Universal Brotherhood” (with women included!). Knights wanted to turn an economy of big corporations into a network of co-operative enterprises, and many assemblies ran their own co-op store or even workshop. The Order functioned as a trade union, and though its leaders disapproved of strikes, the Knights attracted nearly one million members precisely because they launched thousands of strikes and hundreds of boycotts of anti-union firms between 1885 and 1887, in what historians now call the Great Upheaval. Assemblies of the Knights of Labor also acted as educational and self-help societies, social clubs and women’s suffrage associations, among other things. The Knights tried everything, and though theirs was mainly a record of failure, we can still learn from their achievements.

One concerned politics. Terence Powderly always claimed that the Order was ‘higher and nobler’ than politics, and for some time kept the organisation out of the political arena, but the Knights nevertheless became involved in two political movements with great resonance in our own time. The first accompanied the strikes and boycotts of the Great Upheaval in 1885-7, and saw Knights create dozens if not hundreds of local labour parties in virtually all the American states. It briefly seemed as if the Democratic and Republican duopoly might be broken, as scores of labour mayors, state legislators and even Congressmen won election.

Famously, the economist Henry George, running on the ticket of the United Labor Party, nearly became Mayor of New York in 1886, beating the Republican and future president Theodore Roosevelt into third place and only losing to a Democrat, Abram Hewitt, who had the full weight of the press and the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine behind him. For the growing number of American socialists today, the record of this working-class mobilisation – and its emphasis first on the local and state level, rather than banking everything on a presidential bid – remains as relevant now as it was unprecedented then.

Towards the end of their active life, the Knights hitched their wagon to the original populist movement, the People’s Party, formed in 1891. Indeed, their own rhetoric of an irredeemable conflict between producers and idlers, honest citizens and speculators, free labourers and the filthy rich, would probably be described by many commentators today as populist. Yet theirs was a populism far more inclusive than the ones peddled by Trump and the European right. Disentangled from the disgusting anti-Chinese agitation of the time, it could even serve as a model for Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other figures on the new American left who want to build a broad movement of those who work to reshape American society along cooperative lines. The Knights and their engagement with the Populists should also serve as a warning to that same new American left. In 1896, before the People’s Party could formulate a clear alternative over several election cycles to the two major parties, it was lured into the Democratic Party, where its demands were soon forgotten, and its radical energies dissipated.

The Knights also excelled in the international arena. More than all their predecessors and successors in the American labour movement, apart from the much smaller Industrial Workers of the World (1905-present), Knights thought in global terms and organised on an international scale. They did so for what seems like paradoxical reasons: concerned about the level of immigration to the United States and what it might mean for fledgling unions there, Knights sent organisers overseas to build up labour movements in Europe and elsewhere in the hope that by organising workers where they came from they could remove the material incentives which drove them to the United States. Terence Powderly put the issue in stark terms. ‘To assist foreigners to improve their condition at home,’ he wrote in 1888, ‘it is not necessary to reduce our own people to a condition bordering on serfdom by loading us down with a helpless surplus population which can at best be used only to the advantage of monopoly.’

That contradictory imperative drove the Knights of Labor between 1883 and 1900 to establish an international network of branches in Belgium, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as in Canada and the United States. Their non-American membership possibly reached as high as 100,000, with 10-20,000 across Britain, 40-50,000 in Belgium, 10,000 in New Zealand, and between several hundred and several thousand each in the other countries. No American-based labour movement has ever organised abroad in such numbers or devoted so much time to building up an international movement. As Amazon spreads its supply chains and working practices across the world, unions must follow the Knights in making internationalism more than just an empty phrase.

And the Knights still inspire us to broaden our horizons. They were dreamers, utopians who still thought it possible to build a “co-operative commonwealth” on the ruins of industrial competition. They wanted to do away with what they called “wage slavery,” the condition of working for someone else and therefore, as they saw it, ceding their freedom and liberty and leaving them unable to secure their full rights as citizens. Few union leaders would now dare demand such sweeping, revolutionary reforms. Even some of their more modest demands go beyond those made by the new wave of self-proclaimed American socialists. Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do not yet call, say, for punitive taxes on land speculation or the nationalisation of the telephones and railroads.

The Knights of Labor may appear old to us now, and they are not coming back. But their enthusiasm for ending wage slavery and building the co-operative commonwealth, creating labour and popular alternatives to the established parties, promoting the struggles of black and women workers, and joining with workers from other countries and not merely keeping them out, are things from which American and other unions can still learn. The Knights may be 150 years old, but in so many ways they remain 150 years young. We have a long way to go before we can safely say that the Knights no longer deserve our attention.


Steven Parfitt is a Teaching Fellow in History at Loughborough University, and his first book, Knights Across the Atlantic, with Liverpool University Press, is about the history of the Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland. Along with a dozen scholarly articles on British, American, French, Australian and global labour history, he has written numerous articles on the past and present of unions, strikes, precarious work and other topics for the Guardian, Jacobin, Times Higher Education, In These Times, and other venues. His next book will be a collection of the writings of a pioneer women trade unionist in Britain, Emma Paterson, with Nottingham Trent Editions. 

Image Credit: The Great Southwest Railroad Strike, 1886