Knights of Labor

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The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, best known simply as the Knights of Labor (K of L), was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. Its most important leader was Terence Powderly. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman, rejected Socialism and radicalism, demanded the eight-hour day, and promoted the producers ethic of republicanism. In some cases it acted as a labor union, negotiating with employers, but it was never well organized.

It was established in 1869, reached 28,000 members in 1880, then jumped to 100,000 in 1885. Then it mushroomed to nearly 700,000 members in 1886, but its frail organizational structure could not cope and it was battered by charges of failure and violence. Most members abandoned the movement in 1886-87, leaving at most 100,000 in 1890.[1] Remnants of the Knights of Labor continued in existence until 1949, when the group's last 50-member local dropped its affiliation.


Organizational history


In December 1869, seven members of the Philadelphia tailors' union, headed by Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright, established a secret union under the name the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. The collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873, left a vacuum for workers looking for organization. The Knights became better organized with a national vision when they replaced Stephens with Terence V. Powderly. The body became popular with Pennsylvania coal miners during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, then it grew rapidly.[2]

As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began not only to emphasize cooperative enterprises, but to initiate strikes to win concessions from employers. Powderly opposed strikes as a "relic of barbarism," but the size and the diversity of the Knights afforded local assemblies a great deal of autonomy.

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