Knights of Labor

The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869 by Uriah Stephens and five other former members of the Garment Cutters' Association of Philadelphia. The organization was open to all working people except for bankers, lawyers, stockbrokers, doctors and liquor manufacturers. Controversially, the Knights of Labor was a secret organization.

It was the first union to attempt to unionize women on a national scale. This included appointing Leonora Barry as a national organizer.

In 1879 Terence Powderly became the new leader of the organization and he brought an end to the rule of secrecy. Soon afterwards it was claimed that the Knights of Labor had 700,000 members. However, it went into decline after the formation of American Federation of Labour in 1886.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Leonora Barry published a report for the Knights of Labor in 1887.

One year ago the Knights of Labor, in convention assembled at Richmond, Va., elected me to a position of honor and

trust - the servant and representative of thousands of toiling women.

Having no legal authority I have been unable to make as thorough an investigation in many places as I would like, consequently the facts stated in my report are not all from actual observation but from authority which I have every reason to believe truthful and reliable.

Upon the strength of my observation and experience I would ask of officers and members of this Order that more consideration be given, and more thorough educational measures be adopted on behalf of the working-women of our land, the majority of whom are entirely ignorant of the economic and industrial question which is to them of such vital importance; and they must ever remain so while the selfishness of their brothers in toil is carried to such an extent as I find it to be among those who have sworn to demand equal pay for equal work. Thus far in the history of our Order that part of our platform has been but a mockery of the principles intended.

December 10 went to Newark to investigate the matter concerning the sewing-women of that city, which was referred to our committee at the General Assembly at Richmond. Found, after a careful study of the matter, that the case reported by the boys' shirt-waist makers was not only true, but that in general the working-women of Newark were very poorly paid, and the system of fines in many industries were severe and unjust. Instance: a corset factory where a fine is imposed for eating, laughing, singing or talking of 10 cents each. If not inside the gate in the morning when the whistle stops blowing, an employee is locked out until half past seven; then she can go to work, but is docked two hours for waste power; and many other rules equally, slavish and unjust. Other industries closely follow these rules, while the sewing-women receive wages which are only one remove from actual starvation. In answer to all my inquiries of employer and employed why this state of affairs exists, the reply was, monopoly and competition.

March 14 was sent to Paterson to look into the condition of the women and children employed in the Linen-thread Works of that city. There are some fourteen or fifteen hundred persons employed in this industry, who were at that time out of employment for this reason: Children who work at what is called doffing were receiving $2.70 per week, and asked for an increase of 5 cents per day. They were refused, and they struck, whereupon all the other employees were locked out. This was what some of the toadying press called "Paterson's peculiar strike," or "unexplainable phenomena." The abuse, injustice and suffering which the women of this industry endure from the tyranny, cruelty and slave-driving propensities of the employers is something terrible to be allowed existence in free America. In one branch of this industry women are compelled to stand on a stone floor in water the year round, most of the time barefoot, with a spray of water from a revolving cylinder flying constantly against the breast; and the coldest night in winter as well as the warmest in summer those poor creatures must go to their homes with water dripping from their underclothing along their path, because there could not be space or a few moments allowed them wherein to change their clothing. A constant supply of recruits is always on hand to take the places of any who dare rebel against the ironclad authority of those in charge.

(2) John Mitchell was an early member of the Knights of Labor. He eventually became leader of the United Mine Workers of America. He wrote about his experiences in his book, Organized Labor (1903)

No one can understand the true nature of trade unionism without understanding the industrial revolution and what it is accomplished. The history of mankind has been more virtually affected by changes in its machines and its methods of doing business than by any action or counsel of statesmen or philosophers. What we call the modern world, with its huge populations, its giant cities, its political democracy, its growing intensity of life, its contrasts of wealth and poverty - this great, whirling, restless civilization, with all its vexing problems, is the offspring merely of changed methods of producing wealth.

The condition of workmen in the textile and other factories was incredibly bad. The day's work was constantly lengthened, in some cases to fourteen, sixteen, and more hours, and while not difficult, the labor was confining and nerve-wearing. There was little provision for the safety of the workman, and terrible accidents were a matter of daily occurrence in the crowded mills and factories. Periods of feverish activity, during which men were worked beyond the limit of human endurance, were succeeded by still more harassing periods of depression, when thousands of men were thrown into the street.

The labor organization as it exists today is the product of a long evolution. The constitution of the trade union, its by-laws, its customs and traditions, its practices and policies have all been the result of a gradual working out of particular remedies for particular problems. The constitution of the trade union, moreover, has been evolved by and through the efforts of workingmen. The trade union is a government of workingmen, by workingmen, for workingmen, and the framers of its constitution have been workingmen.

(3) Hugh Clews, North American Review (June, 1886)

The Knights of Labor have undertaken to test, upon a large scale, the application of compulsion as a means of enforcing their demands. The point to be determined is whether capital or labor shall, in future, determine the terms upon which the invested resources of the nation are to be employed. The labor disease must soon end one way or another. The demands of the Knights of Labor and their sympathizers, whether openly expressed or temporarily concealed, are so utterly revolutionary of the inalienable rights of the citizen and so completely subversive of social order that the whole community has come to a firm conclusion that these pretensions must be resisted to the last extremity of endurance and authority.

The laboring man in this bounteous and hospitable country has no ground for complaint. Elsewhere he is a creature of circumstance, which is that of abject depression. Under the government of this nation, the effort is to elevate the standard of the human race and not to degrade it. In all other nations it is the reverse. What, therefore, has the laborer to complain of in America? By inciting strikes and encouraging discontent, he stands in the way of the elevation of his race and of mankind.

The tide of emigration to this country, to this country, now so large, makes peaceful strikes perfectly harmless in themselves, because the places of those who vacate good situations are easily filled by the newcomers. When disturbances occur under the cloak of strikes, it is a different matter, as law and order are then set in defiance.