The Knights of Labor: Definition, History, Goals & Leader

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  • 0:01 The Labor Movement
  • 0:21 Workers in the Gilded Age
  • 2:02 The Rise of the…
  • 4:10 The Downfall of the…
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
Learn about one of the largest and most powerful labor unions of the 19th century, the Knights of Labor. In this lesson. we'll investigate the organization's history, leaders, and goals - as well as its rise and fall.

The Labor Movement

We've all had a job we weren't particularly fond of. Luckily, there are many protections that keep us safe at work and provide channels to pursue redress if we're treated unfairly. We can thank the American labor movement for many of these gains! In the late 19th century, the Knights of Labor was at the forefront of the movement for workers' rights.

Workers in the Gilded Age

It would be an understatement to say that work conditions in the Gilded Age, the period between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the year 1900, were difficult. Jobs such as an iron smelter or a railroad brakeman could easily get one killed or maimed. Workers at mechanized steam laundries, for instance, developed swelling and skin ulcers from the contaminated wash-water discharging over their arms and legs.

Even jobs that didn't hold the possibility of physical injury paid very little, required 12-hour shifts six days per week and offered none of the benefits we're accustomed to today, such as minimum wages, workers' compensation, unemployment benefits, health coverage, or pensions. Finally, many industrial jobs had become de-skilled, meaning workers needed no special talents to perform them, and thus, they could be replaced quite easily.

In addition to these significant challenges, employers opposed unions. A union is a group of workers joining together to demand improved labor conditions. Unions can be effective through strength in numbers and by acting collectively. Many business owners considered unions a threat to their bottom line and an obstacle to staying competitive. Many employers also believed unions represented the opposite of the American virtues of independence and autonomy.

To combat union activity, many business leaders utilized several strategies. New hires were often forced to sign a 'yellow dog contract,' which effectively barred the worker from joining a union under the threat of being fired. Employers also shared 'blacklists,' which were a compilation of all the names of union activists in an area. And, if union members went on strike, owners employed strikebreakers to replace them in the factories.

The Rise of the Knights of Labor

To combat this dismal situation for workers, unions of the Gilded Age pursued two broad strategies. The first strategy attempted to organize mostly skilled tradesmen in a single job, such as carpenters or railroad brakemen. The second approach involved broader organization and attempted to bring together workers from a variety of jobs, both skilled and unskilled, and even those of different ethnicities, races, and/or genders. The Knights of Labor pursued this second strategy.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Knights of Labor built the largest and most successful union in the United States, despite significant challenges in organizing. It was difficult to create a union across the huge geographical distances of the country and throughout the large scale of industrial enterprises. Also, the divides between the various occupations and groups of workers posed barriers to effective organization.

Uriah Stephens formed the Knights of Labor in 1869, but the union gained a national following when Terence Powderly assumed leadership. Powderly pursued the strategy of bringing in any and all workers into the union, thus creating the most broad-based union in the country. When Powderly presided over a successful Knights of Labor-led strike against railroads in the Southwest, the union's membership mushroomed from 100,000 in 1885 to 750,000 in 1886.

The strength of the Knights of Labor was focused mainly in the industrial areas of the Northeast and Midwest; St. Louis, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Omaha had particularly strong locals. Even in the South the union had a powerful presence in certain occupations, such as telegraphers. The Knights also had all-black, all-Italian, and all-Jewish locals. Lumbermen, stevedores, laundry-women, housekeepers, and many other industrial workers eagerly joined the growing ranks of the Knights of Labor.

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