Who Were the Knights of Labor?

The Late 19th-Century Union Pioneered Labor Reforms

Illustration of bomb explosion in Haymarket Square
The Haymarket Square bomb. Getty Images

The Knights of Labor was the first major American labor union. It was first formed in 1869 as a secret society of garment cutters in Philadelphia.

The organization, under its full name, Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, grew throughout the 1870s, and by the mid-1880s it had a membership of more than 700,000. The union organized strikes and was able to secure negotiated settlements from hundreds of employers across the United States.

Its eventual leader, Terence Vincent Powderly, was for a time the most famous labor leader in America. Under Powderly's leadership, the Knights of Labor transformed from its secretive roots to a much more prominent organization.

The Haymarket Riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886, was blamed on the Knights of Labor, and the union was unfairly discredited in the eyes of the public. The American labor movement coalesced around a new organization, the American Federation of Labor, which was formed in December 1886.

Membership of the Knights of Labor plummeted, and by the mid-1890s it had lost all its former influence and had less than 50,000 members.

Origins of the Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor was organized at a meeting in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day, 1869. As some of the organizers had been members of fraternal organizations, the new union took on a number of trappings such as obscure rituals and a fixation on secrecy.

The organization used the motto "An injury to one is the concern of all." The union recruited workers in all fields, skilled and unskilled, which was an innovation. Up to that point, labor organizations tended to focus on particularly skilled trades, thus leaving common workers with virtually no organized representation.

The organization grew throughout the 1870s, and in 1882, under the influence of its new leader, Terence Vincent Powderly, an Irish Catholic machinist, the union did away with the rituals and ceased to be a secretive organization. Powderly had been active in local politics in Pennsylvania and had even served as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania. With his grounding in practical politics, he was able to move the once-secretive organization into a growing movement.

The membership nationwide grew to about 700,000 by 1886, though it plummeted after the suspected connection to the Haymarket Riot. By the 1890s Powderly was forced out as the organization's president, and the union lost most of its force. Powderly eventually wound up working for the federal government, working on immigration issues.

In time the role of the Knights of Labor was essentially taken over by other organizations, most notably the newer American Federation of Labor.

The legacy of the Knights of Labor is mixed. It ultimately failed to deliver on its early promise, however, it did prove that a nationwide labor organization could be practical. And by including unskilled workers in its membership, the Knights of Labor pioneered a widespread labor movement. Later labor activists were inspired by the egalitarian nature of the Knights of Labor while also learning from the organization's mistakes.

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McNamara, Robert. "Who Were the Knights of Labor?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/knights-of-labor-1773905. McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Who Were the Knights of Labor? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/knights-of-labor-1773905 McNamara, Robert. "Who Were the Knights of Labor?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/knights-of-labor-1773905 (accessed March 20, 2023).