Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Knights of Labor

I)                 Union building period – in the years following the Great Upheaval, working people sought out organizations that they felt could help them cope with the developing capitalist system

A)    Origins of the Knights of Labor – founded in Philadelphia in 1869 as a union of tailors, the organization remained small and secretive until the former mayor of Scranton, PA was elected to the position of Grand Master Workman by the name of Terrence V. Powderly.

1) Uriah Stephens--became the 1st Grand Master Workman, and it was his vision that largely shaped the organization. Stephens, who had to abandon his studies to become a minister after the Panic of 1837, and instead became an apprentice tailor. Stephens' religious background informed his vision about the universality of labor--and this influenced the vision of the organization from its inception to its demise.

2) Secrecy and Ritual--during the early years of the organization, membership was a tightly kept secret. Part of the reason for this secrecy was due to the hostility of employers to any labor organization during this time period. But this secrecy also added to the allure of the organizations, as well, with its secret handshake, mystical ceremonies, and special symbols. This secrecy inhibited enlarging the organization greatly, however; it wasn't until 1872 (3 years after its founding in 1869) that a second chapter was founded, and not until 1874 that the organization was established outside of the greater Philadelphia area.

3) Goals and Program--the ultimate goal of the Knights of Labor was to reform--or, better yet, transcend--the emerging capitalist economic system. To accomplish this, the Oder welcomed all "producers"; meaning everyone but doctors, lawyers, bankers, gamblers, and liquor dealers.

4)      Organization by location – rather than organize workers by craft, the K of L organized workers by location, by city and/or neighborhood. Eventually they succumbed to demands by skilled workers, however, and in addition also organized workers by job skill.

a) General Assembly--the ultimate authority in the K of L, the General Assembly met once a year, and was made up of representatives from the various District Assemblies.

b) District Assemblies--made up from a number of local assemblies.

c) Local Assemblies (LA)--local assemblies generally were made up of two different kinds of organizations: mixed assemblies, which consisted of workers from a variety of different trades; and trade assemblies, where all members belonged to a specific trade. This make-up was largely determined by local conditions and the size or the local working population; cities with larger populations tended to have LAs more oriented toward craft differences, while LAs in smaller cities tended to have greater diversity within their ranks.

5)      Bi-racial organization – the K of L avoided being trapped by the conundrum of racial differences between black and whites, and organized black workers (and often integrated them within District Assemblies, which was the base level in the organization).

(a)    This bit of racial understanding did not extend to the Chinese workers, however, who were excluded from membership along with liquor dealers, cardsharps, lawyers, and other such scum. This policy may have been influenced by the small number of Chinese workers, their geographic concentration, and the expectation that Chinese immigration (and labor competition) could be closed off by the Chinese Exclusion Act (first passed in 1882, renewed in 1892, and made permanent--until 1943--in 1902).

B) Terence Powderly--When Uriah Stephens retired from the Order in 1878 to run for Congress on the Greenback Labor Party ticket, Terence V. Powderly was chosen to be his successor in the position of Grand Master Workman.

1) Early life--Powderly was born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania in 1849, the son of Irish Catholic parents who emigrated to the United States in the 1820s. Powderly worked as a young boy as a switch tender in a local rail yard, but at the age of 17 he left to become an apprentice machinst.

2) Working life--after serving his apprenticeship, Powderly became a member of the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths, and by 1874 he had also become a member of the Knights of Labor.

3) Political life--at the same time Powderly was rising through the ranks of the Knights of Labor, he was also becoming active in local politics; participating first in the activities of the Greenback-Labor Party, and then being elected mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1878. Powderly held that office until 1884, serving simultaneously as mayor and Grand Master Workman until 1884.

4) Personal life--Powderly was of a slender build, and of less than average height. A convinced teetotaler, he had little patience for those who enjoyed drinking--which meant that he had little time for the conviviality of the tavern where much union recruitment took place. This undoubtedly had some adverse effect upon the view that K of L members developed of Powderly.

5) Contribution to the Knights of Labor--although Powderly presided over the great expansion in membership of the K of L, Powderly was not dedicated to the movement in the same way as, say, William Sylvis, but he nevertheless worked very hard to build the organization.

6) Influence with the Roman Catholic Church--Powderly was himself a devout Roman Catholic. The Church was very wary of secret organizations--particularly those that modeled themselves after the Masonic Order, and generally forbid members from joining these types of organizations on pain of excommunication. Powderly's handling of the situation helped persuade Cardinal Gibbon to intercede with the Pope on the Knight's behalf, and permitted the Knights to make inroads with Roman Catholic workers.

7) Cooperation--Powderly's core belief that cooperation between management and labor would permit the two sides to transcend their differences, and also to set up consumer and producer cooperatives, were all producers would receive a fair price for the fruits of their labor.

a) One of the 135 cooperatives established nationwide was started in Toledo by local reed workers.

C) The Rise of the Knights of Labor--both the rise and ultimately the decline of the K of L was in part a result of economic and social circumstances beyond its control
1)      Organizing success – although the official position of the organization opposed strikes, the K of L had great success organizing workers as a result of successful strikes that the union became involved with. As the economic recovery of the late 1870s and early 1880s began to lose steam, employers began to attempt to impose wage cuts on workers as they had in the wake of the 1873 Depression. Workers, again, attempted to resist these wage cuts, and many walked out on strike. While most of these strike were defeated, workers organized by the Knights of Labor were largely successful in forcing employers to rescind these wage cuts.

(a)    Southwestern System strike (1884) – workers of Jay Gould’s Southwestern System went on strike in response to Gould’s insistence that they take a pay cut; the success of the strike almost double the membership of the organization, to approximately 110,000 members, by 1886--with a much larger population of workers sympathetic to the K of L, but who were not official members (perhaps as many as 500,000).

(b) Southwestern System strike (1886)--workers in the Southwestern System, feeling (perhaps over)confident because of past success, went out on strike against Gould's rail system again in 1886. This time, Gould was better prepared, and successfully prevailed upon state governments to use the militia to break the strike in a variety of states. As a result, the strike was defeated, and discouraged rail workers began falling away from the organization

2) Organizing failure--the failure of the 1886 Southwestern System strike (in the workers' view, caused by Powderly's failure to support them in their efforts), coupled with the defeat of Knights-organized packinghouse workers that same year in Chicago, led to a precipitous decline in membership, as members left as quickly in 1886 has they had joined in 1885. The Knights of Labor lost most of its influence as a result, and it became little more than a paper organization.

D. Who were the Knights of Labor--and Why Did They Join?

1. People of diverse opinions were members (at one time), from Samuel Gompers (first president of the American Federation of Labor, to Albert Parsons (one of the accused Haymarket Anarchists).

2. United by their opposition to the wage system--or the "slave wage" system, as they saw it. This is difficult for we moderns to understand, I think, because we have become so inured to it; how would one survive on the sweat of ones' face (to borrow from the biblical term) if not from wages? For Knights, that answer was to transform society through the organization, to build workers' cooperatives, and to find other means of exchange than cash.

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