Though initially averse to strikes, the Knights aided various strikes and boycotts. Their greatest victory was in the Union Pacific Railroad strike in 1884. The Wabash Railroad strike in 1885 was also a significant success.
The Knights of Labor had a mixed history of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, accepting women and blacks (after 1878) and their employers as members, and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies while tolerating the segregation of assemblies in the South.
The Knights were also responsible for race riots that resulted in the deaths of about 28 Chinese Americans in the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, and an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana.
By the mid-1890s, the Knights had declined to 17,000 members (from 700,000 in 1886), done in by both the taint of anarchism following the Haymarket Riot and disputes between its craft unionists and industrial unionists.
head of the Knights of Labor, a union which attempted to organize all workers, skilled and unskilled, into one large union. Though the Knights of Labor numbered 600,000, their poor organization limited the power of Powderly.
The riot, between Chinese immigrant miners and white immigrant miners, was the result of racial tensions and an ongoing labor dispute over the Union Pacific Coal Department's policy of paying Chinese miners lower wages than white miners. At least 28 Chinese miners were killed.
The Knights of Labor
The Knights of Labor was the largest and one of the most important American labor organizations of the 1880s. Its most important leader was Terence V. 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. After a rapid expansion in the mid-1880s, it suddenly lost its new members and became a small operation again.
On 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.
As membership expanded, the Knights began to function more as a labor union and less like a fraternal organization. Local assemblies began to emphasize cooperative enterprises, and 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.
In 1882, the Knights ended their membership rituals and removed the words "Noble Order" from their name. This was to mollify the concerns of Catholic members and the bishops who wanted to avoid any resemblance to freemasonry. Though initially averse to strikes as a method to advance their goals, the Knights aided various strikes and boycotts . Their greatest victory was in the Union Pacific Railroad strike in 1884. The Wabash Railroad strike in 1885 was also a significant success, as Powderly finally supported what became a successful strike on Jay Gould 's Wabash Line. Gould met with Powderly and agreed to call off his campaign against the Knights of Labor, which had caused the turmoil originally. These positive developments gave momentum and a surge of members, so by 1886, the Knights had over 700,000 members.
The Knights primary demand was for an eight hour day. They also called for legislation to end child and convict labor . They were eager supporters of cooperatives .
The Knights of Labor had a mixed history of inclusiveness and exclusiveness, accepting women and blacks (after 1878) and their employers as members, and advocating the admission of blacks into local assemblies while tolerating the segregation of assemblies in the South. Bankers, doctors, lawyers, stockholders, and liquor manufacturers were excluded because they were considered unproductive members of society. Asians were also excluded, and in November 1885, a branch of the Knights in Tacoma, Washington worked to expel the city's Chinese, who amounted to nearly a tenth of the overall city population at the time. The Knights were also responsible for race riots that resulted in the deaths of about 28 Chinese Americans in the Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming, and an estimated 50 African-American sugar-cane laborers in the 1887 Thibodaux massacre in Louisiana. The Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885, as did many other labor groups, although the group did accept most others, including skilled and unskilled women of any profession.
Membership declined with the problems of an autocratic structure, mismanagement, and unsuccessful strikes. Disputes between the skilled trade unionists, also known as craft unionists , and the industrial unionists weakened the organization. The top leadership did not believe that strikes were an effective way to up the status of the working people, and failed to develop the infrastructure that was necessary to organize and coordinate the hundreds of strikes, walkouts, and job actions spontaneously erupting among the membership. The Knights failed in the highly visible Missouri Pacific strike in 1886 .
The Haymarket Riot of May 1886 came during a strike by the Knights in Chicago, and although violence was not planned, the Knights were very badly tarnished nationwide with the image of violence and anarchy. They lost many craft unionists that year to the rival Railroad brotherhoods and the new American Federation of Labor , which had more conservative reputations. Efforts to run labor candidates proved a failure in numerous elections in 1886-89. By 1890, the Knights had declined to fewer than 100,000 members. At the same time, the organization gave political support to the People's Party . Terence Powderly was replaced as Grand Master Workman by James Sovereign in 1893. Two years later, members of the Socialist Labor Party left the Knights to found the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance as a Marxist rival. Membership was reduced to 17,000.