the knights of labor -- 11/6/23

Today's selection -- from The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White. The Knights of Labor and the Great Upheaval:

“In 1886 more than six hundred thousand American workers walked out of shops, factories, and work sites. There were fourteen hundred separate strikes affecting 11,562 businesses. Employers locked out still more. The strikes peaked on May Day, May 1, with a national strike for the eight-hour day; collectively they became what the economist and labor historian Selig Perlman later called the Great Upheaval. The size, extent, organization, and expanse of the strikes far exceeded those of 1877. This was not the spontaneous walkout of largely unorganized workers. Labor organizations of a size the country had never seen before coordinated, or tried to coordinate, most of them.

“To the alarm and discomfort of its cautious national leader, General Master Workman Terrence Powderly, the Knights of Labor formed the vanguard. An organization with 110,000 members in 1885, it numbered 729,000 by July 1, 1886, forming roughly fifteen thousand assemblies scattered across the country.

“The Knights grew because they had defeated Jay Gould, one of the most hated men in the country, and because they had renounced their vows of secrecy in deference to the Catholic Church's ban on membership in secret societies. But they also grew because they had helped mobilize the West against the Chinese in what amounted to an American pogrom, and because they were preparing to expand into the South. Together, these developments had made them the most powerful labor organization in the country. 

“On the surface, the Knights seemed unchanged. They retained all their American men's club paraphernalia of oaths and offices. They still opposed the wage system and believed in a cooperative economy. They continued to be an antimonopolist reform group as well as a labor union that welcomed non-wage workers so long as they were producers. Antimonopolists used ‘producer’ to describe people who lived off their own labor, as opposed to bankers, landlords, speculators, and investors, who lived off the labor of others; and as opposed also to supposedly servile workers, who were the tools of corporations. Perched in between were small merchants and lawyers. The Knights cared less about class than about labor and independence. 

The Seal of the Knights of Labor

“European socialists watching the sudden growth of the Knights were impressed, confused, and amused. Friedrich Engels, the coauthor with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto, regarded the organization, beliefs, and actions of the Knights of Labor as an ‘American paradox.’ Their ‘immense association’ represented ‘all shades of individual and local opinion within the working class.’ Their constitution was authoritarian but ‘impracticable.’ What united them was ‘the instinctive feeling that the very fact of clubbing together for their common cause makes them a very great power in the country; a truly American paradox clothing the most democratic and even rebellious spirit behind an apparent, but really powerless despotism.’ He concluded, ‘Whatever their shortcomings and little absurdities, whatever their platform and constitution, here they are, the work of practically the whole class of American wage-workers, the only national bond that holds them together, that makes their strength felt to themselves not less than their enemies, and fills them with proud hope of future victories.’

“In regarding the Knights as the expression of ‘practically the whole class of American wage-workers,’ Engels proved astute. The Knights organized black as well as white workers, women as well as men, and unskilled as well as skilled. They confined their membership neither to whites nor to men, but the Knights were not open to everyone. Whom the Knights included and whom they excluded said much about them. Their victory over Gould gained them members, but so did their attacks on the Chinese.

“Look to the Midwest, East, and South, and the Knights seemed the vanguard of at least a limited racial equality; look to the West and they appeared very different. At various times, the Knights distrusted Italians, Finns, Hungarians, and more, but the one racial or ethnic group they banned from the organization was the Chinese. The Chinese were largely wage laborers like themselves, but the Knights thought them quite different from other immigrants or freedpeople. They regarded them not as workers but as coolies, virtual semislaves who undermined free labor. Their attacks on the Chinese had as much to do with their popularity, particularly in the West, as did their resistance to Gould. Both sowed the ground for the Great Upheaval.

“The Knights considered the Chinese tools of the corporations. Restrictions on immigration still left a large Chinese population in the western United States, and Chinese workers who emigrated back home or into Mexico or Canada retained the right to return. Americans had no real control over their southern or northern borders, and Chinese immigrants continued to pass across both. The incapacity of the federal government to enforce its immigration ban fertilized continuing resentment against the Chinese.

“The solidarity the Knights preached in the West depended on workers' identity as white men rather than as wage earners. As Joseph Buchanan, the leading Western Knight, put it, the Chinese made him alter his belief from the brotherhood of man to ‘The Brotherhood of Man, Limited.’”



Richard White


The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896


Oxford University Press


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