Sample Essay on Knights of Labor

Knights of Labor

Knights of labor (KOL) referred to the largest and important labor organization in America in the 1870s and1880s. This organization began in Philadelphia as a tailors’ secret society in 1869. It grew gradually in the 1870s, which were the heard years for the workers. Towards the end of this decade, militancy rose rapidly especially after the strike at the great railroad in 1877. The membership of the Knights also rose after this event. The goal of this organization was to promote cultural and social uplift among the working men. It rejected anarchism and socialism while demanding eight-hour day. It also promoted the republicanism’s ethic producers. There were cases when it acted as the labor union that negotiated with the employers.

What led to the emergence of Knights of labor?

This organization began as a secret organization in 1870 that was aimed at offering protection to its members, who were employees, against their employers’ retaliations. Its founders were Daniel Spahr and Sam Catri who led the union of Philadelphia tailors that was also led by Uria Smith Spephens. This organization had emotional appeal due to its secrecy. Partly, ideology was the original platform for this organization. Its basis was the belief in unity of the interest of every producing group including farmers, shopkeepers and laborers. It proposed that capitalism should be replaced by a workers’ cooperatives system.

The group ceased being secret after Terence V. Powderly was elected as the grandmaster workman in 1879. This was the time when the organization abandoned mystical trapping then struck off the word noble from the title that it had before. Since Powderly did not have the will to start strikes or even use other types of economic pressure in order to achieve the objectives of the union, its effective control moved to the regional leaders. As of 1880, the organization had 28,000 members. This membership rose to 100,000 in 1884. 20 percent of all workers had affiliation with this organization by 1886 expanding its membership to 800,000.

How it operated

Initially, KOL was against the idea of using strikes to push its agendas. However, local leaders and new members radicalized it gradually.  By mid 1880s, the organization was using labor stoppages as an effective tool. For instance, KOL won vital strikes on Union Pacific as well as Wabash Railroad in 1885. Nevertheless, the organization declined gradually and it lost its popularity and influence over time.

The main agendas that KOL pushed for were:

  • An eight-hour working day
  • Cooperatives’ establishment
  • Equal pay for workers doing the same work
  • Child labor’s termination
  • End of the system of convict contact labor
  • Public land policy to help settlers instead of speculators
  • Government ownership of railroads and telegraph.

Why Knight of labor declined

The influence of this organization was quickly eroded by its failure in Missouri Pacific strike of 1886 and Haymarket Square Riot in the same year. Since Powderly, its leader, was a Catholic, KOL attracted Catholics in large number. However, many bishops were concerned about secrecy of the organization because the Masons also used secrecy in the early years of their organization. Secrecy was used with an aim of protecting members from being fired by their employers.

Basically, the influence of KOL declined rapidly after 1886. This year was marked with many strikes, some of which were violent. This led to a backlash against the organization. Many members of the organization were also dissatisfied by the way the organization was led. This led to the demise of Knights of labor and eventual emergence of the American Federation of Labor at the end of 1886.

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