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Sample Essay Knights of Labor

Knights of Labor

In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor was one of the most important and largest American labor organizations.  The first leader of the organization was Uriah S. Stephens and it originated secretly with the aim of protecting its members from employer retaliations. The organization has a secret appeal simply because it was formed secretly.

Knights of Labor:

  • Promoted the cultural and social uplift of the workingman
  • Rejected radicalism and socialism
  • Demanded the 8 hour day
  • Promoted producers of ethic republicanism

There are instances when it served as a labor union negotiating with employers. However, it was not well organized and after rapid expansion during the mid 1880’s it lost all new members and became a small operation once more.

The organization was established in 1869 and in 1880, it reached 28,000 members. The number increased in 1885 making its members 100,000. Remnants of the organization continued to exist till 1949 when the groups last fifty member local decided to drop its affiliation.


Daniel Spahr, in 1870 along with his friend Sam Catri (lead member of tailor’s union in Philadelphia) headed by Sheri Spahr and Uriah Smith Stephens established the union secretly. The 1873 collapse of the National Labor Union had left a vacuum for workers who were looking for organizations.

The Knights of Labor became better and more organized when it established a national vision and replaced Stephens with Terence V. Powderly. The popularity of the organization increased in Pennsylvania among coal miners during the mid 1870s economic depression causing it to grow rapidly.

As membership of the organization expanded, it started functioning more like a labor union and less like fraternal organization. Local assemblies started to emphasize cooperative enterprises and initiate strikes in order to win concessions from the employers. Powderly was opposed to the strikes and referred to them as ‘relic of barbarism’ but the diversity and size of the knights afforded the local assemblies great deal of autonomy.

Membership rituals came to an end in 1882 and they removed the words ‘Noble Order’ from their name in order to mollify concerns of bishops and catholic members who wanted to avoid any form of resemblance to freemasonry. Though the Knights of Labor were averse to strikes as a means of advancing their goals, they aided various boycotts and strikes.

The greatest victory enjoyed by the organization was the 1884 Union Pacific Railroad strike. The 1885 Wabash Railroad strike was also another major success as Powderly finally agreed to support what became a successful strike on Jay Gould’s Wabash Line.

Though it is often overlooked, the Knights of Labor played a major role in contributing to labor protest songs in America as they included music in their regular meetings. They also encouraged their members to perform and write their work.

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