Knights Of Labor"An injury to one is a concern of all"external image FoundersKoL1886.jpg
The Knights of Labor began as a secret society of tailors in Philadelphia in 1869. It was the first major American labor union. The first leaders were Uriah Smith Stephens and James L. Wright. Originally a secret society open to all producers, the Knights Of Labor excluded only "parasites" like stockbrokers, gamblers, lawyers, bankers, and liquor dealers. The collapse of the National Labor Union in 1873 left a number of workers looking for organization. The Knights became better organized with a national vision when they replaced Stephens with Terence Powderly. The body became popular with Pennsylvania coal miners during the economic depression of the mid-1870s, then it grew rapidly. By 1886, the group had 700,000 members.
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Unlike most trade unions of the time, the Knights' unions were vertically organized, each included all workers in a given industry, regardless of trade. The Knights were also unusual in accepting workers of all skill levels and both sexes; blacks were included after 1883. On the other hand, they strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885. Powderly believed these laws were needed to protect the American work force against competition from underpaid laborers imported by unscrupulous employers.

The aims of the Knights of Labor included the following:
  • An eight hour work day
  • Termination of child labor
  • Termination of the convict contract labor system
  • Establishment of cooperatives to replace the traditional wage system and help tame capitalism's excesses
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Government ownership of telegraph facilities and the railroads
  • A public land policy designed to aid settlers and not speculators
  • A graduated income tax

Powderly believed in boycotts and arbitration, but he opposed strikes. He only had a limited amount of control over the Union membership, however, and a successful strike by the Knights against Jay Gould's southwestern railroad system in 1884 brought a flood of new members.
The printers, cigar makers, brick layers, iron molders, granite cutters, carpenters, and other unions all complained that the Knights of Labor did not respect union strikes and boycotts and accepted as members workers who had been expelled or suspended form their trade unions. Powderly dismissed these charges as "purely imaginary", but he also accused the trade unions of trespassing on KOL turf.
These charges and countercharges set the tone for a bitter struggle that ultimately spurred trade unionists to found the American Federation of Labor.

By the year 1886 the membership of the Knights of Labor began to decline rapidly. The decline had a lot to do with opposition by Powderly and other Knight leaders to use a strike to win an eight-hour workday. Members of the Knights also felt betrayed by their leaders for the Haymarket Square incident in Chicago.
The Haymarket Square riot was a confrontation between police and protesters that took place on May 4, 1886. Because of several men being shot a couple days before, a meeting was called at Haymarket Square. People were protesting the police violence. The police tried to stop the meeting and that is when the chaos started. There were gunshots and bomb was thrown along with the fighting between the workers and the police. There were many arrests made at the riot.

Along with the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago there was another big reason for the downfall of the Knights. The defeat of the organization sustained in a strike against the railroads drove many people away form the organization. There was a fight in 1866 between members who supported the original policy of unionism and craft unionism. Once this happened there was a large secession of numbers in the craft unions. Material desires were another big downfall of the Knights. When the Knights were an organization that was quiet, they worked great. It was when the organization attracted attention that times got rough for the Knights.

Another organization called the Knights of Columbus was started. The Knights of Columbus asked Powderly for his group to join the Knights of Columbus, and Powderly got very upset. When he started the organization in 1879 he was thought as being wrong to start the group. Now in 1917, the Knights of Columbus were trying to be a secret organization and Powderly did not appreciate that the Knights of Columbus were having success and on top of it trying to get his organization to join them.

There was only one more important struggle that the Knights of Labor participated in. The Knights participated in a strike in 1894. This strike was against the principal railroads of the U.S. The total defeat of this strike was due to mostly to the opposition of the American Federation of Labor. This defeat led to the formal collapse of the Knights of Labor in 1917.

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Labor Protest Songs
Though often overlooked, the Knights of Labor contributed to the tradition of labor protest songs in America. The Knights frequently included music in their regular meetings, and encouraged local members to write and perform their work. In Chicago, James and Emily Talmadge, printers and supporters of the Knights of Labor, published the songbook "Labor Songs Dedicated to the Knights of Labor" (1886).

Song for the Knights of Labor
Into this life
We fall like the dew
Granted one glorious moment to be.
Pauper or prince we
All must then go
Back to a formless sea.
All through this world of beauty and woe
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One simple law the
centuries show:
Our Maker's decree
If Maker there be
Labor must reap what labor does sow.
Labor must reap what labor does sow.
Why should the weak be prey to the strong?
Why does the tyrant's machinery run on?
To take for himself what does not belong,
The light of his brothers' sun?

Factory wheels spin hope into stone
Our modern day slave is worn to the bone,
Yet the spark of his will
The master would still,
Take for himself, even that for to own.
Take for himself, even that for to own.
IRONS: In the dark a flame glows / CHORUS: Take heart, hope grows
IRONS: From the mount a wind blows / CHORUS: Faith mounts, heaven knows
IRONS: Hear the call! Feel the power! / CHORUS: May all honor
IRONS: Now the destined hour is at hand. / CHORUS: Crown our Working man.
IRONS: So unite! / CHORUS: Do right
IRONS: And prepare! / CHORUS: Risk, dare
ALL: When standing for justice, we'll not stand alone.
IRONS: By each tree a forest / CHORUS: Who'll be for us
IRONS: For each voice a chorus / CHORUS: Rejoice for us
IRONS: Each to each / CHORUS: Now we
IRONS: let us vow / CHORUS: all vow
ALL: Our blood and our honor, to solemnly offer,
that truth shall reign, and justice, shall be the right of all men.
CHORUS ALONE: Until the last sunset
when Gabriel's trumpet
shall call the whole world away!
IRONS: We are the knights who ride as of old
Honest, courageous, sober and bold
With a wave of our lance
CHORUS: With a wave of our lance
IRONS: The fire of our glance,
CHORUS: The fire of our glance
IRONS: Capital trembles and schemers grow cold.
Let us press onward and raise up the standard of right!
Now is the moment to join in the fight.
Weightless this life, as rays in a glass
Echoing dimly the face of the sun.
Fleet is the likeness, soon it must pass
So let it be justly done.

Music by Mark Arnest / Lyrics by Lauren Arnest
© 1999 Mark and Lauren Arnest