Knights of Labor

What's a union, and how does it work?

Labor unions arose during the second Industrial Revolution as Americans began to work in factories, mines, and mills. For the first time in U.S. history, more people worked for others for wages than for themselves as farmers or craftsmen.

At the beginning of industrial capitalism, government did not regulate businesses. Monopolies could control an entire industry and eliminate competition, as well as set prices for goods and services. Companies could coordinate to keep wages low. Wealthy business owners often bribed judges and elected officials for favorable outcomes. Individual worker had no power to complain about mistreatment.

A union is an organization of workers who join together as a group to bargain with the business owners that employ them. Labor unions bargain for better working conditions, such as higher wages, shorter hours, safety, and union recognition.

A union’s power lies, in part, in its ability to strike. A strike is when workers refuse to work, costing businesses valuable production time. Unions protect individual workers’ jobs and enforce ongoing labor-management contracts. Owners can counter strikes by firing striking workers and hiring short-term workers, known as strikebreakers or scabs.

The Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor was founded in 1869. This union held a vision of a society in which workers owned the industries in which they labored. The Knights also sought to end child labor.

Early unions had restricted membership to skilled, white craftsmen. The Knights of Labor welcomed all workers: unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled; immigrants, African Americans, and women.

The Haymarket Square riot

In 1886, a rally in support of the eight-hour work day took place in Chicago's Haymarket Square. A number of anarchists (radical socialists who advocated the violent overthrow of the government) attended. An unidentified person threw a bomb into the crowd, setting off a riot. Seven Chicago policemen and four citizens were killed. Eight anarchists were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms or death, even though there was no evidence that they were responsible for the bombing. As a result, the public opinion associated the Knights with anarchism and violence, leading to the union’s collapse.

This inclusive union had an internal problem. During a strike, owners could easily replace unskilled workers, reducing the effectiveness of the strike. Skilled workers believed that their alliance with unskilled laborers within the Knights was hurting their cause.

American Federation of Labor

Skilled workers joined the new American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL was an umbrella organization that represented craft unions of individual trades, such as carpenters and stonemasons. Led by Samuel Gompers, the AFL fought for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions.

Labor unions made relatively little progress during the Gilded Age. Organized labor only become a significant force in the American economy around the mid-twentieth century.

Source: Knights of Labor
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