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The Knights of Labor/ KOL (1869)

The Knights of Labor. For more than a decade after the collapse of the National Labor Union, the forces of labor were represented mainly by the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869 under the leadership of Terrance Powdery.



OBJECTIVES AND METHODS. The Knights of Labor stressed:

★ The inclusion of all workers-skilled and unskilled, regardless of the craft or industry-in a single great organization;

★ The formation of local assemblies of workers on the basis of their residence rather than their occupational affiliation;

★ Highly centralized control of the local assemblies by the national body.

Members pledged themselves “to secure for workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, and sufficient leisure in which to develop their intellectual, moral, and social faculties.”

The specific objectives of the Knights of Labor included:

★ Establishing the eight-hour workday;

★ Equal pay for equal work for men and women;

★ The abolition of labor of children under fourteen;

★ The prohibition of contract foreign labor;

★ The arbitration of labor disputes;

★ The establishment of bureaus of labor statistics on both the federal and state levels;

★ Safety and sanitary codes for industry;

★ laws compelling employers to pay laborers on a weekly basis;

★ The creation of cooperatives;

★ The imposition of an income tax (meant to punish corporate wealth and pay for government support of labor);

★ Government ownership of railroad and telegraph lines.

Although the Knights of Labor held that disputes should be arbitrated, they increasingly relied on strikes and boycotts to achieve their goals. The Knights lobbied state and national governments aggressively for its program. On the other hand, the organization did not support the idea of a workersʼ political party of the kind that was beginning to appear all over Europe.

GROWTH AND DECLINE. The Knights of Labor expanded rapidly, reaching its greatest strength in 1886 when 5,892 local chapters reported over 700,000 members. However, 3 of 7a series of unsuccessful strikes in 1886 marked the beginning of the union's decline. Its complete collapse was hastened by:

★ Growing public belief that unions favored the use of violence in disputes;

★ The hostility of skilled workers toward a union that seemed to cater to unskilled workers;

★ The failure of most of the cooperative ventures in which the Knights of Labor had invested funds;

★ The confusion of aims among the some radical intellectual leaders who increasingly focused on idealistic social reform measures rather than the specific labor goals of the Knights;

★ The revolt by many of the local assemblies against centralized control by the national body;

★ The organization's ineffective handling of the large numbers of unskilled workers.

★ The Haymarket Riot where KOL’s threw a bomb that killed civilians and police officers



American Federation of Labor / AFL (1886)

The American Federation of Labor. The increasing dissatisfaction of skilled craftsmen with the objectives and methods of the Knights of Labor resulted in the formation in 1881 of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of America and Canada, reorganized in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor (AFL).



OBJECTIVES AND METHODS. Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser, who together had revived the Cigar Makersʼ Union, were influential in organizing the American Federation of Labor and formulating its philosophy. The AFL was a league of separate and quite craft unions, each of which retained strong local powers, with the authority of the central body strictly limited. The specific objectives of the AFL were quite similar to those of the Knights of Labor, and for a time the two organizations cooperated.

Gradually, however, the AFL concentrated its efforts upon a campaign for the “bread and butter” labor issues—higher wages, shorter hours, and safer and more sanitary conditions of employment within the various crafts. The organization also vigorously advocated restrictions on immigration, because foreign immigrants competed with American-born workers for jobs, and tended to bring about lower wages for all workers. The weapons of the AFL came to be the strike, the boycott, and collective bargaining.

The AFL also refused to sponsor an American workersʼ party or to ally with any particular political party. The AFL probably did more to convince politicians in both parties that American workers were also voters than any other labor organization. It used its political power to secure immediate objectives like higher pay, shorter hours and better working conditions rather than pursuing an expansive platform of social and economic reforms.

GROWTH AND ACHIEVEMENT. Elected first president of the AFL, Gompers served until his death almost forty years later. Despite the pressure of a small Socialist minority among its members, the AFL remained conservative, defending the capitalist system while criticizing its imperfections. Membership increased from 190,000 in 1890 to 550,000 in 1900 to more than 2 million in 1915. AFL achievements included:

★ The development within the national organization of strong craft unions with effective programs, aided by large funds, for sickness and unemployment benefits;

★ The establishment of the eight-hour workday in several trades;

★ The recognition by an increasing number of employers of labor's right to bargain collectively; 4 of 7



★ The slow but steady growth of labor's influence with the federal and state legislatures.


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