American labor union, originally established as a secret fraternal order. It is notable in U.S. labor history as the first organization of workers to advocate the inclusion in one union of all workers in the country. As its ideal, the Knights of Labor projected a society based on cooperative industrial and agricultural enterprises owned and operated by the workers, farmers, clerks, and technicians constituting them.
The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by the American garment worker Uriah Stephens (1821–82) and a number of his fellow workers. Workers in all trades were eligible for membership; physicians (prior to 1881), lawyers, bankers, professional gamblers or stockholders, and liquor dealers were excluded. During its first few years, the Knights of Labor functioned as a secret society using an elaborate, mystic ritual. It grew slowly until the economic depression of the 1870s, when large numbers of workers joined the organization. The secret and fraternal nature of the order was eliminated in 1881, and it began to function as a trade union. It adopted a policy of militant action against employers and played an important part in the strikes by coal miners and railroad workers in 1877.
The first general assembly of representatives of local organizations of the Knights of Labor met in Reading, Pa., in 1878. The assembly projected a number of sweeping reforms, including institution of the 8-hour workday, abolition of convict labor, prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age, institution of equal opportunities and wages for women in industry, and establishment of a bureau of labor statistics. The assembly also adopted the policy of inclusive unionism, whereby all workers, regardless of race, creed, craft, trade, or degree of skill, and all other individuals and groups expressing sympathy for labor were eligible for membership in the Knights of Labor.
For about five years after the convocation of the 1878 general assembly, the Knights of Labor employed the strike weapon on numerous occasions. During this period, however, the national leadership of the organization began to advocate the use of less radical measures. In 1883 Terence Powderly (1849–1924), an American machinist who was the order’s leading exponent of moderate policies, was elected to head the Knights of Labor.
In 1886 the membership began to decline rapidly, partly because of opposition by Powderly and other organization leaders to a one-day general strike as a means of winning the 8-hour day. Members were alienated also by their leaders’ denunciation of the eight anarchists whose conviction for complicity in the Haymarket Square riot in Chicago was widely believed to be unjust. Another reason for membership decline was the defeat that the organization sustained in a strike against the railroads in the southwestern part of the U.S. Also in 1886 factional strife broke out between the members who continued to support the original policy of inclusive unionism and those who favored craft unionism. This dissension led to the secession of a number of large craft unions, which, in December of that year, participated in the organization of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The last important struggle in which the Knights of Labor participated was the 1894 strike by workers against many of the principal railroads of the U.S. The total defeat of this strike, due partly to the opposition of the AFL, resulted in the virtual collapse of the Knights of Labor. The organization was formally dissolved in 1917.
A number of trade unions combined in 1881 to form the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada as a means of influencing legislation in behalf of labor. This federation was never very effective, and by 1886 it was in decline, as was the Knights of Labor. In December of that year, delegates from various affiliates of both organizations as well as from certain unaffiliated unions met in Columbus, Ohio, for the purpose of organizing a trade union movement more enduring and effective than any of its predecessors had been. They established the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and elected as its first leader Samuel Gompers, president of the Cigar makers International Union and of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. The initial membership of the AFL was estimated at about 316,000 workers grouped in 25 national unions.
The AFL represented a form of so-called business unionism, a labor philosophy contrasting sharply with the broad-based unionism of the Knights of Labor. Whereas the latter was an integrated organization, the AFL was a loose confederation of autonomous unions, each with exclusive rights to deal with the workers and employers in its own field. The AFL concerned itself primarily with organizing skilled workers. Instead of campaigning for sweeping reform programs such as were advocated by the Knights, the AFL confined itself to the pursuit of specific, attainable goals, such as higher wages and shorter hours. The AFL renounced identification with any political party or movement and adopted instead the policy of urging its members to support candidates for public office, federal, state, and local, considered friendly to labor, regardless of party affiliation, and to vote against those regarded as hostile.
During the 1890s several AFL unions, including those of the printers and of the building trade workers, finally achieved the long-sought goal of the 8-hour day. Nevertheless, the trade union movement grew slowly until the beginning of the 20th century. Prevailing popular sentiment was still hostile to the organization of labor, and both the government and the courts acted to restrain trade union activity. The depression of the early 1890s and several disastrous strikes also stunted union growth. In the historic strike (1892) at the Homestead Mill of the Carnegie Steel Co. in Pittsburgh, large numbers of private detectives and guards as well as National Guard troops were used against the strikers, with the result that the strike was lost and the union that conducted it virtually destroyed. In 1894 a strike by the American Railway Union against the Pullman Co. was defeated by an injunction issued under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which made a combination or contract in restraint of trade illegal. Thereafter employers used injunctions with increasing frequency and effectiveness as an antistrike weapon.