By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Trade unions began to develop as the working conditions and circumstances were unsafe and inhumane. Employees working in unsafe conditions lost their lives in accidents that could have been prevented. By 1900, the trade unions overcame many obstacles and started playing an important role in American economic life.
Knights of Labor
The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869, and it welcomed not only industrial workmen but also farmers and small businessmen. In fact, the only people it excluded were bankers, lawyers, doctors, and liquor salesmen. Those were the people that were regarded as completely beyond the pale.
The Knights of Labor, like many American fraternal organizations, had a great love of ceremony and a rhetoric of brotherhood. They had a vision of economic cooperation throughout the nation, from which villains like the bankers and the lawyers would be excluded.
Organizing Successful Strikes
The great leader of Knights of Labor was Terence Powderly, who was very reluctant to accept the idea that there was actually class conflict going on in America. Powderly resisted the idea that class conflict was an intrinsic part of life in industrial economy.
Certain branches of the Knights of Labor did lead successful strikes, but always with great difficulty, and the organization was discredited in 1886, in the midst of its campaign to introduce a universal eight-hour workday.
It was very common then for the working people to have to work 10 or even 12 hours at the factory.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Decline of Knights of Labor
In Chicago, the Knights of Labor were running an eight-hour campaign, and there was a big demonstration in front of the factory where International Harvester built farm machinery. In a conflict between police and workmen, one of the workingmen was killed.
The next night, May 4, 1886, the Socialists and anarchists of Chicago called a meeting, and a whole series of speeches was made advocating the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Just toward the end of the meeting, police came in to disperse this meeting, and a bomb was thrown into the midst of a group of policemen which blew up, killing one of them and wounding several more. The policemen retaliated by firing into the crowd.
An Anarchist Organization?
What ensued became a great judicial cause célèbre in America. The exact thrower of the bomb was never identified, but several prominent anarchists from the area were arrested and put on trial and convicted. They were, in fact, sentenced to death, even though there was no evidence linking these particular men to the crime.
The justification of the judge and of the court was that these men advocated acts of this kind, that is, the revolutionary overthrow of the organization of society, so that whether these actual men did it or not, they were seen as implicitly guilty.
One of these convicted men had been a member of the Knights of Labor, and although it’s misleading to think of the Knights of Labor as an anarchist organization, they became tarred with that brush, and the credibility of the Knights of Labor went into very rapid decline after 1886.
One of the industries that pioneered in the development of trade unions was the railroad. The railroad had to overcome great management problems. Traditionally in a workplace, the employer and the employees are all physically together, but in a railroad, they’re sometimes stretched out over vast distances. Innovative management techniques were necessary because of this, and in the same way, innovative organizing principles were necessary among the employees as they began to unionize.
At first, railroad unionization went according to the particular job that a group of men did: the train drivers had their own union; the firemen, that is, the people who shoveled coal into the fire, had their union; the brakemen had theirs, and so on. There was a hierarchy of jobs on the railroad and a hierarchy of unions as well. They tended to be conservative, proud of their own craft and enthusiastic about temperance.
Eugene Debs, a trade unionist, was a local leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and here’s one of his very early speeches:
“We feel ourselves in duty bound to give the railway corporations a class of sober and industrious men, a class of men who are not only satisfied with having performed the ordinary functions of their situations, but men who will be in the direct interest of their employers, men who will save fuel and oil and protect the machinery and other property entrusted to their care; in other words, give to our superior officers trained and intelligent labor. That should be our highest aim. We believe that then they in return will recognize our merits and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servants.”
Thus, to begin with, there was a profoundly conciliatory view of labor relations from the union side. Debs, in his early days, was opposed to strikes because, he said, they could so easily set off social chaos.
Common Questions about Pioneers of America’s Trade Unions
The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869. It welcomed not only industrial workmen but also farmers and small businessmen. The only people it excluded were bankers, lawyers, doctors, and liquor salesmen.
At first, railroad unionization went according to the particular job that a group of men did: the train drivers had their own union; the firemen, that is, the people who shoveled coal into the fire, had their union; the brakemen had theirs, and so on.
Eugene Debs, a trade unionist, was a local leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.