The Knights of Labor was founded as a secret society of tailors in Philadelphia in 1869. It grew in size and prominence in the early days of the American labor movement from the mid-to-late-1800s and played a key role in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Uriah Stevens, Knights of Labor Founder

Uriah S. Stephens, a descendant of early Quaker settlers in New Jersey, founded the Knights of Labor on Thanksgiving Day 1869 in Philadelphia. When Stephens’ family lost everything during the economic panic and depression of the late 1830s, he became an indentured worker, obligated to work without pay in exchange for being trained as an apprentice mechanic.

Stephens’ experiences as a worker-led him to believe that massive changes in society were necessary. It wasn’t just enough for a group of workers at one company to strike for higher wages, he believed. Instead, all wage-earners had to be brought together into a single organization, which could then fight for the interests of them all.

When the local garment cutters union disbanded after failing to get better wages from local clothing companies, Stephens saw his chance. He called a meeting at his home, and six garment cutters showed up. Stephens explained to them his vision for an organization, “The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor,” whose members would be sworn to secrecy, and follow rituals comparable to Masonry.

Knights of Labor Expands Under Terrence Powderly

Over the decade that followed, though, the Knights expanded across the nation, attracting a range of workers in different industries, from blacksmiths and boilermakers to bricklayers and carpet weavers. The only occupations they excluded were bankers, lawyers, gamblers and saloon keepers.

In 1879, Stephens stepped down, and Terrence V. Powderly, a machinist of Catholic Irish ancestry from Carbondale, Pennsylvania, was elected to take his place. Under Powderly’s leadership, in 1881 the Knights declared that women would be accepted as members and have equal rights in the organization as men did. At the time it was seen as a radical stance.

Joseph Buchanan Leads Strikes Against Railroad Companies 

At the height of the Knights’ influence in the mid-1880s, the organization claimed a membership of 700,000. At the apex of their power, the Knights achieved some major successes. In 1884, when the Union Pacific Railroad cut workers’ wages by 10 percent, the Knights quickly organized a strike. Led by organizer Joseph Buchanan, the Knights shut down every railroad shop from Omaha Nebraska to Ogden, Utah, as well as all the branch lines.

As Matthew Hild recounts in Greenbackers, Knights of Labor and Populists, it only took four days for the railroad bosses to rescind the pay reduction. When the railroad tried the same move three months later, the Knights launched another strike and forced the company to concede defeat in just five days and restore workers’ pay. Shortly afterward, the Knights waged even bigger successful strikes in 1884-85 against the Wabash Railroad and Southwest railroad system controlled by financier Jay Gould.

But it wasn’t just better wages that the Knights campaigned for. The organization championed broad-ranging social and economic reform, including an eight-hour workday, health and safety laws to protect workers, and a system that would provide for them if they were injured on the job—an early version of workers compensation insurance.

Ending Child Labor and Lobbying for a Graduated Income Tax

The Knights also advocated an end to child and convict labor, equal pay for women, and laws requiring that employers participate in arbitration to resolve differences with workers. They also advocated nationalization of the railroads and telephone networks, and a graduated federal income tax (similar to the one eventually established in 1913).

Even more radically, the Knights supported cooperatively-run workshops—a forerunner of today’s employee-owned companies—as well as cooperative stores.

The Knights also opened up their organization to Black workers, and Black people eventually formed the majority of Knights membership in the South, according to Charles Postel’s book Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896.

Attacks on Chinese Workers

But not every position that the organization took was progressive. The Knights saw Asian immigrants as competition that employers would use to keep down their wages. They supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885, which barred companies from bringing unskilled laborers into the United States to work under contract.

Even after the laws were passed, the Knights’ members weren’t satisfied. In the Pacific Northwest, they attacked Chinese laborers and even burned down the barracks where Chinese coal miners lived.

In 1886, the Knights suffered a couple of serious setbacks that started their decline. In March, the Knights mounted a second strike against Gould’s Southwest railroad system in Texas, led by former machinist named Martin Irons. The Great Southwest Strike, as it became known, soon spread to other states, and led to violent clashes between strikers and police. This time, though, Gould hung tough, and after public opinion started to shift against the Knights, they were forced to give up the strike in May.

In the end, the strikers got none of what they wanted, and many were blacklisted by Gould’s railroad as well, according to Postel. “Across Gould’s railroad empire, the Knights of Labor was effectively destroyed as an organization,” he wrote.

Haymarket Square Riot

Around that time, the Knights also were struck another body blow when a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, whose organizers included Knights of Labor members, morphed into a riot that took the lives of seven policemen and four workers. Police responded with crackdowns on labor groups in Chicago and elsewhere across the nation. Though the Knights weren’t responsible for the violence, they were blamed for it, and membership began to plummet.

Though the Knights continued to exist as an organization for decades afterward, their numbers and clout declined, as workers began to defect to organizations such as the American Federation of Labor. The last remaining holdout in the once-mighty Knights finally disbanded in 1949. Nevertheless, many of the reforms advocated by the Knights, such as laws restricting child labor and the eight-hour workday, were eventually achieved.