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What are the Knights of Labor?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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Established in 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was an organization that fought for the rights of labor unions during the last part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Known to most people simply as the Knights of Labor, the group represented roughly 750,000 members of trade unions during its height of power. The organization was ultimately superseded by the American Federation of Labor. By 1949, the last members disbanded the organization and joined with the larger labor collective.

During the period of time in which the Knights of Labor operated, trade unions were widely unaccepted by society at large. Local laws generally sided with business owners and management, allowing employers to prevent the public formation of unions in the workplace. Most workers had to decide whether they supported the union or wanted to keep their jobs. As such, many workers would have to meet in secret and organize outside the parameters of legal authority, often pretending to be fraternities and men's clubs.

In late December 1869, seven tailors in Philadelphia met under the leadership of Uriah Smith Stephens. Based on the concepts of the Freemasons, the group created certain rituals and secret procedures that became the standards of the Knights of Labor. During its early days, the name of the organization was kept secret from the public. This led to many of the union's factions being labeled as criminal groups. In response, much of the secrets were divulged in 1878, just as membership began to skyrocket.

Each local group of the Knights of Labor was organized with officials elected by the membership. Permanent officers included a venerable sage, grand master workman, worthy foreman, worthy inspector and unknown knight. The different positions acted as the heads of the particular trade union, helping to guide decision-making and keeping records of the activities in each meeting.

In terms of membership, the Knights of Labor were widely known for a certain amount of inclusion amongst different types of people, while also working against specific groups. Northern union groups recruited all types of individuals regardless of race, nationality or sex. In the South, however, African-Americans were forbidden to join. Certain professions were also excluded from the organization, namely bankers, doctors, liquor manufacturers, lawyers and stock traders. In 1882, the Knights of Labor joined with other labor unions around the country against Chinese workers.

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