In the early 1880s, in parallel to the activities of the Irish Land League and the emergent political parties, but not disconnected from them, lay a similarly turbulent range of activities within the trade union movement.
The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, established in 1869 as a secret, fraternal organization, had attracted little public attention, and little was known about it. However, by 1880 when it had nearly 30,000 members, it began, under its new leader Terence V. Powderly, to expand into what would be, for a relatively short period of time in the mid-1880s – by which time it had over 700,000 members – a spectacularly successful organization, at least in terms of numbers and profile.
In 1881, at its annual General Assembly, it was decided to stop the secrecy, reduce the ritualistic component of the organization’s activities, and under pressure from the Catholic church remove the words Noble and Holy from its title. While this was highly controversial, particularly in New York and Brooklyn, it opened up the organization and led to the strong growth of the next five years.
The Knights, while involving themselves in strikes, and particularly boycotts, looked beyond these practical union issues, to the broader picture of the needs of labor. Among their major concerns were the eight-hour day, child and convict labor, and a graduated income tax. More generally, however, was the view that the working class needed to be developed, particularly in educational terms, if it were to succeed against the forces of monopoly.
The organization considered that its Local and District Assemblies, which had some autonomy, should be above politics and electioneering. Instead the Order it was said ‘teaches MAN his duty by educating him on the great question of labor’. Through this it was possible to ‘make light the dark places’, Powderly made it clear that while ‘political action is absolutely necessary to secure legislation in the interests of labor…men confound political action with political parties’. Instead, he urged, ‘to have political action we must have education…ORGANIZE! EDUCATE!’. As such, in the early 1880s. the Order had much sympathy with the emerging position of the Greenback Labor party and their supporters and many of its members were connected to, even leaders of, these other organizations. The Knights actively encouraged membership of alternative organizations, including pseudonymous clubs.
While Powderly’s strategies were briefly successful, the changes and rapid uncontrolled growth, together the wide and diverse interests of both the organizations itself, its leaders, and its constituent parts, meant that dissension and non-compliance were significant problems, and the Knights became overwhelmed by internal dissension which limited its capacity to be effective and drained the leadership, most notably Powderly himself. This was in evidence from 1882 onwards, started by the battle between the leadership and Brooklyn Local Assembly 1562 and its parent organization DA 49.
1886 was to prove an ephemeral highpoint. Added to the internal dissension, the implications of te Haymarket bombings of 1886 were a final straw, and it’s membership returned, for the rest of the century, to under 100,000.