Theodore Cuno, born in Prussia in 1847 and an engineer by profession, was a prominent member of Marx’s International Workingman’s Association (the First International) in Europe. Exiled from Milan he moved to the US in 1870, where he worked firstly as an engineer, before becoming a journalist for the Volks Zeitung.
His Marxism was determined, even fanatical, and his politics ideological rather than pragmatic. By 1880, he was, in parallel to his role as an Organizer of Brooklyn’s Knights of Labor Local Assembly 1562, the secretary of the Brooklyn Section of the Socialistic Labor Party. While supporting unionists generally, including his own union, he became a notable national figure within Terence Powderly’s Knights of Labor being elected the Grand Statistician in 1881. However, when the KOL determined to become an open organization, playing down secrecy and ritual, he became a notable antagonist of the leadership. In 1882, he was accused of inappropriate behavior, including having leaked details about the Order to a newspaper, and was put under investigation. Drawing in his Brooklyn colleagues, including by now the noted union activist and agitator Peter J. McGuire, he took on the leadership which led to the suspension of LA 1562 in 1882. He was also a dominant figure in Brooklyn’s Spread the Light Club during that period. He remained a thorn in the side of Powderly until the mid-1880s. Singular in approach, he remained loyal to the socialist cause, standing in elections as an Assemblyman on a number of occasions through to the 1890s.
Later in his life he retired to the New Llano Colony in Louisiana. From there, he claimed that he had been the ‘father’ of Labor Day, having written the proclamation for the event.