The 1880s were hard times for workers in the U.S., who worked in dirty, dangerous conditions, up to 16 hours per day. To fight back, workers created new forms of organization, the most important being a union called the Knights of Labor. It was the first organization in the U.S. to organize all workers, skilled and unskilled, men and women, regardless of race or religion, immigrant and native alike.
In the second half of the 19th century, the U.S. economy alternated between booms and recessions. Corporate profits were high while workers were hired and fired as needed. The profits of the companies fueled the development of large-scale industry and monopolies like railroads, steel plants, the oil industry and food processing. These companies introduced new technology which destroyed jobs. Workers were under attack and began to organize against it.
The Knights of Labor was founded in 1870, organized on the principle that “an injury to one is the concern of all.” Without the unity of the whole working class, the Knights believed no group of workers could have the power to eventually “abolish as rapidly as possible the wages system, substituting cooperation.” The Knights believed that widespread organization of both worker and consumer cooperatives would replace capitalism with a “Cooperative Commonwealth.”
The Knights were a truly grass roots movement of workers all over the country. The main organization was the District Assembly composed of workers from a trade or industry. The District assemblies coordinated to work together on common struggles. Committed to equality, the Knights organized multi-racial strikes all over, from Longshoremen in New Orleans to sugar plantations in Louisiana. In Richmond, Virginia, white delegates to a Knights of Labor convention refused to stay in hotels that would not serve black delegates.
In 1883, the U.S. was struck by a deep economic depression, with massive layoffs and wage cuts. The Knights fought back with strikes and mass demonstrations. Two major strikes at Southern Pacific Railroad forced the company to cancel wage cuts and rehire workers fired for organizing workers on the railroads. These victories resulted in a wave of organizing in most industries. From 1884 to 1886 Knights membership grew from 50,000 to 700,000.
In this period, workers worked over ten hours per day. The Knights organized for the eight hour day with no cut in pay. They called for nationwide strikes on May Day, 1886. Hundreds of thousands of workers, men and women, joined the movement before May 1st. But meanwhile the bosses were gearing up to crush the Knights, and they knew they had the support of the government to do so.
The Knights of Labor came under attack when their leaders in Chicago were framed for throwing a bomb, killing seven policemen. Newspapers and politicians in Chicago accused the Knights of seeking a violent revolution. Without any evidence against them, the national head of the Knights of Labor, Terrance Powderly, still refused to defend them. Demoralized by these events, the eight hour movement collapsed under police and political pressure. This led to the end of the Knights of Labor. But their experience and militant tradition was the basis for struggles to come.
Today workers face many of the same attacks which spurred the formation of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. In our conflict with the bosses, we will need to build organizations founded on the principals of solidarity and equality which inspired the courageous activism of the Knights of labor. Their slogan remains as true today as it was over one hundred years ago: “An injury to one is the concern of all.”