Great success often comes from previous failures. Without failure, greatness can be impossible to attain. For this and many other reasons, it is unfair to view the Knights of Labor as hopeless dreamers who accomplished little. Instead, this paper will express the way in which the Knights of Labour contributed to a greater social blueprint; a blueprint that helped shape future generations. The impact that the Knights of Labour have had on society can be seen through three main criteria. The first of these criteria was their ability to set a clear example of what did and didn’t work for labor unions. 9]Many of the present leading labour unions are direct consequences of the Knights of Labor movement. The second impact on society the Knights had was because they were also the first monumental organization to strive for many commodities that we as labourers take for granted today. The third and final important impact the KOL (Knights of Labor) had was their distinction of promoting equality. The promotion of equality was a catalyst in making the North American society a fairer place for its residents. These three major impacts made by the KOL help explain why they as a labour union were much more than hopeless dreamers.
They were visionaries of a greater social blueprint and their impact can be felt in many aspects of today’s labour market. The ‘Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor’ were originated in 1869. They were centrally concerned with protecting and enhancing the nobility of labour. The organization rejected socialism and radicalism, which limited their use of strikes and instead offered a more reasoned approach to solving labour problems. While challenging labour union norms such as strikes and other radical behaviours, the KOL believed that its forerunners had failed because they limited their membership. 5]For this reason, the Knights proposed to organize both skilled and unskilled workers as well as blacks and women.  By 1886, the Knights’ membership peaked at nearly 700,000, making it America’s largest, and one of the worlds most important labour organizations of the century. A group of painters from Hamilton met with the Knights in 1881, and helped form the first “local assembly” of the organization in Canada. The Knights became not only the great hope of workers in Canada and the United States, but also the great hope of workers in many other countries.
The Knights were influential because of their ability to set a clear example of what did and didn’t work. They attempted a “bold project bringing the conventional goals of a political party, a fraternal lodge, and a trade union under a single umbrella. ” They also formulated labour politics that included a working class that was as diverse as possible. This multi-faceted, diverse working class had a certain culture that opposed late-nineteenth-century bourgeois hegemony. To a degree, the KOL were successful in these ventures. 3]The multitude of members allowed the Knights to win important strikes such as the Union Pacific in 1884 and the Wabash Railroad in 1885. The success of their strikes gave great hope to many countries around the world who were struggling with similar issues. Ironically, what didn’t work for the Knights was also due to its broad inclusivity. The task of managing and satisfying the membership of hundreds of thousands of skilled and unskilled workers proved to be a difficult one.  Due to their diverse membership, the Knights were unable to offer certain incentives that their more specialized counterparts could offer.
Nonetheless, it was a blessing in disguise. Many successive labour unions were founded because of failures of the KOL. The AFL (American Federation of Labor) for example was founded by craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor.  According to one scholarly account ”Unions affiliated with the AFL in the main chose this [more conciliatory] course of action because their leaders concluded from the experiences of the late 19th century that ‘pure and simple’ craft unionism was the only viable form of working-class organization in the United States as the 20th century began. Thus “from what was perhaps the nation’s most ambitious experiment with labour activism (Knights of Labor) came a much more modest avatar, setting the tone of labour politics for decades to come. ” The AFL later (1955) merged with the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), making AFL-CIO the largest federation of unions in the United States of America.  The Knights aimed for several important and influential standards such as: an eight hour workday, termination of child labour, termination of convict contract labour system, equal pay for equal work, a graduated income tax, etc.
The Knights’ “living wage” campaign stated: give us a living wage so that we may “Keep body and soul together. ” We have achieved most of those goals in modern day. Had it not been for the Knights promoting those ideologies to not only its 700,000 plus members, but also anyone who was aware of their goals, all of that may have not been eventually attained. By educating and uplifting workers, negotiating salaries and contracts with employers, and upholding the rites and rituals of a “fraternal brotherhood,” the Knights had strengthened labourers of all sorts. 6]Even though the collapse of the Knights was not followed by a lull in worker activism and affiliation, former knights flocked to (and founded) dozens of new lodges and unions which better represented their interests by pursuing less complex goals. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, three temperance fraternities, 11 mutual benefit societies, five Protestant “nativist” fraternities, and 18 general fraternal orders were inaugurated between 1885 and 1889. The fact that sixty Knights lodges folded in Newark during the same interval seems to indicate a significant relationship.
Even if the former Knights did not all pursue labour unions right away, they sensed the need of “brotherhood” and felt the effect of the value of whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Because the Knights influenced so many people both directly and indirectly, their values and impact resonate with us today. KOL rhetoricians framed arbitration by highlighting and exploiting available links between the organizational ideology of the movement and hegemonic cultural narrations, especially around manhood, moralism, and virtuous conduct. 5]The Knights’ program of action placed high importance on educating the workers in the principles of “labor reform. ” Assemblies held special meetings which often had guest speakers from the U. S. come and talk to members in other countries. In Canada, they opened reading rooms and supported several labour newspapers all across the country. The high value they placed on education was very advantageous and necessary for the advancement of labour movements.
Wisdom is power, and by helping labourers attain wisdom, the Knights initiated a butterfly-effect that would make the labour movements of the future generations more powerful. Lastly, the KOL promoted equality; something very rarely found in the capitalistic society of the 19th century. They accepted both women and blacks, as well as both skilled and unskilled workers. Not only that, they wanted equal pay for women. Although the Knights leader (Terence V.
Powderly) supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Contract Labor Law of 1885 he, like many leaders of the time, did so because he believed that these laws were needed to protect the American workforce against competition from unpaid labourers brought over by unprincipled employers. This further supports KOL’s goals of uniting the working class in opposition to the exploitation of elites. Their motto was “The injury to one is the concern of all. ” Good values aren’t always realized; often times they are acquired.
Passing on these values is what the Knights did. The impact the Knights of Labour have had on society can be seen through their ability to set a clear example of what did and didn’t work for labour unions, their ability to strive for many commodities that we as labourers take for granted today, and finally because of their ability to promote equality. For these reasons, the Knights of Labor should not be viewed at all as hopeless dreamers who accomplished little. Instead, they should be both understood and appreciated as an organization with highly influential visions.
The above criteria helps explain how the Knights of Labour have left future generations with a blueprint, a blueprint that has contributed to and helped shape later generations. The impact this once-mighty organization has had on present day ideologies sheds light on the influence the KOL have had and continue to have on Labour.
1. Benford, Robert. 1997. “An Insider’s Critique of the Social Movement Framing Perspective. ” Sociological Inquiry 67:409–30. 2. Biggs, Michael. 2002. “Strikes as Sequences of Interaction—the American Strike Wave of 1886. Social Science History 26:583–617. 3. Hallgrimsdottir, Helga K. “THE KNIGHTS OF LABOUR AND THE FAILURE OF THE ARBITRATION PLATFORM, 1886–1887: Ideology, Hegemony, and Contextually Generated Opportunities for Frame Success. ” The Sociological Quarterly 47 (2006): 521-42. 4. Hallgrimsdottir, Helga K. , and Cecelia Benoit. “From Wage Slaves to Wage Workers: Cultural Opportunity Structures and the Evolution of the Wage Demands of Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, 1880-1900. ” Social Forces 85. 3 (2007): 1393-411. . Heron, Craig. The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History. 2nd ed. Toronto: James Lorimer &, 1996. Print. 6. Kaufman, Jason A. “Rise and Fall of a Nation of Joiners: The Knights of Labor Revisited. ” Journal of Interdisciplinary History Spring 31. 4 (2001): 553-79. Print. 7. Lears, T. J. Jackson. 1985. “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony. ” The American Historical Review 90:567–93. 8. Voss, Kim. 1988. “Labour Organization and Class Alliance—Industries, Communities, and the Knights of Labour. ” Theory and Society 17:329–64.
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