Political and Social Movements

Labor Unions

What was the first big union?

The first national union of note was the Knights of Labor, founded by garment workers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1869. Recruiting women, blacks, immigrants, and unskilled and semiskilled workers alike, the Knights of Labor’s open-membership policy provided the organization with a broad base of support, something previous labor unions, which had limited membership based on craft or skill, lacked. The organization set its objectives on instituting the eight-hour workday, prohibiting child labor (under age 14), instituting equal opportunities and wages for women laborers, and abolishing convict labor. The group became involved in numerous strikes from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s.

At the same time, a faction of moderates within the organization was growing, and in 1883 it elected American machinist Terence Powderly (1849–1924) as president. Under Powderly’s leadership, the Knights of Labor began to splinter. Moderates pursued a conciliatory policy in labor disputes, supporting the establishment of labor bureaus and public arbitration systems; radicals not only opposed the policy of open membership, they strongly supported strikes as a means of achieving immediate goals—including a one-day general strike to demand implementation of an eight-hour workday. In May 1886 workers demonstrating in Chicago’s Haymarket Square attracted a crowd of some 1,500 people; when police arrived to disperse them, a bomb exploded and rioting ensued. Eleven people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in the melee. For many Americans, the event linked the labor movement with anarchy. That same year several factions of the Knights of Labor seceded from the union to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Knights of Labor remained intact for three more decades, before the organization officially dissolved in 1917, by which time the group had been overshadowed by the AFL and other unions.

Striking mill workers demonstrate in Gastonia, North Carolina, 1929.

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