The Knights of Labor, the most influential industrial union in the late 19th century, was established by Uriah Stephens and eight garment workers at this location on December 9, 1869. The Knights believed that it was essential to include both skilled and unskilled laborers else these groups might be played against one another. The organization was also unique in their acceptance of women and African Americans (although they were usually expected to join separate organizations.
A brief history of the Knights and their significance in the 19th century labor movement from A History of the United States by David Trowbridge.
The Knights believed in a radical reordering of the economic
system with factories being collectively owned and controlled by the workers.
In some ways, this vision was similar to the ideas of those who had advocated
collective land redistribution to former slaves following the Civil War. However,
like radical ideas about land, the Knights won few converts to their philosophy
of collective ownership of factories, although their membership increased in
the years that followed.
The Knights attracted a small but devout following in their early
years. By 1879, there were 10,000 members when Scranton, Pennsylvania mayor Terrance
Powderly was also selected to lead the Knights. Membership grew
exponentially to 700,000 members following a successful strike by some members
of the Knights in 1886. About ten percent of members were women and African
Americans—something that made the Knights very unique at this time but also
aroused opposition among other labor movements. Ironically, the philosophy of
the Knights of Labor was not one based on winning tactical goals such as
raises, but rather on mobilizing politically in hopes of winning support for
their more radical goals of eliminating child labor, minimum wages and maximum
hours, and eventually collective ownership.
Leaders of various trade unions—the kinds of organizations that
represented skilled laborers within a specific craft rather than the general
laborers the Knights sought to organize—declared a national work stoppage for
May, 1, 1886. May 1 would soon be known as Labor Day and become an international
day of worker solidarity. In the meantime, tens of thousands of workers in
various leading cities who were affiliated with various trade unions walked off
their jobs to demonstrate the power of workers over management. Most returned
the next day, but in Chicago, tensions were already high because of a
long-standing disagreement and strike at the McCormick Harvester. Although
Powderly believed the strike was a mistake, his union had grown far beyond his
control, and some laborers affiliated with the Knights participated in this and
other strikes throughout the city. McCormick hired strikebreakers, a practice which
had led to small-scale violence between union workers and the new employees who
were replacing them. On May 3, the two groups clashed and the police opened
fire on the crowd, killing four workers.
The following day, thousands of Chicagoans gathered at the city’s Haymarket Square to protest police
violence and the intimidation of union workers. An unknown party set off a bomb
that injured many in the crowd and killed several policemen. Once again the
police fired into the crowd, allegedly in response to armed anarchists who
sought to destroy the capitalist system. Eight known anarchists present that
day were arrested, and four were executed with little evidence to connect them
to the violence. Most newspapers referred to the event as the Haymarket Riot,
emphasizing the lawlessness of many in the crowd whose behavior made an
otherwise peaceful labor protest turn violent. Others labeled May 4, 1886, as
the Haymarket Massacre, emphasizing the deaths of at least a dozen bystanders
and police, most of whom were killed by the undisciplined fire of their fellow
officers. Because of the radicalism of some leaders present during the Haymarket Affair, radical labor unions
such as the Knights of Labor were connected to the violence in the public mind.
May 1 would not be celebrated in the United States, as it was in the rest of
the world, because government officials viewed labor activism with suspicion. Membership
in the Knights and other unions dropped and many Americans began to connect the
labor movement to anarchists and communists who advocated any method to destroy
the capitalist system.