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The Populist Movement in the 19th Century  

Charles Postel

American Populism of the 1880s and 1890s marked the political high-water mark of the social movements of farmers, wage earners, women, and other sectors of society in the years after the Civil War. These movements forged the People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, which campaigned against corporate power and economic inequality and was one of the most successful third parties in US history. Populist candidates won gubernatorial elections in nine states and gained some forty-five seats in the US Congress, including six seats in the Senate, and in 1892 the Populist presidential candidate, James B. Weaver of Iowa, received over a million votes, more than 8 percent of the total. The Populist Party was not a conventional political party but a coalition of organizations, including the Farmers’ Alliances, the Knights of Labor, and other reform movements, in what the Populists described as a “congress of industrial orders.” These organizations gave the People’s Party its strength and shaped its character as a party of working people with a vision of egalitarian cooperation and solidarity comparable to the labor, farmer-labor, and social-democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere that took shape in the same decades. Despite their egalitarian claims, however, the Populists had at best a mixed attitude towards the struggles for racial equality, and at worst accommodated Indian dispossession, Chinese exclusion, and Jim Crow segregation. In terms of its legacy, veterans of the Populist movement and many of its policy proposals would shape progressive and labor-farmer politics deep into the 20th century, partly by way of the Socialist Party, but mainly by way of the progressive or liberal wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, the adjective “populist” has come to describe a wide variety of political phenomena, including right-wing and nationalist movements, that have no particular connection to the late 19th-century Populism.

Article

Labor and the Catholic Church  

Steve Rosswurm

The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.

Article

Labor Day and the American Working Class  

Donna T. Haverty-Stacke

The first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882, in New York City. It, and the annual holiday demonstrations that followed in that decade and the next, resulted from the growth of the modern organized labor movement that took place in the context of the second industrial revolution. These first Labor Day celebrations also became part of the then ongoing ideological and tactical divisions within that movement. By the early 1900s, workers’ desire to enjoy the fruits of their labor by participating in popular leisure pursuits came to characterize the day. But union leaders, who considered such leisure pursuits a distraction from displays of union solidarity, continued to encourage the organization of parades. With the protections afforded to organized labor by the New Deal, and with the gains made during and after World War II (particularly among unionized white, male, industrial laborers), Labor Day parades declined further after 1945 as workers enjoyed access to mass cultural pursuits, increasingly in suburban settings. This decline was indicative of a broader loss of union movement culture that had served to build solidarity within unions, display working-class militancy to employers, and communicate the legitimacy of organized labor to the American public. From time to time since the late 1970s unions have attempted to reclaim the power of Labor Day to make concerted demands through their display of workers’ united power; but, for most Americans the holiday has become part of a three-day weekend devoted to shopping or leisure that marks the end of the summer season.

Article

Labor and US Foreign Relations  

Elizabeth McKillen

American workers have often been characterized by the press, scholars, and policy-makers as apathetic and ill-informed about foreign policy issues. To highlight this point, scholars have frequently used an anecdote about a blue-collar worker who responded to an interviewer’s questions regarding international issues in the 1940s by exclaiming “Foreign Affairs! That’s for people who don’t have to work for a living.” Yet missing from many such appraisals is a consideration of the long history of efforts by both informal groups of workers and labor unions to articulate and defend the perceived international interests of American workers. During the early years of the American Republic, groups of workers used crowd actions, boycotts, and protests to make their views on important foreign policy issues known. In the late 19th century, emerging national labor unions experimented with interest group lobbying as well as forms of collective action championed by the international labor movement to promote working-class foreign policy interests. Many 20th- and 21st-century US labor groups shared in common a belief that government leaders failed to adequately understand the international concerns and perspectives of workers. Yet such groups often pursued different types of foreign policy influence. Some dominant labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), participated in federal bureaucracies, advisory councils, and diplomatic missions and programs designed to encourage collaboration among business, state, and labor leaders in formulating and promoting US foreign policy. Yet other labor groups, as well as dissidents within the AFL and CIO, argued that these power-sharing arrangements compromised labor’s independence and led some trade union leaders to support policies that actually hurt both American and foreign workers. Particularly important in fueling internal opposition to AFL-CIO foreign policies were immigrant workers and those with specific ethno-racial concerns. Some dissenting groups and activists participated in traditional forms of interest group lobbying in order to promote an independent international agenda for labor; others committed themselves to the foreign policy programs of socialist, labor, or communist parties. Still others, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated strike and international economic actions by workers to influence US foreign policy or to oppose US business activities abroad.

Article

The Knights of Labor  

Matthew Hild

Founded in Philadelphia in 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor became the largest and most powerful labor organization that had ever existed in the United States by the mid-1880s. Recruiting men and women of nearly all occupations and all races (except Chinese), the Knights tried to reform American capitalism and politics in ways that would curb the growing economic and political abuses and excesses of the Gilded Age. Leaders of the organization viewed strikes as harmful to workers and employers alike, especially after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, but a series of railroad strikes in 1884 and 1885 caused the Knights’ membership rolls to reach a peak of at least 700,000 in 1886. The heyday of the Knights of Labor proved brief though. Two major events in May 1886, the Haymarket riot in Chicago and the failure of a strike against Jay Gould’s Southwestern Railway system, began a series of setbacks that caused the organization to decline about as rapidly as it had arisen. By 1893, membership dropped below 100,000, and the Knights’ leaders aligned the organization with the farmers’ movement and the Populist Party. The Knights increasingly became a rural organization, as urban skilled and semi-skilled workers joined trade unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL, however, proved less inclusive and egalitarian than the Knights of Labor, although some of the latter’s ideals would be carried on by later organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Article

American Labor and the Working Day  

Philipp Reick

From the first local strikes in the late 18th century to the massive eight-hour movement that shook the country a century later, the length of the working day has been one of the most contentious issues in the history of American labor. Organized workers have fought for shorter hours for various reasons. If they were to be good citizens, workers needed time to follow the news and attend political rallies, to visit lectures and museums, and to perform civic duties. Shorter-hour activists also defended worktime reduction as a tool for moral betterment. Workers needed time to attend religious services and be involved in religious associations, to become better spouses and parents, and to refine their customs and manners through exposure to literature, music, and the arts. Trade unions also promoted shorter hours as sound economic policy. Especially when joblessness was rampant, unionists argued that shorter working days would help distribute available work more evenly among the workforce. During times of economic growth, they shifted the focus to productivity and consumption, arguing that well-rested workers not only performed better, but also had the time to purchase and enjoy the products and services they helped create. As organized labor tended to give preference to full employment and consumption over further working time reductions in the aftermath of the New Deal, the hour issue took a backseat in the second half of the 20th century. It reentered the debate, however, in the late 2000s when high-tech and knowledge industries started to experiment with compressed workweek models. Given the widespread experience of remote work and temporary working time reductions during the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of how much time Americans should, must, and want to spend at work is likely to remain in the focus of public attention.