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The Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL), founded in 1869, was the leading general organization of workingmen during the early 1880s. Originally a secret society open to all producers, the KOL excluded only "parasites" like stockbrokers, gamblers, lawyers, bankers, and liquor dealers. Members joined local assemblies that were either mixed or single trade bodies (like LA 2814, composed of New York City cigarmakers). Local assemblies were then grouped into regional district assemblies.

In 1878 the KOL held its first General Assembly, and in 1879, when Terence Powderly was elected grand master workman, the KOL began to achieve national prominence. For Powderly, the "pressing demand of the present" was to "consolidate . . . all production and distributive labor into one harmonious . . . organization." He not only persuaded the KOL to abandon its secrecy rules, but under his leadership, it chartered over 1,500 local assemblies and became a powerful force in hundreds of communities. With the motto, " An injury to one is the concern of all," the Knights offered a vision of a just and moral "Cooperative Commonwealth" that inspired members to support reform movements ranging from radical greenbackism and land nationalization to temperance and socialism. KOL members also played a vital role in local politics, in the 1880s, waging successful electoral campaigns.

Like trade unions, many KOL local assemblies were organized to defend work rules and protect work jurisdiction. In fact it was not unusual, in the early days, for KOL local assemblies and trade unions to work together, or for trade unionists to join the KOL. But when the 1880 KOL General Assembly voted to use the bulk of its funds to foster producer and distributor cooperatives, and only a fraction to support strikes, KOL trade unionists protested vigorously. By 1881 many trade union Knights, including P. J. McGuire, were making plans to form a new national organization to protect trade union interests. That year a mixed group of KOL and trade union supporters founded the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, an annual congress to prepare and promote labor legislation. (View the call for the meeting and a newspaper report of the founding convention of the FOTLU)

By 1886 serious jurisdictional conflicts had erupted between trade unions and KOL local and district assemblies that represented single trades and functioned as unions. At the same time a surge in KOL membership--from 100,000 to 700,000 between 1885 and 1886-- further increased tensions. The Printers, Cigarmakers, Bricklayers, Iron Molders, Granite Cutters, Carpenters, and other unions all complained that the KOL did not respect union strikes and boycotts and accepted as members workers who had been expelled or suspended from their trade unions. Powderly dismissed these charges as "purely imaginary," but he also accused the trade unions of trespassing on KOL turf. These charges and countercharges set the tone for a bitter struggle that ultimately spurred trade unionists to found the American Federation of Labor.

(View documents related to the KOL-Trade Union conflict.)






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