The Knights of Labor from Savior to Enemy

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By Document:Knights of Labor; Image: not known; Image edited: Ulrich Lange, Dunedin, New Zealand ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The years after the Civil War brought about many changes in the economic and industrial area of America. With more wide-spread transportation and communication systems as well as the ability to obtain more items at reasonable costs there came about changes in the labor force and system. The treatment of employees by employers declined to a new form of slavery that caused many problems including death.

Labor unions developed in response. One of the most known unions was the Knights of Labor that began with good intentions but soon found itself doing more damage than the employers did.

Working Issues

Throughout the nation, workers gathered to discuss issues they had at work. They began to formally organize and become official organizations. The Knights of Labor were founded around 1869 with the desire to pull workers from all areas into one union instead of “separate unions made up of workers who had a common skill or who worked in a particular industry.”[1] Together the workers believed they could get changes made and work with the employers.

Beginning Intent

When formally organized, the Knights began as a group of tailors in Philadelphia formed into a secret society with strong religious tendencies. Despite their status of secret, the Knights quickly grew and were reported to have had over 700,000 members in just over fifteen years.[2] Their stance was to avoid strikes as a general rule of thumb in labor disputes. Surprisingly, they were effective without the use of strikes in their labor plans. They pushed for “eight-hour work day, the abolition of child labor, improved safety in factories, equal pay for men and women, and compensation for on-the-job injury.”[3] Their members wanted jobs that would not be the death of them.

The Knights might have chosen not to disrupt business and remove paychecks from their members in order to win labor disputes, but they showed themselves not adverse to more violent tactics. The first incident was the Haymarket Square riot in 1886 in Chicago. Eleven people were killed when a bomb exploded.[4] The image of the Knights began to be tarnished. Their ethical activity took a deadly turn. It happened again in 1887 in Louisiana.

The Thibodaux Massacre became known as the “second most bloody labor dispute in U.S. history.”[5] It began as a strike for sugar cane workers who found themselves working for close to thirteen dollars a month for labor that was exhausting and hard on the body. Their pay was not even money. Instead, they were paid in scrip which was “basically a coupon redeemable only at the company store owned by the planter” where most of the prices were marked up a hundred percent.[6] That ensured the employee would always be working for the employer in all aspects and in debt to them. It became a new sense of slavery as the law in Louisiana stated that any worker in debt to his employer could not move off of the plantation.

Workers on these plantations wanted to eliminate the use of the scrip system, more pay, and payments made to them every two weeks instead of monthly. These requests were rejected which led the Knights to organize a strike which started in November 1887. This was timed to coincide with a crucial time of the harvest for the sugar cane. When the workers refused to work or leave their homes, evictions were performed but were mostly unsuccessful. Planters were about to lose everything they had planted for the year. They sent a request to a fellow planter, the governor of Louisiana, who responded by sending the militia in to remove the workers who refused to do their jobs and bring in the harvest. It worked as the planters could not fight against the militia. That would have been the end of it if some of the planters forced out of their homes had not fired on scabs who replaced them.[7] From there, it blew out of proportion as the scabs were mostly white and the replaced planters were mostly black. White picketers lined the streets in fear of the rise of black violence. The result was two of the picketers firing at people in a black section of town. The community reacted. Because of this, whites organized to retaliate. It moved quickly from a labor dispute to a racial dispute. Reports showed that up to three hundred black strikers were executed.[8]

The shock over the incident was enough to have even the Catholic Church to be involved. A decree was sent to every parish for the church leaders to have any members of the Knights of Labor renounce their attachment to the group as well as “that they abstain from every promise and from every oath, by which they would bind themselves either to obey blindly all the orders of the directors of the society, or keep absolute secret even toward lawful authorities.”[9] The secret society had become one that was feared instead of one that was respected for its incredible results for avoiding violence and disruption of work and pay.

The Knights of Labor began with good intentions to help the workers who found themselves in deplorable working conditions. As they grew and expanded, their actions became less chivalrous, leading to bloodshed. The savior of the worker became the enemy of the worker.


“Circular Letter to the clergy.”

Kliebert, Stephen. “US: The Thibodaux Massacre of 1887.”

“The Origins of American Trade Unionism,” Digital History,

[1] “The Origins of American Trade Unionism,” Digital History,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Stephen Kliebert, “US: The Thibodaux Massacre of 1887,”

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Circular Letter to the clergy,”,

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Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

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