Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues

1. Why do workers need unions?

By the late nineteenth century workers had long been organizing into groups to promote their own interests-from setting standards and rules for members of the trade to benefits for injured workers. Guilds had represented groups of workers in Europe for centuries, and workers had carried the organizing tradition to the colonies and into early American life. By the late nineteenth century working life had changed dramatically, however. As the North industrialized the nation's cities expanded and inequalities between the rich and poor intensified. New technologies like refinements in steel and metal production, improved packaging methods, and the discovery of ways to harness electricity changed the nature of work. More and more workers found themselves in once unimagined jobs and workplaces, such as in coal mines, steel mills, and food processing factories. Individuals that had not been part of the official workforce in large numbers, particularly women and children, moreover, now found themselves compelled to engage in paid work to survive.

Earlier forms of unionization, which drew upon skilled groups of laborers, usually white men, were no longer effective in organizing large numbers of American workers. The genius of the Knights of Labor is that they addressed the problems of the new industrial system by including all types of laborers-skilled and unskilled, male and female, across ethnic groups, including African Americans. The Knights, under the national leadership of Terence Powderly, sought to address the problems of the new kind of worker in a new kind of economy.

The documents address the following questions related to the role of unions in American life:

  • a. What were the problems of workers that joined the Knights of Labor?
  • b. How did members of the Knights of Labor view their employers and corporate power in general?
  • c. How did corporate leaders view the Knights of labor?


2. How do unions address the problems of American workers?

American labor was in a state of great flux in the late nineteenth century. The changes wrought in work due to industrialization generated new observations and questions about work conditions, compensation, wages, and hours. If you lost a limb, or even your life, working one of the new factory machines, should you or your family receive compensation from your employer? Under what circumstances? What was a living wage? How long should a workday last? Being a member of the Knights of Labor meant that you had both a local and a national forum for addressing such questions. On the national level, Powderly and the Knights' leadership sought to influence legislation and employers in the interests of the broader Knights membership. They also worked to influence local affairs where possible. Locally, assemblies of Knights could bring their grievances and issues to employers as a group, which gave them greater leverage than they might have had working as individuals. Being in the Knights of Labor meant that you might work long days for low wages in dangerous conditions, but that you had a large organization working to promote your interests and a local group of "brothers" that could come together to act in the interests of the group.

The documents address the following questions related to unions and the American worker:

  • a. How did the Knights of Labor describe the problems of the American worker?
  • b. How did the Knights of Labor plan to address those problems?
  • c. How did Knights in trouble help each other?


3. How do cultural and social practices inform working life?

The Knights of Labor had a culture of its own, influenced by the rituals and customs of its day. Originally known as "The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor," the Knights were a fraternal society, or a voluntary association featuring secret initiation rituals and practices. The fraternal order was a powerful institution in late nineteenth-century American life, and by 1900 there were over three hundred orders, with more than six million members. Many of these late nineteenth century orders, like the Knights of Labor, were reform-oriented. Toward reform for all workers, moreover, the Knights went beyond the usual all-male order and included women, though most such societies barred women from membership. Hence the Knights of Labor drew upon the period's popular cultural and social practices to give it meaning for participants.

The documents address the following questions related to nineteenth-century work culture and social practices:

  • a. How did one become a member of the Knights of Labor?
  • b. What kind of effect would initiation have on the Knights of Labor members' sense of community?
  • c. Why was secrecy valued among members of the Knights of Labor?


4. How do religious institution address problems of labor and inequalities of wealth?

Millions of Catholics migrated to the United States during the nineteenth century. Coming from situations of declining economic opportunity in predominantly Catholic nations like Ireland, Italy, and parts of Eastern Europe, many came specifically in search of work they couldn't find at home. As a result, Catholics formed much of the backbone of the unskilled labor force in the nation's expanding industries. Drawing workers from this group of laborers, then, made it inevitable that the Knights would have large numbers of Catholic members. Terence Powderly himself was Catholic, as were hundreds of thousands of the Knights' members. As a result the leadership within the Catholic Church watched the Knights of Labor closely, occasionally finding themselves conflicting with the organization. As this website strives to show, there was a range of views on whether the Knights' agenda and practices violated Church doctrine. Most Catholic leaders believed that the order's secrecy presented a problem, as secret societies were forbidden by the Church because secrecy might allow evil practices to flourish uncorrected. There were also Catholic priests and bishops that thought the Knights' critique of capitalism and the material inequalities it produced sounded like godless communism. Other Catholic leaders believed that work conditions made labor organizing necessary and appropriate. Many realized, moreover, that preventing laborers from expressing their workplace grievances would cause an exodus of working class Catholics from the church.

The Church's view of the order, in turn, mattered to the Knights, because an official censure would mean that members would not be able to attend Church and receive sacraments. In the end, Cardinal James Gibbons' formal defense of the Knights in Rome won the day and the Knights were accepted by the Church, paving the way for the institution to involve itself in other labor issues in the United States and elsewhere.

The documents address the following questions related to the role of the Catholic Church in American labor:

  • a. Why would the Catholic Church object to the Knights of Labor's vow of secrecy on affairs related to the order?
  • b. How did different members of the Catholic Church view the economic situation of workers in the late-nineteenth century?
  • c. How and why did Church leaders defend the Knights of Labor?
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