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The Knights of Labor in the Haymarket Era
By Richard Schneirov

The dramatic explosion of the Haymarket bomb, the martyrdom of four anarchist leaders, and the enduring passions of partisans on both sides have identified the Haymarket Affair with Chicago's anarchist movement in the mind of the public. Though this makes for compelling popular history, it is only part of the story.

The full meaning of the Haymarket Affair becomes apparent only when set in the perspective of labor's Great Upheaval of the mid-1880s. In this labor upsurge working men and women from every trade, of every skill-level, and of all nationalities and races streamed into labor organizations by the tens of thousands, expressed insistent demands for shorter hours, higher wages and a permanent voice in determining their working conditions, and adopted new methods of labor solidarity to win these demands.

The labor organization that was most closely identified with this Great Upheaval in the minds of working people was the Knights of Labor. With its well-known motto, "an injury to one is the concern of all," the Knights epitomized the theory and spirit of class solidarity. The characteristic form of the Knights-mixed local assemblies drawing together workers of all trades-offered an organizational alternative to existing craft unionism. Finally, the Knights were the first labor organization to take on and defeat one of the major Gilded Age Robber Barons by employing, and thus popularizing, the new weapon of the sympathy strike.

The 1886 report of the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the "Order" in Chicago had mushroomed from 1,900 in July 1885 to 27,000 a year later. The Knights were still outnumbered by trade unionists: 30,000 were affiliated with the moderate Trade and Labor Assembly, and between 10,000 and 16,000 with the anarchist-led Central Labor Union. However, by October 1886 the Bureau estimated that the Knights had more than doubled their membership while that of the trade unions had stabilized. Even these figures, suggesting a rough parity, can be misleading, for the Knights' strength was among factory-hands concentrated in large-scale industry: the packinghouses, Pullman works, tanneries, bootand-shoe factories, and the agricultural implements industry. Thus, during the Great Upheaval the Knights controlled a strategic position in the city's working class and, not surprisingly, faced the brunt of capital's counterattack after Haymarket.

How the Knights in Chicago grew into the most important expression of labor's Great Upheaval is best explained by the intersection of two important historical processes in the mid-1880s. The first was the industrial transformation of both the workplace and the economy as a whole beginning in the 1870s. The second was a political crisis resulting from the growing dissatisfaction of the business elite with the conduct of the local Democratic administration.

The origins of the crisis of the 1880s lay in the great railroad strikes and riots of 1877. The unprecedented class violence of that strike left thirty workmen dead and over two-hundred wounded, and sharply polarized classes in the city. According to socialist George Schilling the strike "was the calcium light that illumined the skies of our social and industrial life, and revealed the pinched faces of the workers and the opulence, arrogance and unscrupulousness of the rich." Immediately following the strike's defeat unionists met in secret conclave to found the first local assembly of the Knights of Labor in Chicago. Meanwhile, German-speaking trade unionists coalesced behind the Workingmen's Party of the United States (soon renamed Socialistic Labor Party).

Due to the weakness of the trade unions and the timidity of the Knights, hegemony over Chicago's labor movement quickly passed to the socialists. As the decade drew to a close it appeared to many observers that the SLP was destined to become the major political expression of the new workingclass culture emerging in Chicago's shops, factories, neighborhoods and ethnic communities. Yet, in a stunning turnabout, the Democratic Party, under the charismatic leadership of Mayor Carter Harrison, almost completely supplanted the socialists as the political leaders of Chicago workingmen in the early 1880s.

In part Harrison's success stemmed from his ability to appeal directly to the foreign-born working class by defending their leisure customes against anti-saloon reformers. But Harrison was also the first Chicago mayor to appeal to the labor movement. From the start he assiduously courted the socialists, appointing their leaders to local offices in the Department of Health and supporting socialist-sponsored legislation, notably the ordinances authorizing factory and tenementhouse inspection by the city. When trade unions and the Knights grew more influential, Harrison appointed their officers also to health inspectorships.

Chicago labor received more tangible aid from Harrison during strikes. In the Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport Harrison appointed a pro-labor police-lieutenant whose nonintervention during the strikes of Irish rolling-mill workers and iron-ore shovelers enabled them to win signal victories. During every major strike in the early 1880s the Trade and Labor Assembly, whose leaders were also Knights, sent delegations to City Hall to procure support from the mayor and police superintendant. They were seldom disappointed. Frustrated employers increasingly turned to private Pinkerton guards in place of the police. In spring 1885 the ironmolders union defeated Cyrus McCormick in a strike during which the most conspicuous action of the police was their arrest of four Pinkertons for ' shooting into a crowd of 500 strikers which had stopped a busload of scabs. In sum, Carter Harrison had temporarily reversed the class polarization of the 1870s by engineering a social compact between workingmen and the local political order at the expense of industrial employers.

In the year before Haymarket, Harrison's policies for ensuring social peace in the city came under virulent attack from the city's business elite. Systematic overproduction, which had caused the long 1870s depression, recurred in 1883-85. Yet the fear of a repeat of the 1877 uprising and the laissezfaire approach of the local police toward strikes, prevented employers from reducing wages.

In response, employers adopted a two-pronged approach. Within the workplace they stepped up the introduction of labor-saving machinery to replace highly-paid unionized skilled labor. In the political arena they pressured Mayor Harrison to change his police policy. In October, 1885 Harrison appointed John Bonfield as police inspector. Bonfield's policy toward strikes-summarized by his slogan: "The club today saves the bullet tomorrow'!-was first demonstrated in his brutal suppression of the 1885 streetcar workers' strike.

The ramifications of the Bonfield approach became fully apparent in February, 1886. Less than three months before Haymarket the only strikes of any consequence in the city were those of the skilled nailers, boxinakers and McCormick iron-molders, all resisting the effects of mechanization. The case of the McCormick molders is particularly important to our story because of the violent conflict stemming from this strike led directly to the anarchists' "Revenge" circular and the follow-up circular calling for the May 4 meeting at Haymarket Square. Following his capitulation in 1885, McCormick decided to replace his skilled men with pneumatic molding machines. In February, 1886 the remaining workmen, who were organized in the United Metal Workers Union and the Knights of Labor, walked out to demand the rehiring of the fired molders and an advance in wages for unskilled workers. When McCormick declared his intention of reopening the plant using non-union labor, Bonfield assembled a specially picked squad of 350 police to guard the scabs. No Pinkertons were necessary this time.

The defeat of the McCormick strikers and the boxinakers as well, both at the hands of Bonfield, prompted many skilled workers-the bulk of the labor movement-to reevaluate their exclusive craft-union approach and ultimately their political alliance with the Democratic Party. At the same time an alternative strategy for labor was being posed by the Knights of Labor. Several months earlier the Knights had won an unprecedented victory over Jay Gould's Wabash Railroad. In March, 1886 the Knights began another national railroad strike against Gould. Also in March, Chicago Knights won a boycott victory over the shoe manufacturers on the issue of contract prison-labor. All at once the Knights appeared to offer an effective vehicle for a new labor solidarity capable of winning demands independent of changes in the political climate.

This point was made obvious when the Knights' District Assembly representing Chicago's industrial southside proclaimed boycotts of McCormick and the boxmaking firm of Henry Maxwell, thus breaking with the cautious national policy enunciated by Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly. At this point workingmen began streaming into the Knights. On March 27 the Tribune reported that Chicago Knights were growing at the rate of a thousand per week. Between March 20 and July 1886 the local Order grew from 10,000 to 27,000 members. In short, it was the boycott and the promise of comprehensive class unity that sparked labor's Great Upheaval. Once workers were organized in the Knights and trade unions, and once this newfound solidarity unleashed a feeling of class-assertiveness, local workingmen turned en masse to the eight-hour movement, which culminated in the strike of approximately 60,000 Chicago workers on May 1.

Led by Powderly, the Knights of Labor established a well' deserved reputation for opposition to the militant tactics of the anarchists. Immediately following the Haymarket bombing the Chicago Knights of Labor levelled a vituperative blast at the anarchists, claiming that they and their sympathizers I 'should be summarily dealt with. They are entitled to no more consideration than wild beasts." But when the injustice of the trial became patently clear, and when faced with a massive lockout of Knights' packinghouse workers, rank-and-file Knights gravitated toward a new leadership which defended the rights of the anarchists as victims of an anti-labor conspiracy. These new Knights' leaders also pioneered the for mation of the United Labor Party, a coalition of labor reformers, trade unionists and socialists which nominated a slate of predominantly Knights' candidates in fall 1886. So pervasive was the disaffection of workingmen with the Democratic Party that in the Spring 1887 elections Harrison declined nomination, and the Democrats-bereft of their labor constituency-took refuge in a fusion ticket under Republican auspices.

From their peak in membership, influence and prestige in the fall of 1886 the Knights fell into precipitous decline the following year. Of the 116 new local assemblies established in 1886, sixty-one percent had lapsed by 1887, and eighty percent were gone by 1888. The turning-point came in the disastrous defeat sustained by the Order in the fall 1886 packinghouse workers' strike. Powderly intervened to order the men back to work when negotiators were on the verge of a compromise settlement. Powderly later argued that sanctioning the walkout would have encouraged an epidemic of strikes and dragged the Order into certain disaster. As a result of this and other similar actions by Knights' national leaders, many local members left the labor movement in disgust. Trade-union-oriented members concluded that a leadership responsible to a variety of trades was not fit to make decisions for workers of one particular trade. These workers also left the Order but reaffiliated with the national unions of their trades and with the American Federation of Labor.

Though Powderly blundered in the timing of his directive, he cannot be blamed for the packinghouse workers' defeat, or for the decline of the Knights. Unskilled workers did not yet have the discipline or resources to win union recognition. Skilled workers soon learned that solidarity with the unskilled was not generally necessary to win their demands. A viable national labor organization uniting skilled craftsmen with unskilled workers in basic industry would have to wait until the 1930s.

Yet labor activists salvaged something important out of the wreck of the Knights. By the 1890s, AFL craft unions adopted the Knights' methods of the boycott and sympathy strike, thus affording groups such as the machinists and building-workers the power to exercise a limited control over their industrial work-enviromnent. In this way what had once been a class goal was preserved, though harnessed to more limited and particularistic ends.

In 1905 Ed Nockels, secretary of the Chicago Federation of Labor, expressed the high regard felt by later unionists for the ideals of the Knights:

The truth expounded by the Knights of Labor and adopted by the American Federation of Labor, in effect that the "injury to one is the concern of all," seems more true today than when first announced, and upon this principle rests all the progress of our upward, forward march, and if the self-sacrificing men and women of our country did not accept and place all their hopes and aspirations upon this principle, slavery would still be extant in this country, not alone among the blacks, but among the whites.


Source:
Roediger, Dave, and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1986.



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