In the Late 1800s, the Knights of Labor Tried to Build a Working-Class Internationalism

Too often, the US labor movement has favored narrow nationalism over cross-border solidarity. But in the late 19th century, the US-based Knights of Labor preached a working-class internationalism that sought to organize workers throughout the globe.

Print shows a group portrait of the founders of the Knights of Labor. Left to right: William Cook, James S. Wright, R. C. Macauley, James M. Hilsee, Robert W. Keen, and Joseph Kennedy. The framed portrait in the center of the image is of Uriah Stephens, the founder of the Knights of Labor, who died in 1882. (HUM Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The US labor movement and international solidarity have not often gone together. For much of the twentieth century, American labor leaders showed scant interest in the world outside North America. When they did, they frequently served more faithfully as ambassadors for their governments than their own movements, as when officials of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) urged the workers of Russia and other Allied countries to keep fighting World War I or when their successors pursued the Cold War policies of the State Department and the CIA in Latin America.

But there have always been other traditions and organizations, sometimes only dimly remembered, that strove for international solidarity with workers elsewhere. One of them was the late-nineteenth-century Knights of Labor, the first truly national organization of the US working class. It later became a broad international movement, with branches on four continents, and with dreams of what its founder, Uriah Stephens, foresaw as “an organization that will cover the globe” that “will include men and women of every craft, creed, and color.”

A Brief History of the Knights

Stephens and six other Philadelphian tailors founded the Knights as a secret society in 1869. They practiced a Masonic ritual, chalked announcements of meetings in code on public walls, and slowly moved in on the spaces left by the wreckage of trade unions in the depression of the 1870s. By 1886, they boasted nearly a million members — men and women, white and black, working in all branches of wage labor, from coal mines to textile mills and sugar plantations.

Knights created hundreds of co-ops, as part of their plan to gradually replace capitalist exploitation with the “cooperative commonwealth.” They launched boycotts and fought long and bitter strikes against the wealthiest business leaders and corporations of the day. Some formed labor parties that achieved impressive, if brief, success, and in the 1890s the movement aligned with the new Populist Party. After a trip to the United States during the heyday of the Knights, Eleanor Marx was so moved that she urged British workers to follow the American example — and form a Labour Party. Eventually spreading outside the US, the Knights claimed as many as 50,000 members in Belgium in the 1880s and ’90s, upward of 20,000 in Britain and Ireland, 10,000 in New Zealand, and thousands more that we know of in France, Italy, Australia, and South Africa.

Tenth Annual Convention of the Knights of Labor, held at the First Regiment Armory, Richmond. General Master Worksman Powderly Addressing the Convention, October 16, 1886. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper / The Valentine)

Knights were present in the struggles and campaigns that led to a Labour Party and mass trade unionism in Britain; to full male suffrage in Belgium; women’s suffrage, old-age pensions, and labor arbitration boards in New Zealand; and to a desperate battle by the white residents of the South African Diamond Fields against De Beers Consolidated Mines, the diamond monopoly led by the infamous imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Supporters in France saw the Knights as the means to reconcile a fractious labor movement; in Australia, as the template for a labor party.

The Knights never fulfilled those hopes, but they still provide us with precedents and possibilities that we can draw on in the present.

Internationalism and Immigration

The impulses that led Knights to that mighty work, and led perhaps a hundred thousand non-Americans to join them, were the product of a globalized world and their determination to change it. The early founders of the Knights were all Masons, and they held to what they called “Universal Brotherhood.”

This was a version of solidarity between all men (and women) that they derived from their shared affinity as children of God and from the labor they all performed as “producers” — as working members of society who didn’t live off the labor of others or dabble in immorality, such as selling alcohol or practicing the law. Universal Brotherhood transcended borders. Stephens hoped that his movement would “make idleness a crime, render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines.”

International solidarity was not mere talk and dreaming but was, as the Knights saw it, a practical imperative. Mass migration defined their era. On average, 500,000 people settled in the United States annually throughout the 1880s. Nativism flourished, and the Knights, like virtually all others in the US labor movement, joined the clamor for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants.

Women delegates to the 1886 convention of the Knights of Labor. (Library of Congress)

Yet they never widened their attack to immigrants in general. While the Knights, from their leader Terence Powderly on down, often referred to Southern and Eastern European immigrants in disgusting language, they organized them anyway. They called only for a ban on contract labor — the practice of signing up foreign workers overseas — because employers used it to break strikes and union shops. After sustained lobbying from Ralph Beaumont, a Knight sent to represent the order in Washington, DC, Congress prohibited contract labor in 1884.

What the Knights attempted next was more ambitious, and in its limited way more successful, than virtually any other US labor movement before or since. Acting on their faith in Universal Brotherhood, they decided to go abroad and organize workers. That way, the great pressures pushing people in Europe and other parts of the world to the United States could be eased. Migration might then resemble a choice rather than a simple escape from poverty and unemployment. As Powderly put it in 1888, members of the Knights outside North America

are to be taught to reform existing abuses at home, so that emigration for the purpose of bettering their lot will not be necessary; they are to be taught that the right to enjoy life in the land of his birth is inherent in man.

Charles Lichtman, twice general secretary of the Knights, extended the logic even further:

When the Knights of Labor and kindred organizations shall have obtained in foreign lands the same commanding position and influence enjoyed in the United States, the inequality of wages will disappear, not by levelling our wages down but by levelling their wages up.

The Glassworkers and the Universal Federation

The Knights never wielded the power needed to impose this upward equalization of wages. But the first of their branches to attempt an international policy — the window-glass workers of Local Assembly 300 — came the closest.

Highly paid, well organized, dubbed “the very princes of the labor world,” the glassmakers of Local Assembly 300 (in fact a national organization) won long strikes between 1882 and 1884 and forced employers into a unique power-sharing arrangement. During the strikes, employers had imported scabs from Europe; Knights countered by paying their return passage and sending organizers to Europe. English and Belgian glassworkers responded enthusiastically, soon enrolling in the Knights of Labor. They, the Americans, and other Europeans created the Universal Federation of Window-Glass Workers in 1884.

For the next six years, this novel organization regulated the movement of European craftsmen to North America, while also helping them secure better conditions at home. The secretary of Local Assembly 300, F. M. Gessner, explained the logic of the federation: “The question of foreign competition must be solved either by lower wages at home,” he wrote, “or advanced wages and better organization abroad.”

The US labor journalist John Swinton marveled at the Universal Federation. “It was a poet who foretold the ‘parliament of man, the federation of the world,’” he wrote in 1885: “It is the window-glass workers of six nations who have begun the great business of bringing it about.”

Heartened by the welcome given in Pittsburgh to delegates from Belgium, England, Italy, France, and Portugal, Swinton observed that “it was an American idea, this world-wide Union.” He urged readers to “honor the name of Isaac Cline,” the president of Local Assembly 300.

The parliament of man never convened, and the federation of the world remained unfinished. But by connecting immigration with internationalism, the glassworkers sparked the global expansion of the Knights for the next decade.

The Growth of a Global Movement

The explosive labor battles of 1885 and 1886 — the strikes and feverish organizing known as the Great Upheaval — brought the US Knights to nearly a million members and made them, for a brief time, the largest working-class movement in the world.

That soaring membership acted as a giant billboard for the Knights among workers elsewhere. Many decided to start their own “Knights of Labor,” seemingly based on no more than they could glean from the newspapers. At least six organizations calling themselves the Knights of Labor appeared in Britain between 1886 and 1888, unconnected to actual assemblies (branches) in either Britain or the United States.

Likewise, the first iterations of the Knights in New Zealand and Australia emerged without any impetus from North America. South Africans living in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes created their own version of the Knights in 1891, retaining little more than the name and some correspondence with the original movement.

The “official” Knights of Labor also advanced in Europe. English and Belgian assemblies flourished and multiplied during the 1880s. From their base among the glassworkers, the movement spread among the iron and steelworkers of Charleroi, the glovemakers of Brussels, and the engineers and metalworkers of Birmingham.

An Irish-born New York Knight, James P. Archibald, extended the British and Irish assemblies further on a long trip in 1889, organizing new branches in important industrial centers such as Liverpool, Belfast, Glasgow, Derry, and Sheffield. They were joined by short-lived Italian branches in 1888. A Canadian organizer, W. W. Lyght, then toured Australasia between 1888 and 1890. Australia, and especially New Zealand, soon furnished many recruits.

American assemblies already represented many nationalities; now the Knights assumed an explicitly international character. Letters streamed in from Knights across the world to the order’s magazine, the Journal of United Labor, hoping through its pages to commune with their comrades across the water. “As we are glad to hear good news from our brothers in America,” one English Knight wrote from Derby, “so will they be glad to hear from us.”

Their annual convention, the General Assembly, laid on a lavish welcome for the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt in 1887, and in 1888 Powderly hailed the Belgian glassworker Albert Delwarte as “the first representative from Europe who has ever sat upon the floor of the General Assembly.” The Atlanta meeting in 1889, described by one newspaper as the “General Assembly of the World,” acceded to English requests that specifically US references be removed from the order’s name and documents. Lichtman even suggested that plans were being laid for a General Assembly to cover Europe, which would be “but the forerunner of a plan to organize the entire world into five general assemblies.”

Lichtman exaggerated, and not for the first time. But there is no denying that would-be Knights outside North America expected to join a powerful, well-funded organization, open to workers previously considered too transient or unskilled for union membership. Even in Britain, the home of trade unionism, only around 10 percent of workers were organized in the early 1880s. There and elsewhere, the Knights represented a ready-made vehicle for the other 90 percent to organize, jettisoning the narrow craft unionism of the time. For unlike their more aristocratic peers, the Knights admitted all workers, regardless of skill; operated across all sectors; and sought to organize all workers in the same industry together, rather than separately along lines of skill.

Knights in New Zealand built a powerful political lobby, pressing the Liberal governments of the 1890s toward social reform. Belgian Knights took to the streets as part of protests and strikes for full male suffrage. Haydn Sanders, a Knight from Walsall, worked as one of the first openly socialist town councilors in Britain. He and other English and Scottish Knights joined the agitation for independent labor politics that led first to the Independent Labour Party in 1893, then the Labour Party itself.

Leaders of the Knights of Labor. Print shows Terence V. Powderly, “Genl. Master Workman”, bust portrait, facing left, within a wreath with, at top, Uriah S. Stephens, “Founder of the Knights of Labor”, bust portrait, facing right, and at bottom, George E. McNeill, “Secy. of Ex. Comm”, bust portrait, facing left. Clustered around the sides of the wreath are thirty bust portraits of other labor leaders. (Kurz & Allison / Library of Congress)

There were darker sides to this global movement. Knights profited from the wave of anti-Chinese bile that swept the western world in the late nineteenth century and crested in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. To many white organized workers there, the phrase “Knights of Labor” conjured up associations with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For them, joining the Knights meant, among other things, the extension of that wall of exclusion to other English-speaking areas of white settlement. The growth of the Knights of Labor in these areas corresponded with anti-Chinese bigotry, and in South Africa, with anti-Indian and anti-Malay bigotry as well. Chinese workers never found a place among the Knights, in the US or elsewhere.

There is tragedy here, with an organization so fond of resonant phrases about the unity of all the world’s toilers ascribing serious social ills to “the heathen Chinese” — tragedy, and a recognition that most labor movements of the time, however radical in other respects, were afflicted by the racial and colonial prejudices then rampant in their own countries.

That is no defense of the Knights’ shortcomings. But there is no inherent connection between anti-Chinese sentiment and the international solidarity that the Knights otherwise preached and practiced. They failed to live up to their own beliefs, and it is those beliefs that can still inspire us today.

Working-Class Internationalism Today

The success of the Knights’ overseas branches depended on the health of the parent American organization, which began to decline in 1886 under blows from a vicious campaign by employers, fratricidal wars with rival AFL unions, and fevered internal conflict.

No longer attractive to workers abroad, no longer able to send money and help to its overseas assemblies, the global movement fragmented. The Italian assemblies quickly disappeared. British and Irish assemblies were displaced by more vibrant local alternatives, the “new unions,” in the mid-1890s. South African branches dispersed by 1893, unable to stand up successfully to Rhodes and De Beers. Australian and French Knights lingered on for longer without ever having established a serious foothold. Only in Belgium and New Zealand did the Knights survive into the twentieth century, and even there they had dwindled to insignificance. Trying to bring all the world’s workers within a single grand movement did not work then, and it will not work now. What we need is better cooperation between existing labor movements and workers in every country — and not at the level of general secretaries and national officialdoms (where this cooperation usually takes place) but at the level of individual branches and rank-and-file workers. Zoom and social media make this bottom-up international solidarity possible in ways inconceivable to previous generations of workers.

Often, it will be the immigrants in our movements, wherever we are, that can best foster the building of that solidarity. Just as glassworkers and other Knights used their own birth and ancestral ties to construct connections “back home,” we should use the international nature of working classes all over the world to our advantage. That, surely, is our best defense against the nativism that threatens to divide us again.

The Knights of Labor weren’t unblemished warriors rushing to the general emancipation of all humankind. They had flaws, even grave defects. But they also pointed the way to a theory and practice of international solidarity that remains elusive today. As Powderly wrote in his memoirs, incidentally forgetting, as some mapmakers still do, Australia and New Zealand:

Assemblies of the Order flourished in Great Britain and Ireland, in France, Belgium, Italy, and as far away as South Africa. Though no local assemblies of Knights of Labor exist in any of these countries now, the principles of the Order still live and continue to inspire men and women to strive for the betterment of industrial conditions.

That striving is what waits for us now, if we want to outdo and outgrow the record of the Knights of Labor on an international stage.