Terrance V. Powderly may have been the man with the tiniest spectacle lenses and most impressive mustache in American history. He also became almost by accident the leader of this country’s first great national labor union.
That’s because the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869 as a fraternal benevolent society and a lodge with the secret rituals and handshakes popularized by Masonry. It was organized in Philadelphia by Uriah Smith Stephens, and James L. Wright and five other members of a local Taylor’s Union. It was not meant to itself become a labor union, but to provide social connections, moral uplift, general advocacy for reforms like an 8 hour day, and provide protection and benefits for injured members and surviving spouses and families.
From the beginning the fledgling organization was unique in the breadth of those welcomed to belong—all workers regardless of craft or skill, men and women, all ethnic and religious groups, and all races, except, as we will see later, Asians. In a throwback to the days of guilds even master craftsmen and owners of small shops, farms, and manufacturing businesses could join if they still worked by the side of their employees. This later group never represented more than a tiny fraction of the organization’s but deference to their sensibilities restrained action by the in its earlier years.
Two events contributed to the Knights beginning to take on the functions of a union. First was the collapse in 1873 of an earlier attempt to form a national labor body, the National Labor Union. Left behind were a hodge-podge of local unions, a few central labor councils in major cities, and a handful, and a handful of craft unions struggling to establish national federations. Without a national body to look toward for cooperation, and most importantly, solidarity during labor actions, some of the organizations elected to become Knights Assemblies. Others maintained their identity but encouraged or allowed their individual members to join the Knights.
By default, although the Knights officially discouraged strikes, Knights Assemblies and members were soon engaged in the full range of job actions.
Secondly was the ongoing near open warfare between coal mine operators and their largely Catholic and immigrant work forces in Pennsylvania. Conditions we harsh, wages low, hours long, and there were regular mine disasters. The infancy of the company town turned miners into virtual serfs. Strikes, boycotts, and rebellions became common, all met with ruthless suppression. Workers found that the ritual secrecy of the Knights, like that of the Irish fraternal organization the Loyal Order of Hibernians were the perfect cover to organize in secret. By the mid 1870’s membership in the anthracite fields was exploding.
And that’s were Powderly first encountered the Knights.
Powderly was the 11th of 12 children of an Irish immigrant family born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania in the heart of the coal fields on January 22, 1849. He was something of a sickly child losing the hearing in one ear to scarlet fever and nearly dying from the German measles. His relative frailty probably spared him the fate of going to the mines at age 7 or 8 as a breaker boy. Instead he was allowed to continue a rough sort of schooling until the ripe old age of 13 when he went to work for the Delaware and Hudson Railroad and the next year was promoted to car inspector due to his intelligence.
He was mature for his age and keenly interested in the world around him. In his later memoirs he was able to recall in detail the Presidential Election of 1856 which elevated Pennsylvanian James Buchannan to the Executive Mansion. He recalled his mother’s anguish over not being able to cast a vote and then and there became a lifelong supporter of women’s suffrage.
In the meantime he apprenticed as a machinist in the railroad shops and was working in the locomotive shops in Scranton by 1869. He joined the Machinist and Blacksmiths Union in 1871, and he was elected president of a local in 1872. From then on his life centered more and more on his dedication to the labor movement. In 1873 he was fired for union activity and blackballed on the railroads.
Powderly drifted from job to job, but always kept up his connections to his union. And although he never personally worked in the mines, he was keenly aware of the struggles in the major industry in his home region.
He signed a membership in the Knights as early as 1874 but became active in his local Assembly in 1876. He rose quickly, elected to the key position of Recording Secretary, which put him in communications with Assemblies all across the country.
Powderly was elected General Worthy Foreman of the Order at St. Louis in January 1879. Powderly became General Master Workman soon afterward.
Powderly had other interests. He married in 1872 and began to raise a family and was active in local politics. The same year He was elected Mayor of Scranton and was re-elected for two more two year terms which coincided with his rise in the Knights. He was asked to run for Lieutenant Governor by the Greenback Labor Party in 1882, but declined the nomination.
When Powderly assumed office the Knights reported a national membership of 10,000. Probably two or three times that number were in sympathy or in locals and assemblies not properly reporting to Headquarters, a common problem for the loosely organized Order with few employees.
But due to a combination of an explosion of national labor unrest and his own growing reputation, Powderly saw the Order grow to 700,000 to 1 million members, including 10,000 women and 50,000 African Americans in 1886.
The Great American Railroad Strike of 1877 was responsible for a lot of that growth. Although largely spontaneous and unorganized, the bloody riots exploded from the Baltimore and Ohio shops in Maryland and soon engulfed much of the nation with particularly hard fighting between strikers and authorities in the Knight’s cradle in Pennsylvania. The Order was blamed by authorities of the strikes, and credited for them by workers across the country although the organization was not initially involved.
In fact Powderly was appalled by the violence and at first called on Knights members to remember their no-strike pledges and return to work. In fact in the west in places like St. Louis and New Orleans, where local Assemblies had time to organize responses before the violence struck, they were able to conduct disciplined actions with little of the mayhem and property damage in the east.
There remained a stumbling block to growth. Although a large majority of members were, like Powderly, Catholic the Church objected to the trapping of freemasonry and a secret society. The Archbishop of Quebec had specifically forbidden membership. American prelates seemed ready to follow suit. Powderly worked closely with Archbishop James Gibbons of Baltimore who convinced the Pope not only not to condemn the Knights, but to broadly offer support for the right of unionization. In return, Powderly led the Knights in dropping the Noble and Holy Order from their name and jettisoning secrecy and masonic style ritual in 1882.
Now, for better or worse, the Knights were a virtual union in everything but name. Membership shot up faster than effective organization could accommodate them all. “In 1885 we had about 80,000 members in good standing,” Powderly wrote in his autobiography, “ in one year that number jumped up to 700,000 of which at least four hundred thousand came in from curiosity and caused more damage than good.”
One spur to growth was a successful strike in 1885 against the Wabash Railroad, part of the southwestern system controlled by railroad baron Jay Gould. Despite his opposition to strikes, Powderly helped negotiate a favorable settlement, including a non-discrimination clause protecting Knights members from retribution. It was the first significant national victory of any labor strike and sent the prestige of the organization and its leader through the roof.
Powderly was no radical. He took a dim view of socialism and an even greater aversion from the anarchism that was taking root in parts of the labor movement. He favored what might be called benign or cooperative republicanism (small “r”) with an emphasis on inclusion and fairness. He advocated reforms like the eight hour day and elimination of child labor was well as wages that allowed working people to live with “simple dignity.” His vision was egalitarian and inclusive of women and most minorities.
In general the Knights followed these precepts. But they were not perfect. Although Blacks were allowed to join, Powderly looked the other way when segregated Assemblies were established in the South.
In the West, he went along with the virulent anti-Asian bias that erupted after the large scale introduction of coolie labor in railroad construction. It was the almost universal opinion of White workers on the Coast that Chinese labor drove down wages. The Assemblies in Seattle urged the expulsion of all 10,000 Chinese in the city. In Rock Spring, Wyoming local Knights organized a pogrom style riot in September of 1885 in which 28 Chinese miners were killed, 15 were injured, and 75 homes and business were burned.
Powderly condemned the violence but supported Oriental Exclusion immigration legislation. He was not the only labor leader or radical to do so. Even the California affiliate of the International Working People’s Association—the so called anarchist First International—endorsed exclusion. Immigration issues became a major personal interest of Powderly and, as we will see, propelled a second career.
Two events in 1886 proved disastrously pivotal to the Knights.
First a second round of strikes against Gould’s Southwest System broke out early that year and spread even farther to more components of the system. Violence broke out in several cities and soon there were the familiar pitched battles authorities and company thugs. Powderly desperately tried to reign in control of the strike while trying to negotiate a settlement. This time Gould and his forces were adamant. By March the strike petered out with no gains and local Assemblies in disarray.
Then in Chicago on May 1 strikes in support of one of Powderly’s favorite causes, the eight hour day engulfed the city. These were in response to a nationwide call by the Knight’s rival craft union competitor which would soon become known as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Locally they were organized by member unions of the Central Labor Union and promoted by anarchists. The eight hour strike coincided with several ongoing strikes in the city, including a major confrontation at the McCormick Reaper Works.
On May 2 police opened fire at picketers around the McCormick Works gate killing several. The McCormick strikers included members of several craft unions and of the Knights, but was generally under the leadership of the craft unions.
Local anarchists, most of them German, organized a protest at the Haymarket on May 4. A bomb was thrown by an unknown assailant as police moved in to attack the end of the peaceful rally. The ensuing melee left several of workers and five cops dead. The anarchists, some of whom were not in attendance or even involved in the meeting, were rounded up and arrested. Eight were charged. One committed suicide, seven were convicted and four hung.
Despite the fact that the Knights were only involved peripherally in the McCormick strike and the May 1 eight hour strike and not at all in the anarchist protest, the press laid the whole Haymarket affair largely the feet of Powderly and the Knights.
Nationwide suppression followed. Worse over the next five years the Knights lost several badly organized but widely publicized strikes, shaking the confidence of workers. The AFL began to emerge as a more effective alternative, although it excluded most unskilled workers and minorities. Membership evaporated.
In addition the Knights were wracked with internal dissent and Powderly found his leadership increasingly under attack. By 1890 the Knights had shrunk to numbers similar to those when Powderly first took the reins.
Powderly was defeated for re-election as Master Workman in 1893. The organization’s decline only accelerated and by 1900 was essentially irrelevant except for a handful of local pockets of support.
Powderly studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1894. He established a successful practice in Scranton and also dabbled in business. Eventually he would even become part owner of a coal mining operation and other, largely unsuccessful industrial businesses.
He was making a name for himself as an expert in immigration. He had come to the conclusion that not only was Asian immigration harmful to working people, but that the un-restricted flood of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe would destroy the standard of living of American workers.
Trying to court labor votes from their traditional loyalty to Democrats or the emerging Populists, President William McKinley appointed to Powderly to an important post U.S. Commissioner General of Immigration in 1897. He enjoyed the continued support of Theodore Roosevelt who in 1902 made him Chief Information Officer for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration from 1907 to 1921. In these positions he crafted the proposals that would result in the great curtailment of unrestricted immigration in the Immigration Act of 1924 which included an almost total ban on Asian immigration and a strict national quota system for Europe.
After his first wife died in 1901, Powderly married his long time secretary at the Knights. Together they lived comfortably in Washington. After a brief retirement Powderly died on June 24, 1924. His wife survived him until 1940.
Seventeen years after his death, Powderly’s manuscript autobiography was discovered and published giving us one of the most detailed accounts of the formative years of the American labor movement.
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