The story of Labor Day remains incomplete without an
introduction to the Knights of Labor. Not only did they initiate
Labor Day as a civic event, it had proved itself to be the first labor
association strong enough to challenge industry on its own ground.
And it was with them the future
of American labor in the 1880s appeared to lie.
Starting with nine inconspicuous tailors in Philadelphia on December 9, 1869 , the K of L sought to promote a unionism to embrace all workers, skilled and unskilled, in a single labor organization. They were convinced that trade unionism, as it had been known, had to give way to labor organization on a much broader basis. The founder leader of the organization, Stephens was a tailor by profession and was a staunch believer in the principle of the Brotherhood of Man. The organization took some years to take off. It was only after the second assembly in 1872 the pace of its growth sped up. In 1874 the first assembly was established beyond the area of its origin. It was in New York. The groups joining the assembly entailed workers of distinct crafts e.g. garment cutters, ship carpenters, shawl weavers, masons, machinists and blacksmiths, house carpenters, tin plate and iron workers, stone cutters and gold beaters. Gradually they were joined in by miners, railway workers and steel workers in increasing numbers. Whenever there were not enough members of a single trade to form a trade assembly, especially in small towns and rural areas, the mixed assembly became a general catchall. Eventually, the mixed assemblies outnumbered the trade assemblies and with their inclusion of unskilled workers the Knights gained a distinctive character.
The Order became truly national organization in a sense never attained by its predecessors, and it further differed from them in that the membership remained on an individual basis rather than through affiliated unions. Thus membership became open to all wage earners and to all former wage earners, with the exception of doctors, bankers and traders and manufacturers of liquor. A prospective member was invited to participate in a meeting without being told what it was. The eligibility for initiation was only through the successful completion of an interview. The ritual was passed by word of mouth keeping everything a secret to the outsiders.
The K of L constitution set forth many of the traditional demands of organized labor and also added some new goals. It called for the 8-hour day, the establishment of cooperatives, the reservation of public lands for actual settlers and a fiat currency, prohibition of child labor, equal pay for the sexes, establishment of the bureau of labor statistics, abolition of contract system for prison labor, adoption of a graduated income tax, and government ownership of the railways and telegraphs.
They stressed organization, education, and political agitation as the best means to build a new society. They insisted that the existing economic system could only be changed peaceably, and this often led them to oppose strikes.
But, despite their progressive outlook their philosophy did not keep the powerful skilled workers and the militant labor leaders allegiant to the Order. And soon the rift surfaced. The members of the traditional trade unions became increasingly unwilling to link their fortunes with the weaker sections e.g. unskilled ones. The need for 'new unionism' evolved. And eventually the K of L ceased to exist.