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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Terence V. Powderly
THE NOBLE AND HOLY ORDER OF THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR. The Knights of Labor, a first important national labor organization in the United States was established in 1869. (1) It served as an umbrella organization for other unions that joined it. Founded by Uriah Stevens, the Knights of Labor was originally a secret organization, but Terence Powderly, elected as grand master workman, ended the group's secrecy and removed the word "noble" from its title after assuming control of the organization in 1879. (2) Membership grew quickly, reaching approximately 700,000 members by 1886. (3)
Terence V. Powderly

The Knights of Labor attempted to unite all "producers," anyone who produced a physical product during a workday. While welcoming factory workers and business owners, the group rejected "social parasites"—people who did not engage in physical labor, such as bankers, lawyers, liquor dealers, stock brokers and professional gamblers. (4) The organization even allowed women and AFRICAN AMERICANS to join. The producers sought an eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, better wages, and improved working conditions. Under Powderly's leadership, the organization also provided support for the temperance movement. (5) At its peak, membership in the organization exceeded 700,000. (6)

Terence V. Powderly

The Knights of Labor used boycotts and peaceful negotiations. Powderly generally opposed strikes, believing that they led to bloodshed and increased tensions. Other Knights of Labor leaders preferred utilizing strikes. Following the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago, Illinois, in 1886, the backlash against unionism and dissatisfaction of many members led to the establishment of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in December 1886. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) focused on winning economic benefits for its members through collective bargaining. As a federation, it represented several national autonomous craft unions. The Knights, on the other hand, represented both craft and unskilled workers in a single national union. (7) The Knights of Labor declined as an effective organization and Powderly resigned as the organization's head in 1893. (8) In addition to raising issues that were later won for organized labor, one of their most lasting contributions of the Knights of Labor was Labor Day, an event they sponsored. (9)

Dubuque was the largest manufacturing city in Iowa during the 1880s. A profile of the city's working-class population in the mid-1880s indicates that a typical worker was employed ten hours daily with wage rates determined by age, job, and sex. Women and children, involved in low-paying factory, retail and service occupations, earned the least. Wages earned by women average one-third to one-half those of men. Boys received less than women and girls made less than boys. Common male occupations included blacksmiths, carpenters, machinists, railway workers, and teamsters. Unskilled male workers earned from $1.00 to $1.50 daily as compared to bricklayers who earned from $3.75 to $4.00. Common laborers rented homes while between one-third and one-half of the tradesmen owned their own homes. (10)

Prior to 1885, trade unions in Dubuque existed among printers, cigarmakers, locomotive firemen and engineers, tailors and bricklayers. Membership varied from twenty to forty. These groups protected their independence, decided work rules and wage scales, avoided politics, and held regular meetings. (11)

In 1885 when the Knights of Labor organized in Dubuque, they found a receptive audience. The Knights secret ritual and ceremony appealed to a distinctly dominate Catholic population of which many were members of the KNIGHTS OF PYTHIAS or the ANCIENT ORDER OF UNITED WORKMEN (A.O.U.W.) In a society where workers were considered commodities, the Knights advocacy of "producers" was appreciated as well as its welcoming workers regardless of skill level, sex, race or nationality. (12) Led by John STAFFORD, Master Workman of Local Assembly No. 4192, organizing drives were held which resulted by December 1886, of six more locals joining the national organization. Dual union membership resulted with cigarmakers, printers and stationary engineers joined while keeping their trade union membership. (13)

Efforts were made without great success to organize African Americans who were personal servants, cooks and porters. While criticizing wage discrimination based on race, only about six blacks joined the organization with none holding leadership positions. (14)

Women became nearly 20% of the membership. While six of the seven Dubuque locals were male, Local Assembly No 5914 was entirely women. Founded in March 1886, the group was one of Iowa's first women assemblies. Membership included employees in clothing, candy, bakery, tobacco, boot and shoe, soap, and buggy businesses. (15)

Rapidly increasing membership encouraged the Knights to incorporate the Knights of Labor Cooperative Publishing Company. With John Stafford as president of the board of directors, the company published the first issue of its weekly, the INDUSTRIAL LEADER in October 1886. (16) The paper proved especially popular its first year and stockholders received a divided of 10% as circulation reached 2,100. (17)

The Knights also established the Fuel Corporation Company, another cooperative. A share of stock cost five dollars and no one was allowed to own more than four. The company sold oak, maple and soft foods for fuel. (18)

A third cooperative form was the Knights of Labor Cooperative Supply Company. Founded in May 1887 after purchasing the inventory of another store, the store carried groceries and provisions. Associative buying eliminated the middleman. (19)

The Knights venture into politics occurred during the 1886 session of the Iowa Legislature. Legislation for the passage of workplace health and safety codes was sponsored by William J. KNIGHT, a Democratic state senator. The legislation would have established guidelines for proper ventilation, machinery guards for safety, adequate fire escapes, sanitation standards, and restrooms for men and women. (20)

Thirty prominent Dubuque manufacturers began a protest campaign when the bill was brought to the Senate claiming it was too costly and not appropriate for medium-sized industries. When two lobbyists for the Iowa State Assembly of the Knights of Labor failed to support the bill and under increasing attack from manufacturers including Andrew Young MCDONALD, the bill died. Other labor sponsored legislation including an abolition of child labor in mines, workshops and factories and prohibition of state leasing contract labor also failed. With such results, Knights of Labor supporters decided working for candidates to challenge those in power was a better strategy. (21)

In 1886 the new Knights strategy proved effective. Knights-supported candidates for mayor won in Clinton, Marshalltown, Lyons (Clinton) and Boone. In Dubuque both of the major parties attempted to gain the labor vote by adding labor planks in their platforms. In the April municipal election, three Republican candidates who belonged to the Knights won positions as aldermen. In the fall, however, the Knights supported the Democratic candidate in the congressional election. (22)

The January 1, 1887 of the Industrial Leader encouraged readers to follow independent political action. In February, a full slate of labor candidates was assembled for the municipal election. The Labor Reform Party declared the intention:

                to have laws made and executed in the interest
                of justice, of morality, and of productive labor;
                so that the workers, who produce all the wealth,
                may not sink into deeper poverty, while the idle
                drones, who produce none, revel in increased
                opulence. (23)

Party planks addressed extravagance in the budget, inequitable taxes, rising debt, the contract labor system of performing street work, and monopolistic practices of 'corrupt rings and political tricksters.' (24)

The results of the election were surprising. The Republican and Democratic strategy of portraying themselves and better for the general public failed. The entire Knights of Labor ticket were elected. Christian Anton VOELKER was elected mayor and John Stafford became the city recorder. (25)

The new council took controversial positions. In May the entire police force was discharged amid charges that it had been used to harass workers. Half of the new force was former officers and the other half all Knights. The subcontracting of labor was street work was abolished and replaced with day labor and the council gave a 40% increase in the daily wage for city work from $1.25 to $1.75 which was higher than wages paid to private sector labor. (26) The council also rejected the offer of the county supervisors to have county jail prisoners to city work. The council responded by claiming the use of such labor depressed wages, offered unfair competition, and was nothing other than involuntary servitude. (27)

When the Knights swept into office, Dubuque's total indebtedness exceeded $800,000--the highest of any city in Iowa. Working on their pledge to begin a more equitable system of taxation, the council instituted a 20% increase in city tax assessments. As a result, the indebtedness dropped about 15% allowing community projects that had been stopped to pay for debt service. (28)

During the time the Knights held public office, the goods and services produced in the city increased 20%; the local transportation system improved with two new railway lines, a new ferry company, a high bridge across the MISSISSIPPI RIVER; and a new fire alarm system was installed. (29)

Despite the achievements, political power for the Knights was soon ended. The local press and the Board of Trade attacked the new political party which was split by potential offers to join with one of the two major political parties. Within the Knights, arguments developed between those who believed in getting elected and those who felt lobbying was more effective. (30)

The fall election of 1887 brought Democrats back into power while the labor vote declined by 45%. In 1888 the Knights did not offer a separate ticket of candidates. The Citizen's Party of half Republicans and half Democrats won nearly all the city offices and most of the council seats. The Knights were never again to play an important role in local politics and they left independent politics in 1890. (31)

The unexpected death of John Stafford, weakened patronage of the cooperatives, and election defeats all conspired to further weaken the Knights locally. In one of its last efforts, the Knights led the efforts in forming the DUBUQUE TRADES AND LABOR CONGRESS, a citywide labor organization in July 1888. (32)

In April 1891 the Knights asked the city council to reduce the official work day in the city from ten to eight hours at a wage of $3.50 per day. (33) Working hours in May 1891 were the basis of the strike by plumbers in Dubuque. (34)



1. "Knights of Labor," Encyclopedia Britannica. Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/320386/Knights-of-Labor-KOL

2. Ibid.

3. "Knights of Labor," Ohio History Central. Online: http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Knights_of_Labor?rec=910

4. Scharnau, Ralph. "Workers and Politics--The Knights of Labor in Dubuque, Iowa 1885-1890, Annals of Iowa. Des Moines: State Historical Society of Iowa, Volume 48, Number 7 (Winter of 1987), p. 359

5. "Knights of Labor," Ohio History Central

6. Scharnau. p. 353

7. "Knights of Labor," Encylopedia Britannica

8. "Knights of Labor," Ohio History Central

9. "Knights of Labor," The Holiday Spot. Online: http://www.theholidayspot.com/laborday/k_of_L.htm

10. Scharnau. p. 355

11. Ibid., p. 356

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 358

14. Ibid., p. 360

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 361

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., p. 362

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., p. 364

23. Ibid., p. 365

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., p. 368

26. Ibid., p. 369

27. Ibid., p. 370

28. Ibid., p. 373

29. Ibid., p. 374

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid. 375

32. Ibid. 376

33. "The Labor Question," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 1, 1891, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910501&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

34. "Still Striking," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 5, 1891, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910505&printsec=frontpage&hl=en