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Populism and the Knights of Labor

            Many early efforts to organize workers in the United States saw their initiation in the state of Pennsylvania. As early as the 1790's, shoemakers in Philadelphia joined to maintain a price structure and resist cheaper competition. In the 1820's, a Mechanics Union was formed that attempted to unite the efforts of more than a single craft. The rise of industrial capitalism, with its widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, generated the union movement's transformation. .
             In 1869, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL), which initially offered a more reasoned approach to solving labor problems, was established in Philadelphia. At its inception, the KOL included nine tailors whose leader was Uriah S. Stephens. The organization, which believed that its predecessors had failed by limiting membership, proposed to organize both skilled and unskilled workers in the same union. They also opened their doors to African Americans and women. In its early years, the Knights of Labor was a highly secret society since in many areas, union members were immediately fired. The Knights developed ornate rituals, drawn from Freemasonry, to govern their meetings. By the early 1880's, the group had emerged as a national force and had dropped its initial secrecy. They wanted to include within their ranks everyone but doctors, bankers, lawyers, liquor producers and gamblers. .
             The aims of the Knights of Labor included the following: An eight-hour work day, termination of child labor, and termination of the convict contract labor system. The concern was not for the prisoner but the Knights opposed competition from this cheap source of labor. They also sought the establishment of cooperatives to replace the traditional wage system and help bring into check the excesses of capitalism, equal pay for equal work, government ownership of telegraph facilities and the railroads, a public land policy designed to aid settlers and not speculators, and a graduated income tax.

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