Labor Unions: KoL, AFL, and IWW

Labor Unions: KoL, AFL, and IWW
At the turn of the twentieth century, American workers debated how they could best defend their interests in
the face of powerful national corporations. One of the most contentious questions that faced them was whether
labor should agitate for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions, or for more fundamental
transformations in the nation's economy. Another source of controversy was whether unions should try to
organize whole industries (what are called industrial unions) or organize particular skilled crafts (craft
unions). At stake in these debates was the very meaning of the labor movement: Whom to organize? How to
organize them? What to do once they are organized? Playing key roles in providing their own answers to
those questions were three labor unions: the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor and the
Industrial Workers of the World.
Directions: Read the organizations’ founding documents to identify and compare the ideological principles, goals and
tactics of each. What might be some practical problems with the organizations’ goals or ideals?
Knights of Labor
American Federation of Labor
Industrial Workers of the World
The alarming development and aggressiveness of great capitalists and corporations, unless checked,
will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses.
It is imperative, if we desire to enjoy the full blessings of life, that a check be placed upon unjust
accumulation, and the power for evil of aggregated wealth.
This much-desired object can be accomplished only by the united efforts of those who obey the divine
injunction, "In the sweat of they face shalt thou eat bread."
Therefore we have formed the Order of Knights of Labor, for the purpose of organizing and directing
the power of the industrial masses, not as a political party, for it is more - in it are crystallized
sentiments and measures for the benefit of the whole people, but it should be borne in mind, when
exercising the right of suffrage, that most of the objects herein set forth can only be obtained through
legislation, and that it is the duty of all to assist in nominating and supporting with their votes only
such candidates as will pledge their support to those measures, regardless of party. But no one shall,
however, be compelled to vote with the majority, and calling upon all who believe in securing "the
greatest good to the greatest number," to join and assist us, we declare to the world that are our aims
To make individual and moral worth, not wealth, the true standard of individual and National
To secure to the workers the full enjoyment of the wealth they create, sufficient leisure in which
to develop their intellectual, moral, and social faculties: all of the benefits, recreation and
pleasures of association; in a word, to enable them to share in the gains and honors of
advancing civilization.
In order to secure these results, we demand at the hands of the State:
The establishment of Bureaus of Labor Statistics, that we may arrive at a correct knowledge of
the educational, moral and financial condition of the laboring masses.
That the public lands, the heritage of the people, be reserved for actual settlers; not another
acre for railroads or speculators, and that all lands now held for speculative purposes be taxed
to their full value.
The abrogation of all laws that do not bear equally upon capital and labor, and the removal of
unjust technicalities, delays and discriminations in the administration of justice.
The adoption of measures providing for the health and safety of those engaged in mining and
manufacturing, building industries, and for indemnification to those engaged therein for injuries
received through lack of necessary safeguards.
The recognition, by incorporation, of trades' unions, orders and such other associations as may
be organized by the working masses to improve their condition and protect their rights.
The enactment of laws to compel corporations to pay their employees weekly, in lawful money,
for the labor of the preceding week, and giving mechanics and laborers a first lien upon the
product of their labor to the extend of their full wages.
The abolition of the contract system on National, State and Municipal works.
The enactment of laws providing for arbitration between employers and employed, and to
enforce the decision of the arbitrators.
The prohibition by law of the employment of children under 15 years of age in workshops,
mines and factories.
To prohibit the hiring out of convict labor.
That a graduated income tax be levied.
And we demand at the hands of Congress:
The establishment of a National monetary system, in which a circulating medium in necessary
quantity shall issue direct to the people, without the intervention of banks; that all the National
issue shall be full legal tender in payment of all debts, public and private; and that the
Government shall not guarantee or recognize any private banks, or create any banking
That interest-bearing bonds, bills of credit or notes shall never be issued by the Government,
but that, when need arises, the emergency shall be met by issue of legal tender, non-interestbearing money.
That the importation of foreign labor under contract be prohibited.
That, in connection wit the post-office, the Government shall organize financial exchanges,
safe deposits and facilities for deposit of the savings of the people in small sums.
That the Government shall obtain possession, by purchase, under the right of eminent domain,
of all telegraphs, telephones and railroads, and that hereafter no charter or license be issued
to any corporation for construction or operation of any means of transporting intelligence,
passengers or freight.
And while making the foregoing demands upon the State and National Government, we will
endeavor to associate our own labors.
To establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage system, by the
introduction of a co-operative industrial system.
To secure for both sexes equal pay for equal work.
To shorten the hours of labor by a general refusal to work for more than eight hours.
To persuade employers to agree to arbitrate all differences which may arise between them and
their employees, in order that the bonds of sympathy between them may be strengthened and
that strikes may be rendered unnecessary.
The Knights of Labor began as a secret society of tailors in Philadelphia in 1869. The organization grew slowly
during the hard years of the 1870s, but worker militancy rose toward the end of the decade, especially after the
great railroad strike of 1877, and the Knights' membership rose with it. Grand Master Workman Terence V.
Powderly took office in 1879, and under his leadership the Knights flourished; by 1886 the group had 700,000
members. Powderly dispensed with the earlier rules of secrecy and committed the organization to seeking the
eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work, and political reforms including the graduated
income tax.
Unlike most trade unions of the day, the Knights' unions were vertically organized--each included all workers in
a given industry, regardless of trade. The Knights were also unusual in accepting workers of all skill levels and
both sexes; blacks were included after 1883 (though in segregated locals). On the other hand, the Knights
strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885; like many labor
leaders at the time, Powderly believed these laws were needed to protect the American work force against
competition from underpaid laborers imported by unscrupulous employers.
American Federation of Labor: Declaration of Principles
“Whereas a struggle is going on in the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and
oppressed of all countries, a struggle between capital and labor which must grow in intensity from
year to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations, if not combined for mutual
protection and benefits. The history of the wage workers of all countries is but the history of constant
struggle and misery, engendered by ignorance and disunion, whereas the history of the nonproducers of all countries proves that a minority thoroughly organized may work wonders for good or
evil. It behooves the representatives of the workers of North America in congress assembled, to
adopt such measures and disseminate such principles among the people of our country as will unite
them for all time to come, to secure the recognition of the rights to which they are justly entitled. The
various trades have been affected by the introduction of machinery, the subdivision of labor, the use
of women's and children's labor and the lack of an apprentice system, so that the skilled trades are
rapidly sinking to the level of pauper labor. To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced
to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of
America have been established.”
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed in 1886. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), who served as
president 1886-1895 and 1896-1924, provided conservative leadership. Instead of trying to reshape the
fundamental institutions of American life, as some of the more radical union activists were trying to do, the
AFL focused on securing for its members higher wages, better working conditions, and a shorter work week.
Because the union did not attempt to organize unskilled workers, it made few gains among new workers during
the 1920s, when much of the growth of the economy took place in mass-production industries such as
automobiles, rubber, chemicals, and utilities. In fact, although Gompers' middle-of-the-road leadership helped
make the AFL the largest and most powerful union in the country, compared to earlier decades, that was not
very powerful, and membership dropped dramatically.
Gompers' commitment to organizing skilled workers—what he believed to be the “bread and butter” or “pure
and simple” union—in addition to avoiding the radical left, and accomplishing change through established
channels whenever possible, rather than through strikes, led conservative businessmen to view him favorably.
Nevertheless, he opposed the open shop movement of the 1920s and the spread of company unions (unions
organized by companies to keep away outside organizers).
Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long
as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the
employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class,
take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the
We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the
trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions
foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in
the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid
the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in
common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an
organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if
necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an
injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our
banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system." It is the historic mission of the
working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for
everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been
overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell
of the old.
The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, was founded in 1905 in Chicago by Bill Haywood, leader of the
Western Federation of Miners. By 1908, the IWW had become influential among migrant laborers in the Pacific
Northwest. Members were dubbed "Wobblies" and soon earned a reputation for loud singing, radicalism, and
militancy. The IWW was an "industrial" union, one that embraced and organized both skilled and unskilled
workers within particular industries. Formed in 1905 partly in opposition to the craft unionism of the American
Federation of Labor (AFL), it was a democratic union with a mix of radical anti-capitalist politics. The founding
membership included socialists and labor unionists of various kinds, dominated by the militant, radical metal
miners of the Western Federation of Miners.
IWW members and organizers massive lumber strike in the summer of 1917 brought the industry to a halt at the
beginning of World War I. However, IWW membership and influence declined sharply after the anti-radical
purges of the World War I era, but the union never quite died off.
Knights of Labor
American Federation of
Industrial Workers of the
Socialists and trade unions,
unskilled and exploited
workers, immigrants,
minorities, women, migrant
Men, women, whites,
blacks, skilled, unskilled,
citizens, immigrants
Skilled workers from many
Terence V. Powderly
Samuel Gompers
“Big” Bill Haywood,
Eugene V. Debs
Higher wages, shorter hours,
other economics issues
(aka “pure and simple”
One big union to control the
means of production and
distribution (Marxist/communist
struggle), abolish divisions
among workers, achieve fair
and equal working conditions
and government support for
Abolishing child labor, equal
pay for equal work, 8-hour
work day, creation of a
Bureau of Labor Statistics in
the federal government
Arbitration, boycotts,
cooperatives, though they
did not support strikes they
did use strikes sometimes,
legislative pressure (used
after Haymarket)
Second strike against Jay
Gould’s railroad empire and
the Haymarket Square Riot
in May 1886 destroyed the
reputation and support of
the union, most members
joined the AFL or local trade
unions comprised of skilled
Distanced itself from
communist and socialist
organizations, negotiated
labor contracts, strike only
when necessary, focused on
day-to-day working
conditions instead of social
or business practices,
collective bargaining, closed
Congress passed labor laws,
but the Supreme Court
overruled some, merged with
the CIO (Congress of
Industrial Organizations) in
1955, did achieve better
working conditions (minimum
wage, maximum working
hours, workers
compensation, end to child
labor = all during the 1930s)
Direct action, strikes, (general
strike in the future to overthrow
the capitalistic system, smaller
strikes in the short term),
educational campaigns, songs,
graphics, speeches, literature,
sit-down strike, chain picketing,
car caravans
Civil rights advances, fought
against the government for
protection of 1st Amendment
rights, anti-military and anti-war
stance caused them to be
unpopular in WWI, legacy of
organizing tactics for groups,
led to the mass union of the
CIO and inclusion of women in
labor leadership and
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