The Replacement of the Knights of Labor by the International Longshoremen's Association in the Port of Boston

Article excerpt

The growth of the Knights of Labor as a national labor organization in the United States was meteoric, but its life was exceedingly short. Between 1879 and 1885-87 its membership grew from less than 10,000 to more than 700,000, and by 1890 it had declined to 100,000. In his popular history of American labor, Thomas Brooks concludes that "before the Gay Nineties had expired, the Noble Order was all but dead."1 This common picture of the growth and decline of the Knights obscures the fact that the organization retained a substantial membership in some labor markets into the early decades of the 20th century.

A striking example was the freight transportation industry in Boston, where District Assembly 30 of the Knights was the dominant labor organization among railroad freight handlers and longshoremen until just prior to the outbreak of World War I. This seemingly solid position in the Boston transportation industry crumbled almost overnight in 1912, when a strike by Boston longshoremen was resoundingly defeated. The strike began on January 5, 1912, when the entire work force of more than 2,500 longshoremen struck in pursuit of higher wages.2 On February 13, they returned to work empty handed.3 On April 15, over 1,500 of these longshoremen abandoned the Knights of Labor,4 and the Boston Longshoremen's Provident Union5 and joined the International Longshoremen's Association.6 Within a few months most of the remaining longshoremen followed suit. In February, 1913, the International Longshoremen's Association in Boston signed its first contract with the longshoremen's employers. This contract specified that only members of the International Longshoremen's Association would be employed on the Boston docks.7 The International Longshoremen's Association was thus firmly established as the sole collective bargaining representative of Boston longshoremen.

This paper will show that the longshoremen's experience in this strike led them to abandon the Knights of Labor and move en masse to the International Longshoremen's Association. The strategy followed by the longshoremen in the strike coupled with lack of support from their brother Knights in District Assembly 30 helps explain the strike's failure. Both the strategy chosen, and the lack of support from their brother Knights followed from the Knights' long-standing commitment to peaceful labor management cooperation - a commitment that characterized the industrial relations philosophy of Terrence Powderly who led the Knights in its period of greatest national importance.

In December 1911, the Longshoremen's Trade Council proposed to the Steamship Agents' and Stevedores' Conference an increase in the hourly wage from 30 cents to 40 cents for day work, and from 40 cents to 50 cents for night work.8 This included the provision that the new rate schedule would include much of the work that long had been done under higher special schedules.9 In support of their proposal, the longshoremen argued that the rate of pay for day work had been unchanged since 1882,10 and that increases in the cost of living had made it difficult for them to support their families on their average earnings.11They claimed that wages were higher in many other ports, and that although Boston wages were identical to New York wages, it was cheaper to handle cargo in Boston because gangs were smaller.12 This demand for higher wages appeared to be the only issue with which the longshoremen confronted their employers.

The employers disputed the claim that wages had not been increased since 1882. They responded that wages for many cargoes had been increased, and that the wage for night work was raised in 1909.13 They denied the charge that Boston wages were lower than in many other ports.14 They did admit that longshore gangs were larger in New York, but claimed that New York gangs did more work, so that cargo handling costs were the same in both ports. John Thomas, an employer spokesman, and an agent for five steamship lines operating in Boston, claimed that wages were higher in Boston than in any other port on the Atlantic coast except New York. …