The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century

By Kim Voss | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6 Organizing Together, Organizing Apart

Industrial unionism is socialism with its working clothes on.

-- William Haywood

Not all scholars or labor activists would go as far as "Big Bill" Haywood in their claims about industrial unions, but most would agree that unions that unite skilled and less-skilled workers in the same local usually strengthen members' sense of working-class solidarity and that locals restricted to a single occupation or skill level tend to reinforce sectional identities. For less-skilled workers, industrial forms of association also offer clear advantages because they provide greater negotiating strength and collective resources than sectional associations. And from the vantage point of this book, industrial forms of organization are one clear marker of alliances across the skill divide.1.

In this chapter I examine the organizing strategies adopted by Knights assemblies that included less-skilled workers. I distinguish two such strategies: a quasi-industrial strategy of offering membership to both skilled and less-skilled workers, and a sectional strategy of organizing unskilled and semiskilled workers but not craft workers. I ask whether there are systematic differences in the conditions that encouraged one organizing strategy rather than the other.

One purpose of pursuing this question is to clarify the effects of existing craft organization on the unionization of less-skilled workers

____________________
1.
Melding skilled and less-skilled workers together in a local assembly was by no means the only important kind of alliance that occurred among workers in the Knights. When Trenton potters raised money after employers locked out less-skilled rubber workers, and when skilled hat finishers in Orange struck in support of the organizational efforts of semiskilled, female hat trimmers, both were allying with less-skilled workers. But references to such events are fleeting and scattered, largely because few labor newspapers from these years survive.

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