Workers and Utopia: A Study of Ideological Conflict in the American Labor Movement, 1865-1900

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Defeat of Reformism, 1887-1896

I

THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR, Gompers remarked in the spring of 1887, "are just [as] great enemies of Trades Unions as any employers can be, only much more vindictive. I tell you that they will give us no quarter and I would give them their own medicine in return. It is no use trying to placate them or even to be friendly."1 At first glance Gompers' belligerent and uncompromising attitude seemed to be based largely on wishful thinking rather than facts, for the Knights, with a membership more than triple that of the trade unions, appeared to be in firm control of the field. With its roots firmly embedded in the American past, the Order's apparent superiority over the unions seemed self-evident to many observers.

Yet beneath an imposing façade lay certain elements of weakness that in the final analysis were to prove fatal to the Knights in its struggle with the unions. Numerically the Order was paramount, but mere numbers is not always a reliable criterion of relative strength. The instability of the Knights' membership was notorious. Organized for reform rather than collective bargaining, mixed local and district assemblies often found the turnover of members a highly disruptive factor. The lack of institutional ties binding the worker to his assembly further contributed to this instability. Thus under the emotional enthusiasm aroused by the "Great Upheaval," the Knights' membership increased sevenfold between 1885 and 1886; but the subsidence of this fervor produced a consequent decline. A heterogeneous organization, the Knights did not possess a high degree of discipline, and its trade element, sympathizing with the union cause, proved to be a source of weakness instead of strength. Troubled by internal rivalries and petty jealousies, the Order was unable to use its vast resources in an efficient manner.

The trade unions, on the other hand, though numerically weaker, constituted a much more cohesive and homogeneous group. Composed

____________________
1
Gompers to P. J. McGuire, April 22, 1887, SGLB.

-119-

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