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

By Kim Voss | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3 The Second Moment of Working-Class Formation: The Knights of Labor

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the American, English, and French labor movements were remade. In each country, labor activists began to challenge restrictionist union practices and to question craftsmen's exclusionary beliefs. In the process they invented new organizing strategies and conceived of new inclusive ideologies.

In this chapter I examine the new strategies and ideologies promoted by the Knights of Labor as they rebuilt the American labor movement. These innovations and their effects are then assessed comparatively.


History and Ideology of the Knights of Labor

Between the journeymen's revolts of the 1830s and the Civil War, few efforts were made in the United States to extend labor organization beyond the ranks of skilled craft workers. As we have seen, the experiential distance between craft and craftless workers was simply too great. Even craft workers had difficulty maintaining their unions in those years, and thus for the American labor movement the period between the late 1830s and the late 1860s was one of retrenchment, not experimentation. Only in the years following the Civil War did things begin to change. Craft workers took advantage of the postwar boom to revive their local unions, and in a few trades they successfully built

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