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

By Kim Voss | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5 The Foundations of Solidarity

At the end of the nineteenth century when rapid industrialization was narrowing many of the differences between skilled and less- skilled workers, the Knights of Labor provided an obvious organizational vehicle for uniting workers around their new, common interests. At the same time, craft identities remained strong, even among the skilled workers who joined the Knights. The question pursued in this chapter is: What was the relationship between existing craft organization and the recruitment of less-skilled workers into the Knights of Labor?

This is an important question for two reasons. First, it is critical for our understanding of the rise and demise of the Knights. As demonstrated in the Introduction, creating a true class-based social movement in this period entailed an alliance between the skilled, unionized heirs to the journeymen's revolts of the 1830s and the growing number of less-skilled factory workers. It may be that the Knights failed because the kinds of links that were forged in working-class movements elsewhere were not forged in the Order. For example, it may be that craft workers in the United States were particularly attached to sectional interests ("job conscious" Selig Perlman called it) and thus that they were more likely than craftsmen elsewhere to ignore or actively suppress the unionization of their less-skilled colleagues. If so, it would suggest that the Order of the Knights of Labor, from the beginning, was built on a shaky foundation.

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