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

By Gerald N. Grob | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Widening the Gulf Between Reformers and Trade Unionists in the Knights of Labor

I

THE CONFLICT WITHIN the Knights of Labor over strike and co-operative legislation reflected the fundamental differences between a leadership dedicated to reform and a powerful trade minority striving for a higher standard of living. These differences were sometimes resolved through compromise; more often they remained smoldering beneath an apparently calm exterior. Between 1880 and 1885 the task of reconstructing a labor movement shattered by the depression of the 1870's was paramount, and few members were deeply troubled by the ideological contradictions that divided their organization.

A policy of drift that evaded fundamental issues, however, could not be continued indefinitely. The rise of the Knights to national importance only emphasized the need for real direction and purpose. Such a situation was laden with opportunity. If the Knights succeeded in organizing and rallying workingmen around a common program, the working class would at last be able to bring to bear the latent power its millions of members represented. But if there was opportunity in such a situation, there was also danger. The assertion of an overly strong hand could easily cause a serious rift and alienate those members who found themselves in disagreement with official policy.

The task facing the leaders of the Knights, then, was to reconcile somehow their reform program with the ever-increasing insistence of the rank and file on immediate rather than future amelioration of their condition. Powderly and other officials, however, chose instead to continue their efforts at reforming society, thus ignoring the most pressing necessities of their constituents. In itself, such a policy Would not have alienated the trade element in the Knights. But when Powderly and other officials di-

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