Conflict: Reform vs. Trade Unionism, 1878-1886
THE YEAR 1886 was destined to be a crucial one in the history of the American labor movement. The eight-hour crusade, the numerous strikes, the Haymarket bomb, the entrance of workingmen into the political arena at the state and national levels, and the mushroom growth of labor organizations all contributed to the agitation and excitement of the year. Yet the importance of these events was overshadowed by a development that was to have such far-reaching implications that it would determine the future of the labor movement for the succeeding half century. That development was the declaration of war by the trade unions against the reform Unionism of the Knights of Labor.
The rift between the unions and the Knights was not an unexpected nor a precipitous episode. The earlier experiences of the National Labor Union had demonstrated that ante-bellum reformism and trade unionism could not always work together toward a common goal in peace and harmony. The destructive impact of the depression of the 1870's upon labor organizations momentarily allayed the mutual antipathy of trade unionists and labor reformers. The rise of the Knights of Labor and the rebirth of the trade unions after 1878, however, marked the resumption of the conflict for control of the labor movement.
The struggle between the Knights and the other unions represented a clash of two fundamentally opposing ideologies. The Knights of Labor, on the one hand, grew out of the reform and humanitarian movements of ante-bellum, America, and was the direct descendent, through the National Labor Union, of the labor reform tradition of the Jacksonian era. Banking on the leveling influence of technological change, its leaders sought to organize the entire producing class into a single irresistible coalition that would work toward the abolition of the wage system and the establishment of a new society. "It is necessary that we recognize the vast and essential difference between our Order and Trades' Unions," the General Executive Board told the General Assembly in 1884. "This essential difference is that our Order contemplates a radical change in the