Unions and the Labor Movement

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Compare and contrast the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor.

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The Knights of Labor, in trying to organize both skilled and unskilled workers, was more radical than the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Unfortunately for the Knights, this reputation for radicalism ultimately proved to be their undoing. On a practical level, it became difficult, if not impossible, to organize unskilled...

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The Knights of Labor, in trying to organize both skilled and unskilled workers, was more radical than the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Unfortunately for the Knights, this reputation for radicalism ultimately proved to be their undoing. On a practical level, it became difficult, if not impossible, to organize unskilled workers. This was mainly because employers could easily replace such workers in the event of a strike.

The Knights were also much less restrictive than other unions in their membership, throwing their doors open to women and people of color. The downside of such an approach was that it attracted a good many political extremists into the union's ranks—professional agitators who wanted to use labor unions as a vehicle for radical, violent change.

It was a small group of such agitators that started the notorious Haymarket Square riots in Chicago in 1886, which left eleven people dead after a bomb was thrown. In the aftermath of the riots, membership of the Knights of Labor plummeted as the organization became indelibly associated in the popular mind with anarchy and violence.

The AFL sought to learn from the Knights of Labor's mistakes. It restricted its membership to skilled workers only. This gave them greater leverage over employers, who couldn't easily replace skilled labor in the event of a strike. The AFL sought to work within the existing system, rather than overthrow it altogether, as more radical members of the Knights of Labor demanded. The main focus of the AFL's leadership was on bread-and-butter issues such as improving wages and conditions rather than wholesale political and social reform.

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The Knights of Labor had a more inclusive membership policy than the AFL. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, welcomed all "producers," including skilled and unskilled workers and women, while the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886, welcomed only white, skilled workers. 

The Knights of Labor was also far more radical than the AFL, as the Knights of Labor wanted to replace the American capitalist system with a cooperative system that allowed workers to share in the fruits of their profits. In addition, the Knights of Labor pushed for other reforms, including a graduated income tax and an eight-hour workday. The AFL, on the other hand, was a loosely collected group of labor unions that was far less radical. The AFL pushed for collective bargaining and better pay instead of calling for an upheaval of capitalism. While the AFL often relied on strikes as a method of achieving its goals (in addition to political participation), the Knights of Labor preferred to rely on political participation and used strikes as a last resort. 

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The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor were two major labor unions in the late 1800s. Both unions formed to represent workers. Workers had been treated poorly for many years. With the rise of factories, individual workers found it virtually impossible to improve working conditions, to increase pay, and to shorten the length of the workday. Only if workers acted collectively did they have a better chance of improving their overall working situation. Both of these unions tried to accomplish these goals for the workers they represented. They also both used the strike as a way to accomplish their goals.

The Knight of Labor had several goals. The Knights of Labor was a union that represented skilled workers and unskilled workers. They wanted an eight-hour workday. They worked for equal pay for women. They also supported using arbitration to settle disputes and supported ending the practice of using child labor. The Knights of Labor had many strikes. Unfortunately, some of these strikes had violence associated with them. This gave a general impression that unions were connected to anarchists and revolutionaries. While the Knights of Labor had some success, the events at the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886 led to their downfall. Violence and death occurred as a result of the riot. The Knights of Labor also focused on improving social conditions such as equal pay for women. This concept was considered quite extreme for this time period.

The American Federation of Labor also strived to help workers. The American Federation of Labor was a union for skilled workers. This union focused on the basic issues affecting workers. This union wanted unions to be recognized by businesses as the agent that represented the workers in their companies. They wanted to use collective bargaining to settle contracts. They support the closed shop, which meant a company could hire only union members. They also wanted an eight-hour day. The American Federation of Labor shied away from dealing with major social issues.

Both unions tried to help workers improve their working conditions.

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