Unions and the Labor Movement

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What are the similarities between the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor?

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Both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Knights of Labor (KOL) were influential in their respective sectors. AFL defended the rights of skilled workers and had more 4 million members by 1920. On the other hand, KOL defended the rights of both skilled and unskilled workers and had...

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Both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Knights of Labor (KOL) were influential in their respective sectors. AFL defended the rights of skilled workers and had more 4 million members by 1920. On the other hand, KOL defended the rights of both skilled and unskilled workers and had 700,000 members by 1886.

Both organizations were also led by strong leaders. Uriah Stephens was the first grand master of KOL and served between 1869 and 1878. Under his leadership, he moulded KOL into a national organization. He believed in secrecy and stops politicians from joining the movement since they could reveal those secrets. Although Uriah's tactics were subject to controversy, the secrecy gave KOL an emotional appeal and encouraged others to join. Samuel Gompers helped form the AFL in 1886 and served as the president until 1924. Like his KOL counterpart, Gompers kept the AFL free from any political interference. He also pushed for trade unionism as a better way to address the rights of workers—he wanted skilled employees to be paid fair wages by the hour.

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Both the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, and the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1881, aimed to improve working conditions. Both unions sought to better the safety of industrial workplaces and to shorten the work day, which was largely unregulated. At times, both unions used collective bargaining with employers to achieve gains for workers; however, the AFL was, in its early days, much more willing to use strikes. Both unions were similar in that they were involved in strikes and events that tarnished their image. The Knights of Labor were largely blamed for the Haymarket Square riot of 1886 in Chicago, which in part led to their demise. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, part of the AFL, was involved in the 1892 Homestead Strike (though the federal AFL was not involved)—a strike that the union lost. However, the unions were significantly different, in that the Knights of Labor welcomed almost all workers, including African Americans and women, while the AFL was restricted to skilled workers, mostly men and whites.

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While there were some similarities between the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the differences between them were greater and are more often discussed.  The Knights of Labor were by far more radical than the AFL.  The Knights were also more inclusive and less elitist.  These differences were significant and are discussed more than the similarities between the unions.  What were those similarities?

Fundamentally, both unions were interested in making life better for workers.  Of course, they did not want to help the same workers or to help them in the same ways.  Even so, their basic goal was to make working conditions, and life in general, better for workers.

Both unions were willing to use strikes as a tactic.  Although they were more radical in general, the Knights were actually less interested in using this tactic because they had less power than the AFL did.  However, both unions felt that the strike was a tool that they could use to help get what they wanted.

Both unions wanted to use electoral politics as a tactic.  This does not mean that they would have supported the same candidates.  It does mean that they both felt that they should use the power of workers’ votes to help achieve their goals.

Finally, both unions were despised by those in power.  The elites of the United States probably disliked the Knights more because they were more radical, but they did not approve of the AFL either.  The government and the owners of the company were just as opposed to the idea of AFL organization of the workforce as to the idea of organization by the Knights.

So, while the differences between these two unions were significant and important, there were some similarities.  

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