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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Uriah S. Stephens
(Aug. 3, 1821–Feb. 13, 1882)

(11 April 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 23, 11 April 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Had it not been for the Panic of 1837, it is quite possible that Uriah S. Stephens would have completed his training for the ministry. As it was, he became a tailor instead; and, through being a tailor, a worker, he became a leader of American trade unionism, the founder of the Knights of Labor.

Like a good many trade unionists of his day, Stephens concerned himself with the general problems of working class welfare in addition to those of simple trade union interest. The trade union to Stephens was to be a lever for the execution of ideas which aimed at the revision of the social system along semi-socialistic lines. In fact, it has been claimed that Stephens was partly influenced by Marx, though there is no evidence to support the claim, either in facts or the specific nature of his ideas.

Dissatisfied with narrow craft organization, Stephens aimed at a brotherhood of all wage earners that would include all sexes, all creeds and all colors. This latter was of especial importance. Abolitionist sentiment was strong among the northern workers, but few unions were willing to accept Negroes as members – as is the case with many trade unions to this day.

Secrecy a Cardinal Principle

Building on the basis of the Garment Cutter’s Association of Philadelphia which he had helped organize in 1862, Stephens moved towards the construction of a labor organization modelled according to his aims. In 1869, the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was formally founded.

Composed of only a few unions at its beginning, limited to the east, the Knights gradually extended over the continent, to the point where, the most powerful labor organization of its day, it numbered ¾ million members in 1886.

Secret ritual governed the activities of the organization at its inception. Names were never referred to publicly. Stephens for example signed his articles with five stars, and was so known in the organization. (The Knights were not the only labor organization which went in for secrecy during the 70’s. Workers turned to secrecy as a reaction to the drive of the bosses against all unions, marked by lockouts, disruption of unions and various kinds of discrimination against union men.

When the first national assembly of the Knights met in 1878, Stephens was still sufficiently powerful in the organization to write the principle of secrecy into the preamble.

“Open and public association having failed after a struggle of centuries to advance or protect the interest of labor,” read the preamble, “We have lawfully constituted this assembly,” and “in using this power of organized effort and cooperation, we but imitate the example of capital heretofore set in numberless instances.” However, “We mean no conflict with legitimate enterprise, no antagonism to necessary capital.” Those evils of the social order which were beyond correction by ordinary trade union effort were to be corrected by education and legislation, from which a cooperative commonwealth would eventually emerge.

Anti-Secrecy Faction Wins

Though Stephens had carried the day on secrecy at the first national assembly, the reaction against it mounted constantly. First, the Catholics, who made up a powerful section of the organized workers in the United States opposed secrecy as being in conflict with their religion. Second, the defeat of the railroad strikes of 1877 and the crushing of the Molly Maguires after the great mine strike actions of the middle 70’s turned the tide sharply against secrecy. A good many unionists feared they would be accused of criminal activities if they continued their secret organization.

In 1879, Stephens resigned as Grand Master Workman. He was succeeded to the leadership of the Knights by Terrence Powderly who as leader of the Catholic faction had been challenging Stephen’s leadership. The oath and secrecy were expunged from the principles of the Knights. A new preamble was written. This new preamble pointed to the necessity of checking wealth, which, unchecked, would lead to the pauperization of the working class.

Under Powderly, the Knights reached its zenith of influence. But at the very time that it reached its peak in membership numbers, it was already on the downgrade. Lack of militancy in the conduct of strikes, its failure to lead strikes when necessary, cut into the influence of the Knights. Workers turning to militant action, joined other and newer bodies. Then, with the organization of the American Federation of Labor, the Knights had to contend with a young and vigorous rival, and on a national scale.

Stephens completed his life almost entirely separated from the trade union movement. A pioneer in organizing American labor, the initiator of new methods of organization, he was nevertheless not the kind to catch the imagination as Powderly did after him. He didn’t flash across the country with the brilliance of his oratory or his writing. But in the creation of the Knights of Labor and the introduction of a new phase in labor organization, he did leave behind him an important record – written across a large page of American labor history.

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Last updated: 17 January 2016