The 1880s witnessed a new wave of labor organizing. At its center stood the Knights of Labor. The Knights were the first group to try to organize unskilled workers as well as skilled, women alongside men, and blacks as well as whites (although even the Knights excluded the despised Asian immigrants on the West Coast). The group reached a peak membership of nearly 800,000 in 1886 and involved millions of workers in strikes, boycotts, political action, and educational and social activities.

Ruins of the Pittsburgh Round House, a photograph published in the July 1895 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, shows the widespread destruction of property during the Great Railroad Strike of July 1877.

An engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 16, 1886, shows black delegate Frank J. Farrell introducing Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor, at the labor organization’s national convention in Richmond, Virginia. The Knights were among the few nineteenth-century labor groups to recruit black members.

Caught between nostalgia for the era of small production and acknowledgment of the factory’s triumph, labor reformers of the Gilded Age put forward a wide array of programs, from the eight-hour day to public employment in hard times, currency reform, anarchism, socialism, and the creation of a vaguely defined “cooperative commonwealth.” All these ideas arose from the conviction that the social conditions of the 1880s needed drastic change. Americans, declared Terence V. Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor, were not “the free people that we imagine we are.”

The labor movement launched a sustained assault on the understanding of freedom grounded in Social Darwinism and liberty of contract. Because of unrestrained economic growth and political corruption, the Knights charged, ordinary Americans had lost control of their economic livelihoods and their own government. Reaching back across the divide of the Civil War, labor defined employers as a new “slave power.” Concentrated capital, warned George E. McNeill, a shoemaker and factory worker who became one of the movement’s most eloquent writers, had become “a greater power than that of the state.” “Extremes of wealth and poverty,” he warned, threatened the very existence of democratic government. The remedy was to “engraft republican principles into our industrial system” by guaranteeing a basic set of economic rights for all Americans.

Labor raised the question whether meaningful freedom could exist in a situation of extreme economic inequality. On July 4, 1886, the Federated Trades of the Pacific Coast rewrote the Declaration of Independence. Workers, the new Declaration claimed, had been subjected not to oppressive government but to “the unjust domination of a special class.” It went on to list among mankind’s inalienable rights, “Life and the means of living, Liberty and the conditions essential to liberty.”

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