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How the Knights of Labor fought nativism

As attacks on immigration rise, how does the labour movement respond with solidarity? Steven Parfitt looks back at the history of the Knights of Labor

5 to 6 minute read

Black-and-white image of women activists from the Knights of Labor

The year is 1880. The United States is just out of a long slump caused by a financial crisis, the Panic of ’73. Much of the rest of the world is still in it. Unemployment is high. Migration is easy, with few border controls and cheap, mass travel by steamship. In the decade to come, immigration to the United States will reach an average of 500,000 people per year.

We can guess what happens next. The 1880s are a golden age for the nativist. Chinese immigrants are excluded by law in 1882. Nativist organisations like the American Protective Association want to widen the ban to include Catholics, Jews, and other supposed ‘undesirables’. The American labour movement seems to agree. Terence Powderly, General Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, the great working-class organisation of the decade, invokes the ‘law of self-preservation’. By this he means that American workers – native-born, naturalised or newly-arrived – must convince foreigners not to come to the United States, because they will lower wages, swamp existing unions, and be used by employers as strikebreakers.

But Powderly and the Knights had more than just self-preservation on their mind. They never called for strict limits on the number of immigrants, except for Chinese workers – like other labour movements of the time, they held anti-Asian racist views. They wanted only a ban on contract labour, by which they meant workers brought in from abroad already under contract to an employer, often to break a strike or a closed shop or replace workers locked out. They successfully lobbied Congress to end contract labour in 1885. They also opened their doors to new immigrants. Knights even decided to organise them before they left for the United States.

Immigration and Solidarity

The logic was simple. Knights believed that American wages and conditions were generally higher than anywhere else. They believed they were under threat from two sources: immigrants lowering wages, and competition with lower-wage foreign manufacturers. (Points that would be highly disputed today.) Yet they saw large-scale restrictions on immigration as impossible, and in many cases as undesirable. The Knights strove to live up to an idea of solidarity they called Universal Brotherhood. It included, as their founder Uriah Stephens put it, ‘an organization that will cover the globe,’ including ‘men and women of every craft, creed and color’. It would ‘make idleness a crime, render wars impossible, and obliterate national lines’.

Universal Brotherhood could not be built with walls. If wages were higher here, and lower there, mass immigration would continue anyway. The only way to protect gains at home was to extend them abroad. Charles Lichtman, General Secretary of the Knights, connected the dots in 1888. Once the Knights extended their operations abroad, he wrote, ‘the inequality of wages will disappear, not by levelling our wages down but by levelling their wages up’.

Behind this logic was a certain understanding of the forces that encouraged immigration. Unlike the nativists, Knights, many of them first- or second-generation Americans, did not blame immigrants forced by poverty and tyranny to seek a better life elsewhere. But they did imply that immigration usually rested on a profoundly unfree choice. Most immigrants moved because they had to, not because they wanted to. The global expansion of capitalism in the nineteenth century, driven by industrial growth and imperial conquest, wreaked havoc on countries inside and outside the industrial core. Millions of men and women fled or were forced from the land to the cities, and from the lower-wage countries to the higher.

If the Knights could somehow help those millions to improve conditions at home, they would not need to leave. Unlike the nativists, they worried less about immigration law than the exploitation that forced most people to move in the first place.

The Knights didn’t only think those thoughts. They put them into practice. Even as Powderly and Lichtman explained their logic, the Knights extended to four continents. Aside from Canada and the United States, their assemblies or branches appeared in Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Italy, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One of their branches, Local Assembly 300, Window-Glass Workers of America, even organised a Universal Federation of workers in their trade across North America and Europe. Their secretary explained their thinking: ‘the question of foreign competition must be solved either by lower wages at home, or advanced wages and better organization abroad’. They chose the latter. 

Our Choice

There is much to dislike about the Knights, their racism towards Chinese workers at the top of the list. But their desire to respond to mass immigration with international solidarity, not walls, is something we can learn from now. They did not wait for a congenial government to do it for them. Working people in the nineteenth century had no illusions on that score. If we want to do something now, we should go ahead and do it, in the trade unions and the other social movements to which we already belong.

We must push our trade unions to support and work more closely with their counterparts elsewhere. In this globalised world, our success is tied to theirs. Nor should we leave cross-border ties to union bureaucrats and general secretaries, as they usually are at present, but reach out to ordinary members elsewhere in jobs like ours. Immigrant members in our unions can speed their growth, just as they did for the Knights of Labor. They grew so far so fast thanks to connections already made between immigrants in the United States and their home country, which the movement could then exploit. Zoom and social media can short-circuit bonds between countries in ways the Knights could only dream of.

Progress will be slow, but necessary if we do not want to drown in a nativist sea. Climate change will force many millions of people on the move. Soon we will all have to choose between international solidarity and some version of Children of Men. Across the distance of 150 years, the Knights of Labor still point one way towards building the first, and to avoiding the second.

Steven Parfitt is a UK-based teacher and historian of working-class movements

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