The Knights of Labor

The Old Knights
Photograph taken July 7, 1886


The Knights of Labor were founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Uriah Stevens and six other taylors in 1869. They began initially as a secret society structured after Free Masonry with the goal of promoting the organization of working people. The Knights rose to national prominence in the 1880's under the leadership of Terence V. Powerly, "General Master Workman" of the Knights of Labor for a period of 14 years which saw the end of secrecy in 1881 and the growth of the labor union from 10,000 workers to over a million by 1886.

Photo and data from: KoL website

American Federation of Labor

Samuel Taylor Barnes Gompers (January 27, 1850 - December 13, 1924)
American Federation of Labor Founder


Samuel Taylor Barnes Gompers was an American labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and held the position as president of the organization for all but one year from 1886 until his death in 1924. He promoted harmony among the different craft unions that comprised the AFL, and opposed industrial unionism. Focused on higher wages and job security, he fought against both socialism and the Socialist Party.


The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1886 by Samuel Gompers as a reorganization of its predecessor, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. Gompers was the president of the AFL until his death in 1924.


The AFL was left as the only major national union body after the demise of the Knights of Labor in the 1890s. It subsequently brought in a number of unions formed on industrial union lines, including the United Mine Workers, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the United Brewery Workers. Even so, the craft unions within the AFL maintained power within the Federation.


The AFL together with its offspring, the AFL-CIO have comprised the longest lasting and most influential labor federation in the United States.

United Mine Workers of America

Courtesy of the Mahn Center,
Alden Library, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio


The UMWA was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1890 by the merger of Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No. 135 and the National Progressive Union of Miners and Mine Laborers. The constitution adopted by the delegates to the first UMWA convention barred discrimination based on race, religion or national origin. The UMWA founding fathers clearly recognized the destructive power of discrimination at a time when racism and ethnic discrimination were accepted facts in some parts of American culture. The delegates also called for miners to obtain a fair share of the wealth they created "fully compatible with the dangers of our calling.". The delegates pledged "to use all honorable means to maintain peace between ourselves and employers; adjusting all differences, as far as possible, by arbitration and conciliation, that strikes may become unnecessary."

Source: UMWA Website

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones

Mother Jones
Mary Harris Jones (1830 - 1930)

"If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout "Freedom for the working class!"

Photos: Library of Congress


Mary Harris Jones "The Miners' Angel"


Mary Harris Jones (May 1, 1830 — November 30, 1930),

better known as Mother Jones, was a prominent American labor and community organizer, a Wobbly, and a Socialist. She was born Mary Harris, the daughter of a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, on the northside of Cork city, Ireland

Two major turning points in her career were, first, the deaths of her husband and four children during a yellow fever epidemic in Tennessee in 1867, and secondly, the loss of her property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Forced to support herself, she became involved in the labor movement and joined the Knights of Labor, a predecessor to the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W. or "Wobblies"), which she helped found in 1905.

Active as an organizer and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was particularly involved with the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organizer, she gained prominence for organizing the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf.

She became known as "the most dangerous woman in America", a phrase coined by a West Virginia District Attorney named Reese Blizzard in 1902, when she was arrested for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "She crooks her finger-twenty thousand contented men lay down."

In 1903 Jones organized children working in mills and mines in the "Children's Crusade", a march from Kensington, Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay, New York, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding "We want time to play!" and "We want to go to school!" Though the President refused to meet with the marchers, the incident brought the issue of child labor to the forefront of the public agenda.

In 1913, during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in West Virginia, Mother Jones was charged and kept under house arrest in the nearby town of Pratt and subsequently convicted with other union organizers of conspiring to commit murder, after organizing another children's march. Her arrest raised an uproar and she was soon released from prison, after which the United States Senate ordered an investigation into the conditions in the local coal mines.

A few months later she was in Colorado, helping to organize the coal miners there. Once again she was arrested, served some time in prison, and was escorted from the State in the months leading up to the Ludlow Massacre. After the massacre she was invited to Standard Oil's headquarters at 26 Broadway to meet face-to-face with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a meeting that prompted Rockefeller to visit the Colorado mines and introduce long-sought reforms.

During her lifetime, Mother Jones was known to working folk as "The Miners' Angel". Persevering in her efforts despite the many tragic events she witnessed, her fierce determination was vividly expressed in her famous declaration, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." When she was denounced on the Senate floor as the "grandmother of all agitators", she replied in typical fashion, "I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators."

Source: wikipedia

John L. Lewis

I have pleaded your case from the pulpit and from the public platform--not in the quavering tones of a feeble mendicant asking alms, but in the thundering voice of the captain of a mighty host, demanding the rights to which free men are entitled."

Photos: UMWA


John L. Lewis


John L. Lewis was president of the UMWA from 1920-1960. He was a giant among American leaders in the first half of the twentieth century, regularly advising presidents and challenging America's corporate leaders. His work to organize the country's industrial workers through the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s helped raise living standards for millions of American families. In the first year of the CIO, nearly four million workers joined labor organizations and wages were raised by over a billion dollars. Lewis sent hundreds of UMWA organizers to help create some of the nation's leading labor unions, including the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and many other important labor organizations that continue to speak in behalf of America's workers.

Perhaps Lewis' greatest legacy was the creation of the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund in a contract with the federal government, signed in the White House with President Truman in attendance. The UMWA Fund would change permanently health care delivery in the coal fields of the nation. The UMWA Fund built eight hospitals in Appalachia and established numerous clinics. In 1964, Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian decoration, by President Lyndon Johnson. He remained Chairman of the UMWA Fund until his death in 1969.

Source: UMWA
United Mine Workers of America


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