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Workers' United: The Knights of Labor

We live in a society that is the direct result of the work and sacrifices of previous generations. It is often difficult for 21st-century students to understand that there was a time in the not too distant past when workers had little legal recourse against abusive employers. In fact, the law was on the side of the often unscrupulous industrialist. Few realize that minimum wage laws, the 8-hour workday (or 40-hour week), safe work environments, and the prohibition of child labor are benefits we enjoy because of the efforts of the American labor movement.

Through exploration of the preamble of the constitution for the Knights of Labor and of the preface and other segments of Terence Powderly’s book Thirty Years of Labor, students can glimpse the mind behind the Knights of Labor. This unit allows students to study the goals and objectives of America’s largest union in the late 19th century and consider its impact on modern society.


19th century

20th century



Government and civics


Big Ideas

US History

Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?


  • Long-term continuities and discontinuities in the structures of United States society provide vital contributions to contemporary issues. Belief systems and religion, commerce and industry, innovations, settlement patterns, social organization, transportation and trade, and equality are examples continuity and change.

  • Conflict and cooperation among social groups, organizations, and nation-states are critical to comprehending society in the United States. Domestic instability, ethnic and racial relations, labor relation, immigration, and wars and revolutions are examples of social disagreement and collaboration.


  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in United States history.

  • Apply the theme of continuity and change in United States history and relate the benefits and drawbacks of your example.

  • Summarize how conflict and compromise in United States history impact contemporary society.

Background Material for Teacher

Workers’ desire to organize is nearly as old as the country itself and has played an important role in the nation’s history. Throughout America’s development, disagreements over wages and workers’ rights raised the question of the legality of collective bargaining. In 1806 Philadelphia shoemakers attempted to set their own wages and were found guilty of conspiracy in Commonwealth v. Pullis; it was not until 1842, in Commonwealth v. Hunt, that a court ruled in support of the legality of unions, provided they used legal means to further legal ends. Even after Hunt, unions had little impact on the condition and livelihood of their memberships.

This was the situation for the Garment Cutters Association of Philadelphia in the1860s. Formed in 1862, the organization dissolved in 1869. Out of the Garment Cutters’ failure, however, was born the first national industrial union in the United States when nine tailors from Philadelphia set out to create their own union—the Nobel and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. When the organization began, it resembled a secretive fraternal order with elaborate rituals more than it did a modern labor union, but it was soon transformed under Terence V. Powderly, the mayor of Scranton, who assumed leadership of the organization in 1879.

Under Powderly, the union grew from a collection of small local assemblies into the most prominent national union of the latter part of the 19th century, with over 700,000 members at its height. Powderly shortened the name to the Knights of Labor, reduced the organization’s secrecy and restrictions, and admitted members from both skilled and unskilled professions as well as women, immigrants, and African Americans from all industries. Under Powderly’s leadership, coal miners, printers, tailors, farmers, and individuals from dozens of occupations all united to better the social and economic conditions of the working class. Powderly and national leaders focused on arbitration, education, boycotts, and legislation as means for change.

Many local assemblies, however, resorted to strikes. In 1886, the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, which began as a peaceful demonstration, turned deadly after an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd. Bad publicity and blame for the event, which led to internal strife over the use of strikes, as well as poor organization led to the decline the Knights of Labor, which unraveled by the 1890s. Although the Knights of Labor did not persist into the 20th century, their impact and agenda directly impacted modern society.

End of Unit Assessment

To complete the unit, have students research and write a five-paragraph essay on change over time focused on one of these topics:  the Department of Labor, immigrant workers, or the eight-hour workday. The paper should make an argument as to whether the activities of the Knights of Labor have impacted modern society.


Plans in this Unit

Principles of the Knights of Labor

The Legacy of the Knights of Labor

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content

8.1.U A & C

8.3.U B-D

5.3.C B

PA Core Standards

CC.8.5.11-12.E  CC.8.5.11-12.A   CC.8.6.11-12.A

About the Author

This unit plan was written by Karalyn McGrorty Derstine. She teaches US history at Gwynedd Mercy Academy in Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania and was the 2014 Beneficial National History Day Fellow at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.



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