Today in Labor History August 3

Uriah Stephens & the Knights of Labor

Today in Labor History August 3, 1821: Uriah Stephens (1821-1882) was born in Cape May, New Jersey. He founded the Knights of Labor, one of the first successful nationwide unions. Stephens worked as a tailor in Philadelphia. In 1869, after the demise of the Garment Cutters’ Union, he met with some former members to create the “Noble and Holy Order of Knights of Labor.” It was to be a “brotherhood of toil,” open to every laborer, mechanic, and artisan, regardless of country, creed, or color. 

The K of L was originally open to all working people and charged no dues. However, as the organization grew, so did its xenophobia. They supported the Chinese Exclusion Act. Secrecy was considered essential during its infancy, considering all the acts of violence against workers, particularly during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which killed 100 workers. The K of L gave lectures on the evils of wage slavery, monopoly, and over-accumulation of wealth.

Growth of the K of L

The union expanded quickly, becoming the most powerful labor organization of its day. By 1879, there were 23 district assemblies and 1,300 local assemblies. However, as the K of L grew, Stephens increasingly found himself at odds with rank-and-file members. In particular, they disliked his opposition to strikes. Additionally, the backlash against unions following the Haymarket affair, and the Panic of 1893, caused K of L membership to decline. The organization became defunct in 1949. 

K of L Influence on Folk Music and IWW

The Knights of Labor contributed significantly to the tradition of labor protest songs in America. They often included music in their meetings. The song “Hold the Fort” is a Knights of Labor revision of the hymn by the same name. It was the most popular labor song in America prior to Ralph Chaplin‘s IWW anthem “Solidarity Forever.” 


Today in Labor History August 3, 1886: Labor activist and song writer Florence Reece was born. She participated in Harlan County, Kentucky coal strikes. And she penned the famous labor song, “Which Side Are You On?” She wrote the song in 1931 on an old wall calendar while Sheriff J.H. Blair was searching for her husband and ransacking her home. Blair had led his gang of thugs on a violent rampage, beating and murdering union leaders.

They say in Harlan Co.
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a Union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?


Today in Labor History August 3, 1907: Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis fined Rockefeller’s Standard Oil of Indiana a record $29.4 million for illegal rebating to freight carriers. Neither Rockefeller, nor Standard Oil, paid a cent. The courts reversed both the conviction and fine on appeal. On this same date, exactly 14 years later, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the eight Chicago Black Sox from playing Major League Baseball, thus ruining their careers. Even worse, a Chicago court had acquitted them the day before. Yet New York gangster, Arnold Rothstein, who orchestrated the Black Sox scandal, was not punished.

The biggest loser in the Black Sox case was probably Shoeless Joe Jackson. Had he not been banned for life, he might have gone on to be one of the greatest hitters of all time, possibly even better than Ty Cobb. Jackson hit .408 in 1911, his rookie year. Babe Ruth said he modeled his batting after Jackson. Landis has also been accused of being a racist, who actively upheld the leagues ban on black players.


Today in Labor History August 3, 1913: Four died in the so-called “Wheatland riots” when police fired into a crowd of California farmworkers trying to organize with the IWW. The dead included the district attorney and sheriff, as well as two farm workers. The governor called in the national guard to restore order. Those arrested were subjected to starvation and beatings. Some were threatened with death if they didn’t confess to murder. The courts convicted two labor leaders, Blackie Ford and Herman Suhr, of murder, for encouraging workers to organize and causing them to “riot.” One of the convicted men was not even present at the massacre.

Despite the convictions, membership in the IWW continued to soar, making it far more successful than its predecessor, the Knights of Labor. The riots also led the governor, Hiram Johnson, to investigate the underlying causes of the riot. This led to new legislation for regular inspections of the state’s agricultural labor camps, where conditions were deplorable. There was seldom clean water available and workers routinely contracted dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever.


Today in Labor History August 3, 1949: United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 893 won a strike at Vought.

Today in Labor History August 3, 1959: Portugal’s state police force PIDE fired upon striking workers in Bissau, Portuguese Guinea, killing over 50 people.


Today in Labor History August 3, 1972: The British government declared a state of emergency to allow troops to replace striking longshoremen, forcing Britain’s 42,000 striking dock workers back to work.

Today in Labor History August 3, 1981: U.S. federal air traffic controllers began a nationwide strike after their union, PATCO, rejected the government’s final contract offer. Most of the 13,000 strikers ignored orders to go back to work and were fired on August 5 by President Reagan for participating in an illegal work stoppage. Reagan’s action, and the inability of the labor movement to respond to the crisis, led to the rapid downhill spiral of union power and membership. For example, in the years immediately after the PACTO strike, other major employers chose to fire striking workers and replace them with scabs (e.g., Phelps Dodge, 1983; Hormel, 1985-1986; and International Paper, 1987). In 1970, prior to PATCO, there were 380 major strikes. In 1999, there were only 17. And in 2010, there were only 11.

1 thought on “Today in Labor History August 3”

  1. Pingback: Today in Labor History October 4 - Marshall Law

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