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A History of Trade Unionism in the United States

The Crispins numbered about 50


First

to face the problem of adjustment to the machine technique of the factory system were the shoemakers. They organized in 1867 the Order of the Knights of St. Crispin, mainly for the purpose of suppressing the competitive menace of "green hands," that is unskilled workers put to work on shoe machines. At its height in 1872, the Crispins numbered about 50,000, perhaps the largest union in the whole world at that time. The coopers began to be menaced by machinery about the middle of the sixties, and about the same time the machinists and blacksmiths, too, saw their trade broken up by the introduction of the principle of standardized parts and quantity production in the making of machinery. From these trades came the national leaders of the Knights of Labor and the strongest advocates of the new principle in labor organization and of the interests of the unskilled workers in general. The conflict between the trade unions and the Knights of Labor turned on the question of the unskilled workers.

The conflict was held in abeyance during the early eighties. The trade unions were by far the strongest organizations in the field and scented no particular danger when here or there the Knights formed an assembly either contiguous to the sphere of a trade union or even at times encroaching upon it.

With the Great Upheaval, which began in 1884, and the inrushing of hundreds of thousands of semi-skilled and unskilled workers

into the Order, a new situation was created. The leaders of the Knights realized that mere numbers were not sufficient to defeat the employers and that control over the skilled, and consequently the more strategic occupations, was required before the unskilled and semi-skilled could expect to march to victory. Hence, parallel to the tremendous growth of the Knights in 1886, there was a constantly growing effort to absorb the existing trade unions for the purpose of making them subservient to the interests of the less skilled elements. It was mainly that which produced the bitter conflict between the Knights and the trade unions during 1886 and 1887. Neither the jealousy aroused by the success of the unions nor the opposite aims of labor solidarity and trade separatism gives an adequate explanation of this conflict. The one, of course, aggravated the situation by introducing a feeling of personal bitterness, and the other furnished an appealing argument to each side. But the struggle was one between groups within the working class, in which the small but more skilled group fought for independence of the larger but weaker group of the unskilled and semi-skilled. The skilled men stood for the right to use their advantage of skill and efficient organization in order to wrest the maximum amount of concessions for themselves. The Knights of Labor endeavored to annex the skilled men in order that the advantage from their exceptional fighting strength might lift up the unskilled and semi-skilled. From the point of view of a struggle between principles, this was indeed a clash between the principle of solidarity of labor and that of trade separatism, but, in reality, each of the principles reflected only the special interest of a certain portion of the working class. Just as the trade unions, when they fought for trade autonomy, really refused to consider the unskilled men, so the Knights of Labor overlooked the fact that their scheme would retard the progress of the skilled trades.

The Knights were in nearly every case the aggressors, and it is significant that among the local organizations of the Knights inimical to trade unions, District Assembly 49, of New York, should prove the most relentless. It was this assembly which conducted the longshoremen's and coal miners' strike in New York in 1887 and which, as we saw,[25] did not hesitate to tie up the industries of the entire city for the sake of securing the demands of several hundred unskilled workingmen. Though District Assembly 49, New York, came into conflict with not a few of the trade unions in that city, its battle royal was fought with the cigar makers' unions. There were at the time two factions among the cigar makers, one upholding the International Cigar Makers' Union with Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers as leaders, the other calling itself the Progressive Union, which was more socialistic in nature and composed of more recent immigrants and less skilled workers. District Assembly 49 of the Knights of Labor took a hand in the struggle to support the Progressive Union and by skillful management brought the situation to the point where the latter had to allow itself to be absorbed into the Knights of Labor.


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