From THE FIGHTING MACHINISTS, A CENTURY OF STRUGGLE
by Robert G. Rodden
As a young lad working in a shoe factory Talbot saw
that workers without special skills were most vulnerable to exploitation.
That's why he had gone through the four years of apprentice training
needed to become skilled in the art of metal-working. But even while he
was learning his craft, and increasingly during the years after he began
practicing his trade, specialization was eroding the value of his skills.
In 1883, a machinist named John Morrison, testifying before a Senate
Committee investigating conditions of labor, said, "You frequently
find the trade so subdivided that a man is not considered a machinist at
all . . . One man may make just a particular part of a machine and may not
know anything whatever about another part of the same machine." Thus
when Talbot arrived in Atlanta in 1887, conditions were ripe for the
formation of an organization that was primarily dedicated to advancing the
status and working conditions of journeymen machinists.
Talbot was not the first to try to raise the dignity of trade through
organization. As early as 1859 delegates representing local unions in a
number of major cities met in Philadelphia to form a National Union of
Machinists and Blacksmith. . . .There can be little doubt that machinists
were active and influential in the affairs of this early experiment in
social activism. Not only was the Grand Master Workman, Terence Powderly
(Knights of Labor), a machinist by trade but, as he told the IAM's 1916
Grand Lodge Convention many years later, machinists drafted a large
portion of the Knights' platform, including the plank that called for
"Equal pay for equal work for both sexes."
Throughout the 1870's and early 1880's the Knights prospered and grew in
numbers and power. But the order's basic flaw was that it was more of a
fraternal society than a union. It accepted almost anyone into membership
except certain defined exclusions such as lawyers and saloon
keepers. Moreover, it was less interested in negotiating better wages and
working conditions than reforming society. . . .After reaching a peak of
almost 800,000 in the early 1880's the Knights of Labor began to decline
rapidly after Wall Street financiers decided in 1886, that the time had
come to put workers back in their place. . . .The end was hastened by a
tragedy that took place during a labor rally at Haymarket Square in
Chicago in 1886. As the crowds were dispersing someone threw a bomb that
killed seven policemen. To this day no one knows who was responsible. But
newspapers from coast to coast pinned the blame on the Knights of Labor.
Lacking a base of solid trade union support, the Knights quickly faded.
Within a few years a vacuum left by the demise of the Knights of Labor was
filled by the more practical and lasting craft unionism of the American
Federation of Labor. Talbot's early connection with the Knights of Labor
seems to be verified by the fat that he and the other founders transferred
much of the Knights ritual directly to their new order.
In The Beginning