Union History

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

Union History

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Greg Enright