Terrence Powderly (1849-1924) was the best known American labor leader of the 1880s. He headed the Knights of Labor (1879-1893), a nationwide labor unions that included both skilled and unskilled, white and black workers. After winning a few major strikes and growing rapidly, the Knights weakened after 1886 and faded in the face of the much more effective American Federation of Labor or AFL.
Powderly, like most labor leaders was an Irish Catholic. He left school at age 13, then went to work on a railroad and was later apprenticed to a machinist. In 1871 he joined a local of the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' International Union.
In 1879 he was chosen to succeed the retiring Uriah S. Stephens as head of the Order of the Knights of Labor, an all-inclusive union founded in 1869.
Under Powderly's leadership the union's membership soared past 700,000 by 1886. Much of its success was due to his energy. During the 1880s he became by far the most popular and renowned labor leader in the country. His vision of a better world, his voluminous correspondence with the rank and file, and his obvious sense of dedication and mission all contributed to his great appeal. It was, in fact, as a publicist and educator that Powderly made his greatest contribution to the labor movement by drawing attention to the lowly position of workers in society and increasing people's awareness of a national labor movement.
Powderly was a romantic idealist who dreamed of using the Knights as a lever to abolish the wage system and restore a society based on cooperatives and individual producers rather than large corporations. Thus he was opposed to stressing higher wages or shorter hours, and to separate craft unions, since these were mere amelioratives. He involved the Knights in so many diverse activities that he lost his focus on the immediate needs of his members.
Powderly utopian visions were countered by the practicality of Samuel Gompers, who built the rival American federation of Labor. Unlike the Knights, the AFL was not a single union but a coalition of independent unions. The AFL unions stressed the needs of the skilled craftsmen, and their critical role in using strikes and solidarity to gain control of specific workplaces, such as controlling all the carpenter jobs in a specific city. He was elected mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on a Greenback-Labor ticket, 1878-84.
Powderly was unsympathetic to members of the Knights who went on strike merely to better their immediate condition, and trade unionists both within and without the Knights criticized him.
The Knights went into decline after 1886, and by the 1894 they were no longer important in the labor movement. In 1893 Powderly was deposed from his position of leadership, ending his career in the labor movement.
Powderly stumped for the Republicans in 1894 and 1896, and was the foremost labor supporter of William McKinley in 1896. He was appointed commissioner-general of immigration in 1897-1902 and helped modernize and systematize the system of handling millions of immigrants coming through Ellis Island. By 1900 his voice was listened to more by Republican politicians than by workers.
- Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (2000) excerpt and text search, major scholarly study of Powderly and his Knights
- Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (1993) online edition
- Weir, Robert E. Beyond Labor's Veil: The Culture of the Knights of Labor (1996) online edition
- Bibliography of online resources on railway labor in late 19th century