American labor leader Terence Vincent Powderly (1849-1924) presided over the Knights of Labor during the union's remarkable growth and rapid decline in the 1880s.
Terence V. Powderly was born in Carbondale, Pa., on Jan. 22, 1849. His parents were Irish immigrants. At 13 he began work in a railroad yard. At 17 he apprenticed himself to a machinist and began to practice the trade in 1869 in the shops of the Delaware and Western Railroad in Scranton, Pa. Interested in labor unionism, he joined the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths in 1871 and, in 1874, was an organizer for the Industrial Brotherhood. That year he was initiated into the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, a small secret society centered on Philadelphia. Powderly organized the Knights' local assembly in Scranton and was elected its master workman in 1876; he was also an officer in district assembly no. 5.
In 1878, at the age of 29, Powderly was elected mayor of Scranton on the Greenback-Labor ticket. He was reelected three times. Meanwhile, in 1879, he was elected the Knights' grand master workman (general master workman after 1883). His accession marked a significant departure in Knights' policy. His predecessor, a Baptist, had been indifferent to the Catholic Church's opposition to the Knights. Powderly, although a Mason, was also a Roman Catholic and realized that the American Catholic hierarchy must be placated if the Knights were to flourish among Catholic workers. He persuaded the union to abandon its secrecy and to remove scriptural references from its ritual.
Powderly disapproved of strikes, considering them too costly for the small benefits gained. He was a humanitarian visionary, interested in the long-term goals of abolishing the wage system and instituting a cooperative society rather than in short-term gains. With his approval, various local assemblies of the Knights set up 135 producers' and consumers' cooperatives, including a coal mine.
However, as head of the union (1879-1893), Powderly had to devote much time to settling strikes the various locals became involved in. "Just think of it!" he wrote, "Opposing strikes and always striking … battling with my pen in the leading journals and magazines of the day for the great things we are educating the people on and fighting with might and main for the little things."
The Knights were involved in a series of dramatically successful strikes during the early 1880s. The most notable involved a strike against the railroads of financier Jay Gould. Such victories resulted in an incredible growth: in mid-1885 there were about 100, 000 Knights in 1, 610 local assemblies; a year later membership stood at 700, 000 in almost 6, 000 locals. Powderly was uncomfortable with such rapid growth, and his lack of enthusiasm in another strike against Gould (1886) contributed to the Knights' defeat and, ultimately, their decline. By 1893, when Powderly was ousted from his position, there were only 75,000 dues-paying members.
Part of Powderly's weakness as the union's leader was his interest in other than union affairs. During his first 6 years as grand master workman, he was also mayor of Scranton. He studied law, served as a county health officer, partly owned and managed a grocery store, served as vice president of the Irish Land League, tried to become the first U.S. commissioner of labor in 1884, took great interest in political campaigns, and was an active prohibitionist. Frequently complaining about the Knights' demand upon his time, he resigned once and threatened to resign several times.
In addition, Powderly was temperamentally unsuited to the industrial turmoil of the 1880s. Disliking strikes and other conflicts, he constantly looked forward to an age of cooperation. Nor did he look the part of a labor organizer. Slender, even frail, he wore delicate spectacles and a magnificent drooping mustache and dressed impeccably. His manners were formal, even haughty. He was considered something of a snob. Ultimately these qualities neutralized his competence as an organizer and administrator, his considerable abilities as a speaker and correspondent, and his tact and diplomacy.
After retiring from leadership of the Knights, Powderly practiced law and was named commissioner general of immigration (1897). He became chief of the Division of Information in the Immigration Bureau in 1907. He died on Jan. 24, 1924.
Further Reading on Terence Vincent Powderly
The basic sources for studying Powderly are his autobiographical Thirty Years of Labor, 1849-1924 (1889; rev. ed. 1890) and The Path I Trod: The Autobiography of Terence V. Powderly (1940). The most comprehensive discussion of Powderly is in Norman J. Ware, The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860-1895 (1929). Information on Powderly can be found in any standard labor history of the period; the best is probably Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in America (1949; 3d ed. 1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Falzone, Vincent J., Terence V. Powderly, middle class reformer, Washington: University Press of America, 1978.