he abrupt decline of the Knights is
another remarkable feature of their history. The organization disappeared
almost as quickly as it had risen a decade earlier. Many factors
contributed to this turn of events. Employers took advantage of rising
unemployment at the time and, often with the support of government, crushed
union organizing drives and strikes. The union also became a popular target
of anti-union newspaper editors. In Quebec, the Knights had to contend
with the hostility of the Catholic Church, which viewed them as
atheists and revolutionaries.
Part of the explanation for the Knights' dramatic collapse clearly
rested with the organization itself. Internal conflicts over whether
the ballot box, strike, or arbitration was the best tactic to win
concessions from industry and government paralysed the union. This
debate pitted local assemblies who wanted greater support for strikes
against the more conservative national and international leadership.
Other divisions were opening in the labour movement. Initially,
relations were good between the Knights and the craft unions. Most
craft unionists welcomed the rise of the Knights as a further sign of
the strengthening of the labour movement. Craft workers helped to
organize the Knights, worked together with them to sustain labour
councils, independent labour parties and co-operatives. However, the
organizing success of the Knights brought them into conflict with the
craft unions. At the heart of this conflict was the jurisdictional
dispute over who would represent which workers. Eventually, the
relationship between the Knights and the craft unions deteriorated
into a messy affair that weakened the entire labour movement.
These conflicts within the Knights of Labor and between it and other
labour unions led many sympathizers to abandon the organization.
A divided organization was not up to the challenges posed by the
big - and always getting bigger - industries of the time. Workers
first joined the Knights of Labor because they believed it would
counter the growing influence of business. When the union lost its
sense of direction, workers, probably wisely, abandoned it.
The Knights deserve prominence in the history of Canada's labour
movement. The organization offered thousands of workers their first
union experience and introduced them to the idea of co-operatives. In
some instances, the union did secure better wages and working
conditions for its members. Furthermore, the Knights made an
important contribution to the evolution of independent labour
politics in Canada. Their warning of the dangers of unfettered
capitalism was a timely one.