Terence V. Powderly

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Terence Vincent Powderly
5th Mayor of Scranton
In office
Preceded by Robert H. McKune
Succeeded by Francis A. Beamish
Personal details
Born (1849-01-22)January 22, 1849
Carbondale, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died June 24, 1924(1924-06-24) (aged 75)
Petworth, Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political party Greenback-Labor Party
Residence Scranton, Pennsylvania
Occupation Leader of the Knights of Labor (1879–1893)

Terence Vincent Powderly (January 22, 1849 – June 24, 1924) was an Irish-American politician and labor union leader, best known as head of the Knights of Labor in the late 1880s. A lawyer, he was elected mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania for six years. A Republican, he served as the United States Commissioner General of immigration in 1897. The Knights of Labor was one of the largest American labor organizations of the 19th century, but Powderly was a poor administrator and could barely keep it under control. His small central office could not supervise or coordinate the many strikes and other activities sponsored by union locals. Powderly saw the Knights as an educational tool to uplift the workingman, and he downplayed strikes.

His influence reportedly led to laws abolishing alien contract labor law in 1895, and establishing labor bureaus and arbitration boards in many states. The Knights failed to maintain its large membership after getting the blame for the violence of the Haymarket Riot of 1886. It was increasingly upstaged by the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers, which coordinated numerous specialized unions that appealed to skilled workers instead of the mix of unskilled, semiskilled, and skilled workers in the Knights.[1]

Knights of Labor[edit]

Powderly is most remembered for leading the Knights of Labor ("K of L"), a nationwide labor union whose goal was to organize all workers, skilled and unskilled, into one large union united for workers' rights and economic and social reform. He joined the Knights in 1876, became Secretary of a District Assembly in 1877 and was elected Grand Master Workman in 1879, at the time the Knights had around 10,000 members. He served as Grand Master Workman until 1893.[citation needed]

Powderly, along with most labor leaders at the time, opposed the immigration of Chinese workers to the United States. He argued that immigrants took jobs away from native-born Americans and drove down wages, and even urged West Coast branches of the Knights of Labor to campaign for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.[2]

Powderly worked with Bishop James Gibbons, to persuade the Pope to remove sanctions against Catholics who joined unions. This was accomplished by doing away with the membership rituals influenced by freemasonry and removing the words "The Holy and Noble Order of" from the name of the Knights of Labor in 1882.[3]

Terence Powderly

The Greenback ideology of producerism influenced Powderly more strongly than socialism, and since producerism regarded most employers as "producers", Powderly disliked strikes.[4] At times the Knights organized strikes against local firms where the employer might be admitted as a member. The strikes would drive away the employers, resulting in a more purely working-class organization. Despite his personal ambivalence about labor action, Powderly's skillful organizing and the success of the Great Southwestern Strike of 1885 against Jay Gould's railroad more than compensated for the internal tension. The Knights of Labor grew so rapidly that at one point the organization called a moratorium on the issuance of charters.[5]

The union was recognized as the first successful national labor union in the United States. In 1885-86 the Knights achieved their greatest influence and greatest membership. Powderly attempted to focus the union on cooperative endeavors and the eight-hour day. Soon the demands placed on the union by its members for immediate improvements, and the pressures of hostile business and government institutions, forced the Knights to function like a traditional labor union. However, the Knights were too disorganized to deal with the centralized industries that they were striking against. They were disorganized because Powderly forbade them to use their most effective tool: the strike. Powderly himself intervened in two labor actions: the first against the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1886 and the second the Chicago Meatpackinghouse industry: also in 1886 when 25,000 workers in the Union Stockyards struck for an 8-hour day and to rescind a wage reduction: in both cases, he ended strikes that labor could have won. This is when the Knights of Labor began to lose its influence. He was also terrified of losing the support of the Catholic Church which feared that the K of L was plotting a "socialist revolution". His demand to end both of those strikes ended any inclination of Capital to fear the K of L position that it would use strikes as direct action to gain wage and labor benefits. After this, both Jay Gould and the Chicago Packinghouses won complete victories in breaking both strikes.[6][7]

Disaster struck the Knights with the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Anarchists were blamed, and two of them were Knights. Membership plunged overnight as a result of false rumors linking the Knights to anarchism and terrorism. However the disorganization of the group and its record of losing strike after strike disillusioned many members. Bitter factionalism divided the union, and its forays into electoral politics were failures because Powderly forbade its members to engage in political activity or to field candidates [8]

Many KoL members joined more conservative alternatives, especially the Railroad brotherhoods and the unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) which promoted craft unionism over the one all-inclusive union concept. Powderly was defeated for re-election as Master Workman in 1893 the decline of the Knights continued and Powderly moved on, opening his own successful law practice in 1894.[9]

Powderly served 3 two-year terms as mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania representing the Greenback-Labor Party beginning in 1878.[10]

Powderly was also a supporter of Henry George's popular "single tax" on land values.[11]

Later career[edit]

A favorite of Republican President William McKinley, who sought a pro-labor image, Powderly was appointed U.S. Commissioner General of Immigration from 1897–1902, and the Chief Information Officer for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration from 1907–1921.


Powderly, a resident of the Petworth neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in the last years of his life, died on June 24, 1924. He is buried at nearby Rock Creek Cemetery. A second autobiography by Powderly, The Path I Trod, was published posthumously in 1940. Powderly's papers are available for use at more than a dozen research libraries across the United States. Powderly was inducted into the U.S. Department of Labor Labor Hall of Fame in January 2000.



  1. ^ Robert Muccigrosso, ed., Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 3:1255-8
  2. ^ Robert H. Zieger, For jobs and freedom: race and labor in America since 1865 (2000) p. 66
  3. ^ Robert E. Weir, Beyond labor's veil: the culture of the Knights of Labor (1996) p. 94
  4. ^ Craig Phelan, Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (2000) p 65
  5. ^ Theresa Ann Case, The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and free labor (2010) p 14
  6. ^ :The History of the Labor Movement in the United States Volume 2 : pp. 82–88 by Phlip S Foner
  7. ^ Phelan, Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor p. 184
  8. ^ Weir, Beyond labor's veil: the culture of the Knights of Labor p. 170
  9. ^ Phelan, Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor p. 4
  10. ^ see Dept. of Labor bio
  11. ^ Powderly, Terence Vincent (1889). Thirty Years of Labor. 1859-1889. Excelsior publishing house. Retrieved 8 December 2014.  "It would be far easier to levy a "single tax," basing it upon land values." "It is because [...] a single land tax would prove to be the very essence of equity, that l advocate it.

Further reading[edit]

  • Carman, Harry J. "Terence Vincent Powderly -An Appraisal," Journal of Economic History Vol. 1, No. 1 (May, 1941), pp. 83–87 in JSTOR
  • Dailey, Lucia. Mine Seed. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2002.
  • Falzone, Vincent J. Terence V. Powderly: Middle Class Reformer. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1978.
  • Falzone, Vincent J. "Terence V. Powderly: Politician and Progressive Mayor of Scranton, 1878-1884," Pennsylvania History, vol. 41 (1974), pp. 289–310.
  • McNeill, George E. (ed.), The Labor Movement: The Problem of To-day. New York: M.W. Hazen Co., 1889.
  • Phelan, Craig. Grand Master Workman: Terence Powderly and the Knights of Labor (Greenwood, 2000), scholarly biography online edition
  • Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. (Cornell University Press, 1994).
  • Walker, Samuel. "Terence V. Powderly, Machinist: 1866-1877," Labor History, vol. 19 (1978), pp. 165–184.
  • Ware, Norman J. The Labor Movement in the United States, 1860 - (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996) online edition
  • Weir, Robert E. Knights Unhorsed: Internal Conflict in Gilded Age Social Movement (Wayne State University Press, 2000)
  • Wright, Carroll D. "An Historical Sketch of the Knights of Labor," Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 1, no. 2 (January 1887), pp. 137–168. in JSTOR

External links[edit]