27 Nov @12:30

Challenging Capitalism in the Gilded Age: The Knights of Labor and the U.S. Working Class

Speaker(s): Michael Biggs

Date: 12:30 on Mon, 27 Nov 2017

Duration: 1.5 hours

Seminar Series: Lunchtime Seminars

Seminar Room G, Manor Road Building,Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UQ

Abstract: The Knights of Labor, the world’s largest working-class organization in the nineteenth century, remains enigmatic. Scholars have parsed the discourse of its leaders and traced its activity in major cities, but we still lack a portrait of its membership. This paper combines Garlock’s pioneering databank of Local Assemblies with microdata from the 1880 Census. It analyzes the distribution of Local Assemblies across 2,386 counties, from 1881 to 1886. Although most of the Order’s members came from the industrial metropolises of the East and Midwest, the rate of recruitment was highest in the small towns of predominantly rural states like Wyoming and Texas. This pattern is explained by concentrations of railroad workers and miners. There is also evidence that the Knights of Labor were helped by rural allies, namely small cotton farmers outside the black belt. The Order was open to unskilled laborers—unlike craft unions—but analysis reveals that in practice it was more successful where skilled workers were prevalent.

Michael Biggs is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford. He is fascinated by the dynamics of protest waves, from strikes in Chicago in 1886 to the London riot of 2011. He is also interested in the political uses of suffering, including self-immolation and hunger strikes. His work appears in American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, European Sociological Review, Sociological Methods and Research, Politics and Society, and Mobilization.