Keeping tabs on organized labor

In 1885, CB&Q officials learned some of their employees might be affiliated with the Knights of Labor, an organization which came to prominence with their inclusive, non-violent ideology and successful strikes against the Union Pacific and Wabash Railroads. By June of 1885, T.J. Potter had requested that General Manager Harry B. Stone¬† investigate Knights of Labor membership among the CB&Q rank & file. Stone charged General Superintendent J.P. Besler with the task of determining what percentage of CB&Q men belonged to the order, and persuading them to leave. “It is important that our men should find out in a quiet way that we do not wish them to belong to such an organization,” Stone wrote. Besler contacted Superintendents C.F. Resseguie & G.W. Rhodes, who in turn queried their assistants at various depots, collected the results, and passed all the correspondence back up the chain of command.

Most letters are reassuring (though some, tellingly, noted membership in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers): “It is impossible to for me to find out how large a percentage of our men belong to this organization, but I am confident there are not very many,” “I cannot find that any of our train men belong to this organization,” and “Steady men are not apt to belong to it at any time but might be induced to join under excitement.”

CBQ 33 1880 3
Decade Subject File-Personnel

The “excitement” likely referred to a circular such as this one, which pointed out the injustices suffered by Knights of Labor members at the hands of the Wabash Railroad, and asked for help and donations.

CBQ 33 1880 3
Decade Subject File-Personnel

Passed on to Rhodes by Galesburg assistant R.W. Colville, who collected it from a CB&Q shop man, the incendiary text didn’t cause much worry. Rhodes wrote to Besler, “When the Knights of Labor begin to levy on their members to support certain sections of the country in idleness, those having no special cause for complaints will quickly drop out.” Rhodes’ man at Galesburg, R.W. Colville, was especially thorough. He sent a 5 page letter with detailed statistics, including this chart,¬† and offered much analysis on the Knights of Labor’s presence and influence among his men. Stone would later acknowledge this when he forwarded the correspondence to T.J. Potter: “I would especially call your attention to the letters of messrs. Rhodes and Colville which are full and to the point.”

Despite these reports, and continued reassurance that the organization was not a problem, in the spring of 1886 CB&Q president Charles E. Perkins chose to fire all men associated with the group, perhaps anticipating events that would lead to the strike of 1888. For their part, the Knights of Labor enjoyed increasing support throughout the mid 1880s, as their fight for an eight hour work day and increased wages resonated with many laborers. But near the end of the decade, the organization’s effectiveness was severely diminished by a series of unsuccessful strikes and the ensuing bad publicity and increased government oppression following the Haymarket affair in Chicago.

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