Labor and Co-ops: Beginnings

part 2 of a series

Early Unionist Movement and Co-operatives

The first inception of the labor movement in the United States looked little like today’s organizations. The National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor did not seek to engage in contractual relationships with employers (Chaison, 2006; Leikin, 2005). During this era, the nature of work and the worker was in a great transition, but the itinerant worker was often in the format of the old guild system of apprentice or master. People who worked for others generally were doing so on a specific job or contract basis or they engaged as an apprentice to learn the trade (Chaison, 2006).  Employees were a special lot: often seen as lacking the will and moral basis to work for themselves or suffering from a disability and unable to engage control over their own life (Jacques, 1996).

It is the role of the Knights of Labor and other similar unions that provides a touchstone for this study. These workers came together to create a work place with better wages and dignity by competing with their former bosses. Rather than fight with the owners of capital for a share of the profits produced with their labor, they organized their own company where they controlled the means of production (Fink, 1985; Hogler, 2004). The response of the capitalists was mixed. Some larger organizations support the Knight’s work and even joined the Knight of Labor in order to be engaged with these workers. Others, however, conspired to undermine these workers owned factories by working with the owners of the railroads and stores to deny space on the trains and shelves.

Although the Knights of Labor did not believe in an adversarial relationship with the owners of the factories, often opposing strikes and similar actions (Blasi, Freeman, & Kruse, 2013), they did see “an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage system of labor and the republican system of government” (Fink, 1985p 4). When possible, they pushed for higher wages, but generally they saw the path forward through worker ownership of the new factories. As the push for concentration of industry changed the nature of work from itinerant worker to employee, the Knights saw ownership as the key to achieving the promise of America and Republican ideals (Fink, 1985; Leikin, 2005). However, the economic forces were arrayed against them and internally, they were unable to take the necessary steps to support each other’s operations either with capital or managerial expertise.


Blasi, J. R., Freeman, R. B., & Kruse, D. L. (2013). The Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back Into Democracy. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Chaison, G. (2006). Unions in America. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Fink, L. (1985). Workingmen’s Democracy: The Knights of Labor and American Politics. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Hogler, R. (2004). Employment Relations in the United States. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Jacques, R. (1996). Manufacturing the Employee. London: Sage Publications.

Leikin, S. (2005). The Practical Utopians: American Workers and the Cooperative Movement in the Guilded Age. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Next: The Rise of the Employee and Craft Unionism

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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