ORONO – The Knights of Labor, the nation’s first major labor movement, took root in Maine when it launched its first local in Portland in 1882. The order could claim but two Maine locals and 117 members in July 1883, and only four assemblies and 403 members in July 1884.

The meteoric rise of the order began in 1885. In May of that year, Terence Powderly, head of the national organization, personally assisted the Maine Knights in launching District Assembly 86, the statewide organization of the Knights in Maine.

In July, the District Assembly reported a membership of 2,253 members in 44 assemblies. July 1, 1886, however, membership soared to 19,645, and the number of local assemblies increased to 116. January 1887, it claimed 27,900 members in 127 local assemblies.

The rise of the Knights of Labor movement in Maine was a social phenomenon. A glance at any contemporary newspaper of the period reveals the swiftness of the movement. Labor organization was not unknown in Maine, but the Knights of Labor was reported to be an organization that “… overshadows all others.”

What was new to the Maine scene was the existence of “a labor movement,” “a labor problem,” “a labor question.”

In the swiftness of events, newspapers dramatized the phenomenal growth of the order, reporting membership figures to be as high as 35,000. The following newspaper account was typical:

“… at this convention (July 1886) there are 250 delegates representing 153 assemblies, most of them in a most flourishing condition. And more than this the number would have been doubled if Powderly had not stopped such rapid organization. There are now from 60 to 100 assemblies waiting for organization. There are now 35,000 Knights of Labor in Maine and the prospect is that the number will double during the next three months.”

With accounts such as these, there is little difficulty in appreciating the existing fears of some that the Knights of Labor would name the next president or, worse, rip open the floodgates of revolution and threaten the established order.

Knights of Labor “agitators,” lecturers, and organizers had introduced the spirit of reform: their literature was “sown broadcast” and “reached every hamlet in even the most remote districts.”

Maine was truly occupied with a labor movement — so much so that school children caught the craze for organization and were striking for shorter hours. Songs, poems, plays, picnics and dances were all employed to communicate the principles and purposes of the new movement.

“These are booming times for the Knights,” reported the Bath Daily Times, “and one can only wonder what will be the outcome.”

The order exerted its maximum economic and political influence in 1887, a year when a number of Knights were elected to the Legislature. Among the legislative achievements of the Knights that year were the creation of a labor committee as part of the legislative structure and a Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics (BILS), the forerunner of the Department of Labor.

Thomas Lyons, a granite cutter, prominent Knight, and Republican state representative from Vinalhaven, served on the new Joint Standing Committee on Labor, and in 1907, became the first commissioner of the BILS to be drawn from the ranks of labor.

As a granite cutter, he was witness to the hazards and insecurities in the granite industry, e.g., dynamite explosions, workers who were compelled to trade at company stores as a condition of employment, and workers who spit up blood in later life because of the inhalation of granite dust in the poorly ventilated cutting sheds.

It was axiomatic to Lyons and other Knights that governmental institutions were necessary to objectively collect data which described the reality of working conditions in order to frame legislation to address the problems generated from an unbridled economic order.

In 1911, the BILS was replaced by the Department of Labor and Industry (DLI). For many years the voices of labor called for an independent labor department to protect and enhance the interests of labor, which were held to be qualitatively distinct from those of capital. That goal was finally realized in 1972.

It is the hope of many working men and women in Maine today that the Labor Committee, the leading legislative vehicle for addressing their concerns, will remain an autonomous committee dedicated to hearing their voices and addressing their concerns.

Hopefully, the proposed idea of merging the Labor Committee with the Business Research and Economic Development Committee is not a thinly veiled attempt to “free” workers from the manacles of organized labor and otherwise still the voices of workers in order to give employers “flexibility” in their operations, and to promote a “favorable business climate.”