A major social movement throughout the western world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, labor unions drew on methods pioneered by the fraternal secret societies of the same period in building a movement to unite laborers for mutual aid. While attempts to organize workers to press for higher wages and improved working conditions go back to the late Middle Ages, and journeymen’s associations of this sort played a role in the formation of secret societies such as Odd Fellows and Compagnonnage, the first modern labor unions emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century. See Compagnonnage; Odd Fellowship.

In Britain and Europe, the first workers’ associations drew little from the secret societies of the time, but in America, where the fraternal movement had its greatest success, many nineteenth-century unions closely resembled fraternal orders. The first American labor union to include workers of all trades, the Knights of Labor, was founded in 1869 by a labor organizer who belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and Knights of Pythias. In its early years the Knights of Labor had an initiation ritual, passwords, secret handshakes, and all the other practices of secret societies of the time. These were dropped in 1882, and very few later labor unions made use of them, but many unions to this day follow patterns of organization modeled on secret societies. Until the last few decades, similarly, labor unions in predominantly male industries had ladies auxiliaries that were all but indistinguishable from those of fraternal orders. See fraternal orders; Knights of Labor; Knights of Pythias; ladies auxiliaries.

From the last decades of the nineteenth century on, most labor unions in Europe and America were caught up in struggles among competing leftist ideologies. Some unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in America, aligned with the anarchist movement and laid plans for a nationwide general strike that would overturn the existing order; others affiliated with the Communists; still others, including the largest labor unions in Britain, aligned with the Social Democrat movement and sought to change the system gradually through peaceful political action. The first half of the twentieth century saw the gradualists win out, and labor unions became part of the system they had once set out to overturn. In the process, unions shed the last traces of their secret society ancestry – a detail that has not prevented conservative conspiracy theorists from insisting that unions are still part of a vast leftwing conspiracy. See New World Order.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006