Transnational Borrowings: Scottish Sons of Labour and American Knights of Labor, 1887–1890

Author: Steven Parfitt
This is the abstract of an article published in Labour History Review (2020), 85, (2), 127–156. Find out more.

Between 1883 and 1900 an American working-class movement, the Knights of Labor, spread around the world. Their assemblies appeared in Europe, Australasia, and Southern Europe, as well as North America. Yet they also inspired a range of emulating movements in different parts of the world. This article addresses one of them, the Sons of Labour, which first appeared in Scotland in 1887 as Keir Hardie’s political programme, and then appeared in 1888 as a movement of miners in the Lanarkshire coalfields. Both iterations of the Sons of Labour help us to understand several major trends in British and transatlantic labour history: the deep influence of American ideas and institutions on Scottish workers, the development of trade unionism among the Scottish miners, and the steps and stages of independent working-class politics that eventually led to the Labour Party. At a wider level, this article provides a case study of the ways in which workers in one country could adapt the models and practices of another – in this case, for Scottish miners to borrow American political planks and trade union forms to solve problems they had not yet solved themselves.