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Tenant Farming in Oklahoma

Early Union Activity

Organized labor has a strong history in Oklahoma, with the first unions emerging to support miners as far back as the 1880s. Various groups would launch their own unions in coming years, advocating for better working conditions, fewer hours, and higher pay. Unions often planned and engaged in protests, some of which were successful and resulted in concrete change, while others were violently suppressed or simply ignored. These organizations were often inspired by the Knights of Labor or the American Federation of Labor, two national labor unions that paved the way for later advocacy. These organizations show two different approaches to union activism; the Knights of Labor embraced laborers across a variety of disciplines, hoping to unite the working class to achieve common goals. In contrast, the American Federation of Labor represented a smaller and more select group of skilled workers and had more practical aims of ensuring better working conditions for its members. The question of whether to accept a wide variety of people or limit membership to a specific group would continue to be an issue for unions across time and geographic regions including in Oklahoma.

Two teenagers carry a washtub together.

Logo of the American Federation of Labor. Note that their motto, “Labor Omnia Vincit” or “Labor Conquers All”, is the same as that of the state of Oklahoma (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The alarming development and aggressiveness of great capitalists and corporations, unless checked, will inevitably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses.
It is imperative, if we desire to enjoy the full blessings of life, that a check be placed upon unjust accumulation, and the power for evil of aggregated wealth.
This much-desired object can be accomplished only by the united efforts of those who obey the divine injunction

A flyer promoting Knights of Labor principles (image courtesy of Duke University Libraries).