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The rise and fall of the Knights of Labor has frequently been portrayed as a crucial event in the history of American political development, especially as it relates to the United States' failure to create a full-fledged welfare state, replete with national health insurance, extensive protection for workers, and an abiding social safety net. From this perspective, "American Exceptionalism" stems largely from the failure of several popular political movements of the 1880s and 1890s to implement national health insurance legislation, forge a unified labor movement, or even sustain a labor fraternity as modest and short-lived as the Knights of Labor. 
This article elucidates a feature of the Knights movement often overlooked by previous treatments--the impact of external competition on the Knights' ability to retain members. Unlike subsequent American labor groups, the Knights patterned themselves on the fraternal lodge, the predominant organizational form of the era. As such, the Knights stressed ritual, versatility, informal sociability, and "moral uplift and self-improvement." 
In the words of Charles and Mary Beard, fraternalism was "a general mania," though the adoption of this model by the nation's first great labor organization had calamitous effects on the labor movement itself. The title of this article is intended to highlight the irony that the very quality often considered to have been America's defining attribute--its extensive tradition of voluntary organization--may also have abetted its failure to establish an enduring social safety net or a viable labor party during the decades before and after the turn of the century. 
This article attempts to use both population ecology theories and political theories of civic associationalism to construct a model of what individuals tend to decide when confronted with multiple organizations competing for their membership within the nonprofit sector. Under such circumstances, generalist organizations with broad goals and demanding membership criteria do not appear to recruit as successfully as their more focused and less demanding counterparts. 
An important question concerns whether the sheer aggregation of individuals' options may have been responsible for both the formation and the mortality of the many voluntary organizations that arose in the late nineteenth-century United States. Attention to the case of the Knights of Labor reveals that this abundant associationalism may have precluded formation of an active, broad-based workers' political movement. 
BACKGROUND AND DEBATE The afl-cio currently represents a smaller percentage of all American workers than did the Knights of Labor in 1886, when as many as 20 percent of all workers were affiliated with them. Nonetheless, soon after reaching its peak, the Knights' membership began a steady and rapid decline, after which the organization never regained its national prominence or stature. This collapse had wide-ranging repercussions for American politics; subsequent worker organizations took a more conservative tack toward labor organization. In Voss' words, "Ideologically, the Knights' defeat demoralized those who championed radical reform and classwide organization while empowering those who promoted pragmatic politics and sectional labor unions. Both the demoralized and the empowered dress lessons from the defeat of the Order, and these lessons made it much more difficult for radicalactivists to persuade workers that inclusive unionism was possible or desirable." Had the Knights of Labor succeeded in organizi ng (or maintaining organization among) a broad swath of the American working class, labor unions in America might well have come closer to matching the achievements of their Western European counterparts. 
Current scholarship about the Knights attributes their calamitous decline to two factors: the persistent tension between skilled craftsmen and unskilled workers, and, more decisively, the fierce opposition of employer associations, which used various extralegal means to break down union resistance. Using time-series data on the organizational founding and mortality of Knights' lodges from New Jersey, Voss examined the salience of both arguments in detail. Her data show that opposition from employer associations, not intraclass conflict among the Knights, led to the dissolution of lodges after 1886. Nonetheless, Voss' account fails to explain why the Knights were so easily vanquished when other union movements, namely, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), lived to fight another day. Supplementary to Voss' findings, if not contrary to them, this study argues that the organizational structure of the order prompted factional disputes among its members, but, more important, that competition from rival trade and fraternal organizations lured away members. Dissatisfaction with the order itself would not have been sufficient cause for the Knights' demise; the profusion of organizational alternatives induced mass defection and, subsequently, the transformation of the American labor movement (see Figure 1). 
In imitating the predominant model of collective behavior of the age, the Knights aimed to educate and uplift workers, negotiate salaries and contracts with employers, and uphold the rites and rituals of "fraternal brotherhood." The Knights listed their principal aims as "to bring within the folds of organization every department of productive industry," "to secure to the toilers a proper share of the wealth that they create," to educate workers, to create cooperative institutions, to fight railroad speculation and the usurpation of public lands, to enact labor laws (including child-labor laws) protecting workers and improving the workplace, to promote reasonable arbitration of disputes with capital, and to achieve equal pay for women, an eight hour work day, and freely circulating specie. It was a bold project bringing the conventional goals of a political party, a fraternal lodge, and a trade union under a single umbrella. 
The Knights labor coalition fell apart under this rubric, however. Where did workers go after leaving the Knights? Clearly, the collapse of the Knights was not followed by a lull in worker activism and affiliation. Former Knights flocked to (and founded) dozens of new lodges and unions, particularly those which better represented their interests by pursuing less ornate and more reasonable goals. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, eleven mutual-benefit societies, three temperance fraternities, five Protestant nativist" fraternities, and eighteen general fraternal orders were inaugurated between 1885 and 1889. The fact that sixty Knights lodges folded in Newark during that same interval seems to indicate a significant relationship. 
If this defection hypothesis is correct, workers appear to have rejected the generalist alms of the Knights organization, relocating their various interests in separate religious, social, political, and economic affiliations.
Under normal conditions, rival orders would probably not present much of a threat to any single association. Organizations can usually survive a few resignations and multiple affiliations. In the case of politically motivated groups, however, the consequences of cross-affiliation can be more severe, particularly when membership requires some degree of personal engagement and sacrifice, as with an often-embattled labor organization like the Knights of Labor.
Note that the rise of "the golden age of fraternity" and the collapse of the Knights organization were not simultaneous. The birth of the fraternal movement preceded the Knights' by at least a decade. The Knights' founders were active participants in other fraternal orders. Their aim in creating the Knights was to found a new fraternity expressly for working men and women, and their early membership drives were helped by the "general mania" for clubbing. Following a series of internal controversies and external defeats, however, the same recipe that had helped the Knights to grow had the reverse effect. Given the many associational alternatives, as well as the ever-present option simply to form new associations in the face of dissatisfaction ("schismatic differentiation" in the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger), individual Knights began abandoning the order at the first signs of trouble. Exogenous competition ultimately defeated the Knights, not employer associations or failed strikes per se. The fact that the general growth of associationalism did not correspond with the period of the Knights' collapse (roughly 1887 to 1890) supports, rather than hinders, this argument. The Knights were both a product of their time and a victim of it. 
This perspective draws heavily on models of organizational ecology developed by Blau and Hannan and Freeman, and recently expanded by McPherson and Ranger-Moore. Organizational ecology theories focus on the relationship between the number of organizations filling a niche and the number of individuals available for recruitment. As McPherson and Ranger-Moore predict, "When a group is in a region not hotly contested by other groups, potential members in that region will join at a higher rate, and current members will stay longer. When a group is located in a densely occupied region, potential members will be less likely to join, and current members will be more likely to leave. The distribution of group members across the Blau dimensions responds over time to the differential competitive pressures presented by other groups." The case of the Knights of Labor aptly illustrates the point. Struggling within a crowded organizational niche, membership was unstable and prone to defection. Furthermore, the organization' s universalist profile exacerbated the situation; the Knights were unable to offer the same selective incentives as their more specialized counterparts. 
This perspective also dovetails with scholarship about the twentieth-century American labor movement. Katznelson, for one, blamed the failure of twentieth-century American working-class movements on the "radical separation in people's consciousness, speech, and activity of the politics of work from the politics of community." "Most members of the working class thought of themselves as workers at work, but as ethnics (and residents of this or that residential community) at home." Similarly, Oestreicher wrote, "while there was untapped class sentiment …