Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History


14. The Beginnings of Trade Unions.

'AS far back as Outline 5. an attempt was made to describe the modern wage-worker and his organizations in comparison with other pre-ceding types of workers. History bears record to countless revolts of slave and serf, generally caused by the extortion or oppression of some tyrant. But these united efforts were short-lived, and contrary to these spasmodic, temporary combinations, the form of combination -whose beginning is the subject of this Outline- is continuous and lasting, and day by day, as the intelligence of its members increases, it becomes ever more powerful and important, solving present problems and providing a fabric for future society.

Our survey will cover roughly the period from 1700 - before which no continuous association of wage-earners can be said to have existed - to 1825, when the right of combination was secured and the formation of a trade union no longer considered to be a crime. Thus, as the Industrial Revolution is our next lesson, some overlapping will again occur; however, this method of treatment will have the advantage of clearly showing that trade unions did not, as is generally thought, arise only from the upheavals and distress of the Industrial Revolution, but that they were in being at least half a century before that event.

The Guild and the Journeyman's Association.-A glance at the guilds will destroy all the parallels some times drawn between them and trade unions. The guild owned the simple and inexpensive tools of production; therefore it also owned the finished product. The skilled and long-apprenticed worker's disappearance we have already followed. In the best days of the guild the master was oniy an official of the guild, and even at a later date the possibility of becoming a masterstood before each journeyman. The guild was different from the trade union both in structure and function, and in making a comparison the likenesses are out numbered by the differences.

The journeyman's associations, though undoubtedly containing the germ of the modern unions, were only ephemeral. Complaints against the journeymen cord-wainers were heard as early as 1387; against the saddlers' serving-men in 1396; in 1497 the journeymen tailors were forbidden to assemble; and in 1530 we hear of friction between the shoemakers and their employers at Wisbech. "The working tailor," who made up the cloth brought to him by his customers in his own individual work-shop, accused "the shop-keeping tailor" in 1681 of causing his detriment by hiring a smart shop and keeping a number of journeymen working for him, anticipating instead of obeying customers' orders. The capitalist and the permanent wage-worker are here seen evolving.

Further economic developments had, however, to take place before the antagonism between master and man became such a permanent force that the workers, striving to retain their status and standard of living, were welded into "continuous associations of wage-earners banded together for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment." The dissolving effects of commerce upon the old methods of production the domestic system of production, the rape of newly-discovered worlds and the ensuing accumulation of wealth, and the growth of the manufactory system need not again be detailed. What we wish to discover is how the latter system deepened the antagonism between the owners and buyers of labour-power until this antagonism found its expression in the beginning of trade unions.

Effects of Manufacture.-Manufacture arises in two ways :-

(1) By the assembling of various independent and dissimilar handicraftsmen into one factory. For example, instead of the middleman or "clothier" in the cloth trade acting as a go-between for the various handicraftsmen, he assembled all these spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, etc., in his factory under his supervision.[Another oft-used example taken from Marx is the manufacture of carriages. Here again a number of independent craftsmen, wheelwrights, harness makers, locksmiths, carpenters, painters, etc., are brought together and combine their efforts in the production of one commodity. "The tailor, the lock smith, and the other artificers, being now exclusively occupied in carriage-making, each gradually loses, through want of practice, the ability to carry on, to its full extent, his old handicraft. But, on the other hand, his activity, now confined in one groove, assumes the form best adapted to the narrowed sphere of action. At first, carriage manufacture is a combination of various independent handicrafts. By degrees, it becomes the splitting up of carriage making into its various detail processes, each of which crystallises into the exclusive function of a particular workman, the manufacture, as a whole, being carried on by the men in conjunction." In the same way, a colliery blacksmith, or a colliery engineman is differentiated in course of time from blacksmiths and enginemen who do not help to produce the commodity coal.]

(2) By the gathering of similar handicraftsmen in the factory.-For a time the handicraftsmen may perform the same composite labour they performed outside the workshop; but soon the qualitative change follows the quantitative one, and the particular handicraft is split up into a series of detail operations, each becoming the work of a particular workman.

Yet, in whichever of the ways manufacture takes its rise, the result is the same; production is carried on by a social machine, the parts of which are human beings. Bearing this conclusion in mind, and never forgetting that the motive of capitalist production is to produce surplus value, and that profits can only be increased at the expense of relative wages, we will now endeavour to trace how manufacture affected labour and the labourer.

From what has been already said, it will be understood that labour was now changed from composite into detail labour; and the labourer, using his detail tool, is now, not a "synthetic" worker, but a fractional one. By this specialisation, by the saving of time formerly occupied in changing jobs and tools, and by the workers' acquirement of a special aptitude and facility obtained by continuous practice in particular operations, the productivity of labour was enormously increased, and the simplification of operations made the way clear for the introduction of the machine tool, operated at first by human power, but later driven by other superior forces. The worker had to be reduced to a machine before he could be displaced by a machine. It is hardly necessary to state who reaped the benefits from the increased productivity of labour. Wages relatively decreased.

Now in the assembling of handicraftsmen long apprenticesbip and skill would still, to some extent, be necessary; but in the second way of manufacture's rise, when handicrafts were split up, the need for skill and the time for learning and probation would be greatly diminished. In fact, some of the operations in the series needed no skill at all. So, instead of the handicraftsmen having all passed through the same qualifying period, being equally skilled and receiving equal rates, there is now a difference between the skilled and the unskilled worker; a hierarchy of labour powers, with different grades receiving different wages. The skilled labour-power, in which is embodied years of training, is obviously more costly than unskilled labour power. The destruction of skill, which occurred in the assembling and division of handicrafts (though only partially in the former) cheapened labour-power and increased surplus value. What is saved by not having to pay the wages of skill goes to swell profits. This explains, for example, why a colliery company is always eager to introduce, wherever possible, coal-cutters and boring machinery in order to escape paying the cost of skilled hewers and borers.

Another way in which manufacture lessened the independence of the labourer and increased surplus value was that, by this new method of production, the labour-powers bought in the labour market individually from their respective owners and consumed collectively by the capitalist buyer in his factory. For, just as two men lifting together can shift a stone which they could not lift apart, or as a wire rope is much stronger than the total individual strengths of the wires which compose it, so individual labour-powers, when organized in one factory and used in co-operation with each other, produce more than if they were consumed apart. ["Just as the offensive power of a squadron of cavalry, or the defensive power of a regiment of infantry is essentially different from the sum of the offensive or defensive powers of the individual cavalry or infantry soldiers taken separately, so the sum total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workmen differs from the social force that is developed, when many hands take part simultaneously in one and the same undivided operation, such as raising a heavy weight, turning a winch or removing an obstacle." Chapter XIII, of Capital gives many other illustrations of the emulation, stimulation, and benefits arising from social labour.]

The credit and profit of this increased productiveness, begotten by the power of associated labour, goes however to the capitalist, who at the time of which we are writing had not relinquished the exercise of "directive ability" to an official managerial class, and become a parasite, as at present.

One factor which caused the manufacturer to increase the rate of the exploitation of labour (consequently generating deeper antagonism) was the fact that the concentration of capital now began. The manufactories tended to become larger and larger as the benefits derived from them became more evident. Clearly one manufactory, in which eighty people could work, would be cheaper to build than two, in each of which only forty people could work. And if forty people created a certain amount of surplus value, the larger number would create double that amount. Larger capitals are really created by unpaid labour; the need for larger starting capitals would be an incitement to the manufacturers, competing among themselves, to enlarge the amount of surplus labour or surplus value because this is the only source of additional capital.

But all these improvements which were so beneficial to the manufacturer were accomplished at the expense of the labourer. Lost is the old creative joy of taking the product through all its various stages. The labourer has now to confine his attention to the performance of a particular, monotonous, detail operation. His former independence is lost, too, for being only skilled in one partial operation, he cannot work outside the factory gates away from the machine of which he is a cog; be becomes a mere appendage of the machine of social production. "Head and hand part company." Thinking is performed by an official class, and the labourer does the working. Honest spokesmen of the capitalist class have on many occasions pointed out the folly of educating the workers and their children because of its uselessness to them in their after life. Many farmers and other employers and even many workers -sad though it be to say it- would be in favour, even in our own days, of lowering the school-leaving age on the same grounds.[Such workers have accepted and reconciled themselves to that commodity status which is theirs under Capitalism, which ignores their rights and needs as human beings.]

After noticing these effects of manufacture, the specialisation of the labourer and his tools, the reduction and destruction of skilled labour, the increased profits made by social labour, and the coming of permanent wage-labourers with an ever-diminishing chance of becoming capitalists themselves, it is only to be expected that the workers should be forced by a compelling necessity to join together to preserve their standard of living.

Structure and Policy of the Early Unions.-Though, as pointed out above, manufacture reduced the amount of skilled labour necessary, yet it did not entirely destroy handicraft, which was still the basis of production. Therefore, the first unions were composed of skilled handicraftsmen, and possessed a craft basis or structure. This craft structure enabled the unions to perform their functions until it was made obsolete by the coming of machinery. They were also local in their form and at first were only local trade clubs. While certain trades and industries were still restricted to particular districts, and communication and travelling were almost undeveloped, the form could not be otherwise. Only in later times do we see the evolution of the local unions into national and international ones.

The workers tried hard to retain their skill and long apprenticeships against the encroachments of new developments. Enshrined in the traditions of the workers was the memory of the 14th and 15th century Golden Age of labour. This gave them an historic background for ideas of independence and for a belief in the sufficiency of a four-day week of labour. Loud were the complaints of the manufacturers and their intellectual lackeys at this spirit. The divine example of resting only upon the seventh day was cited in vain to these "intractable, self-willed workmen." "Throughout the whole manufacturing period there runs the complaint of want of discipline among the workmen"..."Order must in one way or another be established," wrote one anonymous author; and the famous Dr. Ure rejoiced when "Arkwright created order." Legislation directed to keep down wages was ineffective during the first two centuries of its existence, as the labourers were in a powerful economic position; and right up to the Industrial Revolution, the export trade was gradually getting bigger, and the workers being in demand and still owning in some cases a part of their tools, could still command attention and insist upon the observance of the seven years' apprenticeship. Not till 1777 was a Bill destroying this apprentice limit successfully carried through Parliament at the instigation of the master-hatters.

Thus in their policy, the early unions endeavoured to keep the supply of labour below the demand, for their own benefit. The State still claiming to regulate wages, the unions could not openly, legally, demand increased rates of pay; therefore they were forced to cloak over their real trade purposes with the friendly benefit side of their work. They paid out-of-work, sick, and funeral pay, and had meetings presumably for social purposes. But, as Adam Smith wrote: "The people of the same trade seldom meet together for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public (!) in some contrivance to raise wages."

1700-1799--The following are examples of authentic trade unions which sprang up in this period (for further examples the reader should consult Webb):-

In 1720 the master tailors complained to Parliament of their employees, who had demanded higher wages and shorter hours, and had "registered their names in a book and contributed funds for their common defence." Parliament fixed a maximum wage for them, and in 1767 further injunctions were issued against their efforts.

In the woollen manufacture in the West of England, from 1717 to 1725, the masters complained to Parliament of the combinations of their workmen. In the same industry in Yorkshire the factory system was later in its development, and therefore, conditions not being ripe before, we only find combinations there in 1794.

The woolcombers in the worsted industry, in 1741, combined sick benefits and trade regulation. The Woolstaplers and the Carriers possessed federal unions in 1795 which aided their members when on tramp in search of work. The Spitalfields Silkweavers and the Goldbeaters combined in 1773 and 1777 respectively. The Knitters combined when, though still working in their cottages, their frames were hired from the small capitalist frame-owner who also gave out and collected the work. In 1780 when this frame renting became general their union was formed.

In their development these combinations petitioned Parliament to enforce its own laws in regard to wages and apprentice restrictions. The conditions then made the manufacturing class revolutionary and the workers conservative; but, as always, the progressive forces won. "That which does not move forward ultimately decays." The weavers of Stroud in 1719, and the weavers of Wilts. and Somerset in 1726, appealed to the king for aid against their masters. In 1766 the Gloucester operatives had a table of wages fixed for them by Parliament. This Act, however, was repealed soon after, and later petitions were useless. The destruction of the apprentice regulations has been before noted.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, trade unions multiplied, in a pathetic attempt to prohibit machinery and retain the old standards. By 1792 and 1796 we find the Oldham and Stockport cotton operatives forming professedly benefit clubs. Parliament was torn between the old policy of State regulation of hours and wages and the new policy of laissez-faire. The unions, having all their complaints disregarded, tried to win their claims by strikes, and these provoked fierce denunciations of "conspiracies to raise wages" from the employers. These strikes and the machine-smashing riots were thought by the timid aristocracy to be attempts to imitate the violence of the French Revolutionists. At length, plagued by petitions and alarmed by the ever-growing trade union activity, Parliament hurried through the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800. These Acts made general and confined the former Acts made against individual unions; they made all combinations of any kind illegal and contained severe punishments against offenders. The trade unions had now to become secret societies or perish.

1800-1825.-Now begins "the struggle for existence." The unions continued their work in secrecy, and in some trades were powerful enough to force the employers to treat with them; in others they were destroyed by legal prosecution. The workers in the machine-invaded industries were the worst off. The conditions of secrecy and the savage sentences passed upon offenders-for the 1799 Act was ferociously administered- made for sporadic unions, and prevented any permanent or national organisations. Strikes occurred, e.g., the Durham and Northumberland miners struck in 1810 against their yearly bond and the truck system; and the Weavers, in a strike extending from Carlisle to Aberdeen, struck against deductions and other grievances in 1812. Survivals of the oaths and awe-inspiring ceremonies used in these two associations may still be traced.

Following the Napoleonic Wars came a time of stagnation and distress, aggravated by the Corn Laws. Machine breaking by the Luddites, the hanging and transportation of rioters, the march of the Blanketeers, the further application of machinery to other industries and the resulting dislocation, the prohibition of public meetings and of newspapers by heavy stamp duties- these were some of the events of the second decade of the 19th century. Aided by the Radicals; the workers made attempts to repeal the Combination Act. Francis Place and Joseph Hume were prominent in this work, and success crowned the effort in 1824. Contrary to the expectations of some of its promoters, after the repeal trade unions arose all over the country. The boom in trade unions and strikes which followed the long legal suppression alarmed the ruling classes, who had let the Repeal Bill slip through almost unnoticed. They secured the passing of an Act in 1825 which reaffirmed the former laws against conspiracy and gave only a limited recognition to the trade unions. The trade unions had now the right to combine to secure increased wages or withhold their labour to avoid a decrease. But the Act contained terms about "molesta tion," "obstruction," and "intimidation" which were capable of a very wide meaning in the hands of hostile lawyers and judges, and almost made a strike impracticable. Many of the new unions were broken up by the depression of the crisis which came in the following years, and when we take up their history it will be to follow the revolutionary hopes of 1829 and onwards.

Trade unions are the Frankenstein of Capitalism. If it were possible, Capitalism would satisfy its appetite for surplus value without bringing into being these inevitable, unwelcome companions. Working together, exploited together, organized together in their unions, the workers, looking no longer to the past, but to the future, are together digging the grave of capitalism.

Books.-Section III. of Craik's Modern Working-Class Movement. Capital, Vol. I., Chaps. XIII. and XIV., on Co-operation, and a masterly analysis of the effects of The Division of Labour and Manufacture. Webb's History of Trade Unionism, Chaps. I. and II. Francis Place. By St. J. G. Ervine (a Fabian Tract.)