Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History

Chapter 17: Trade Unionism from 1830 to 1900

17. Trade Unionism from 1830 to 1900.

'THE history of the Trade Unions will now be taken up where it was left in Outline 14. In the various phases of Trade Unionism can be seen mirrored all the developments of England's Industrial History in the 19th century. Mention has already been made of how the condition of the workers depreciated from that of their Golden Age; of the distress and the high prices of food-wheat, for example, being 105/- per quarter in 1795- and of the social discontent, which honeycombed society with secret organizations and found expression in riotous disturbances and political agitations (at first mercilessly suppressed), that existed in the troubled years which followed upon the Industrial Revolution in the first quarter of the century.

Thorold Rogers tells us that the destruction of the iron lace-making frames at Nottingham, in 1811-12, by the displaced hand-workers, was punished by sentences of death, and other similar instances could be quoted. Assessments of wages by quarter sessions and compulsory apprenticeship were finally destroyed in 1814. The same writer informs us that, while the workers were in a desperate plight, "wealth was never more rapidly accumulated than in Yorkshire and Lancashire in the years 1800 to 1840"; and that, while the Factory Acts "were believed to be the deathblow to English manufacture, they have made labour more efficient, more intelligent, more decent, and more continuous, without trenching on profits."

The Trade Unions were able to come into the daylight after the Repeal of the Combination Act in 1824; and in their subsequent revival they attempted to make good for the long years of suppression, with the result that some of the old restrictions were reimposed by the alarmed employers.

Attempts at Federation.- After the failure of many of the unions to weather the crisis of 1825, Trade Unionism became active once again. Recognising that sectionalism had been a source of weakness, plans for its removal were made. From the local trade club began to develop the national trade union; and attempts were made to federate various trades. The material conditions for these new developments were a general expansion of capitalist production and the great improvements in transport and communication. The unity of the workers was born of necessity. Collective bargaining had come to stay and increase, until membership of the Trade Union became a compulsory condition of employment.

Contemporaneously with this boom in Trade Unions vigorous political agitation continued up to the Reform Bill of 1832, which gave the middle-class their desired triumph over the landed aristocracy, and left many of the workers disappointed.[ "When the middle class got their £10 franchise they did not see what the working class needed with votes." -G. J. HOlyoake]

The following are examp1es of these early unions :- The Grand General Union of the United Kingdom, formed in 1829 by the Lancashire textile workers; The National Association for the Protection of Labour (connected with the name of Doherty), a federation of 150 trades, which lasted two years from its start in 1830; and the Builders' Union (1832-4), a federation of the building trades, especially strong in the Midlands and Liverpool which was broken up by the frightened master-builders by means of the "document" and the lock-out.

The Owenite Period.-In this period occurs the best known attempt at federation. It centres round the year 1834, and derives its name from Robert Owen. Born at Newtown in Montgomerys in 1771, Owen was a man of high intelligence, and a pioneer who laboured hard in the cause of progress. He had risen from a draper's assistant to a factory owner, and in his factory at New Lanark he showed his fellow-capitalists the advantages of treating their employees with consideration, instituted a system of co-partnership, and provided some wonderful schools for their education. His failure to arouse his middle-class associates-partially caused by his openly declared religious scepticism- drove him to the side of the wage-workers. He was one of the prime movers in the agitation which secured the first Factory Acts.

The federation which he formed in 1834, the Grand Consolidated Union of Great Britain and Ireland, was more ambitious in its aims than any of its predecessors. Its founders hoped to supersede the capitalist economy and the State, and carry on production by means of this great union of workers. The disappointment of many of the advanced workers with the results of the 1832 Reform Bill caused them to join the Owenite movement, in order to try and win by industrial means what they had failed to win by political action.

Over half a million persons enrolled themselves in the G.N.C.; but few of them understood or shared the aims of its leaders. The general strike was to be its chief weapon. But though it possessed such magnificent ideals and roused such bitter animosity in the minds of the employers, the G.N.C. disappeared with its mission unaccomplished.

The reasons for its failure are not hard to discover. Its temporary success was due to the misery of the times, and not to an intelligent endorsement of any scheme. When dealing with the rise of Scientific Socialism, we shall endeavour to show that economic conditions were not ripe for the realisation of Owen's scheme, and that, however admirable his Utopia was, the logic of the machine had yet to complete its work before society could give birth to a new order emerging from the old, and not from the heads of idealists, however sincere those idealists might be.

After all, the G.N.C. was only a loose federation attempting to unite at the top. It indiscriminately opened its arms to all corners. Rival unions in the sametrades, and unions as diverse as those of the agricultural labourers, the chimney sweeps, the Operative Bonnet Makers, and the Female Tailors all found a place in its ranks. Sectional interests demanded sectional strikes, and when these failed disaffection ensued. A lasting unity became impossible; the general strike, which was to usher in the "New Moral Era," and "the Villages of Harmony," began to appear an unlikely event. Thus the G.N.C. went down before the onslaught of the opposition which it aroused. The fierceness of this opposition is typified in the case of the Dorchester labourers, six of whom were transported for seven years on the charge of administering unlawful oaths. Those who seek "to falsify history in order to fortify reaction" endeavour vainly to make deadly parallels between the failure of the G.N C. and the failure which awaits the claims and efforts of Industrial Unionism. But the intervening years have not been empty; the past has its lessons. Unity must begin, not at the top, but at the bottom. The amalgamation of all rival unions in the same industry must precede that greater unity and progress which Owen desired.

The rise of the Chartists, the beginning of the Co-operative Movement by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, and the triumph of the Corn Law League in 1846 have received previous treatment.

Chartism might be described as part of the travail by which machinofacture was delivered. In the prosperous years of "the grand era of capitalist expansion" which followed, it died away; and the workers, discarding all their former revolutionary hopes, settled down to build up stable, national organizations in their separate trades.

The "Model Unions."- In the first half of the century wages fell steadily. Then, out of their increased profits, the employers, in order to retain their workmen, paid better wages. After 1848, revolutionary methods were discredited, and, disappointed by the failure of the Chartist movement, many of the more militant workers emigrated.

Now, the trade unions, shelving all their former schemes for general unity, became a recognised part of society, trying to show the reasonableness of their claims. Ceasing to look to the past, not yet compelled to look toward the future, the unions modestly claimed "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work" and reconciled themselves to the present.

The "model" unions were highly centralised. The right to strike and the control of policy and finance were placed in the hands of permanent officials. This bureaucratic control made for the aggrandisement of the leaders and the forcing of the masses into inactivity. The diplomacy of the leaders, in negotiation with the employers, settled the disputes, while the rank and file remained in the background. Lengthy contracts were the order of the day. The friendly benefit side of the organization was enlarged at the expense of the trade side. Huge reserve funds were built up. Outside thinkers tried to prove the harmony of interests between employers and workers. The Fixed Wage Fund theory was believed in.[According to this theory, £100 of wealth is produced; the cost of the raw material, wear and tear of machinery, and the profits of the employer are paid out of this, perhaps leaving only £20 as a wage fund. More than this the labourers could not get. All they could do was to keep, if they possibly could, the supply of labour low so that the £20 would yield larger individual shares to the fewer workmen.] Thus the unions subsidised their out-of-work members, provided in some cases emigration funds, tried to abolish overtime, and restricted the number of apprentices.

The employers, having at last recognised that the trade unions had "come to stay," found it convenient to deal with the union through its all-powerful executive, who, after a little negotiation, would bargain away the collective rights of the union members to make new wage claims for a lengthy period.

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers served as a pattern to other unions of the highly-centralised "new model unions." Allan and Newton were the chief spirits in getting together the eight unions which formed it in 1861. The Carpenters and Joiners followed the A.S.E pattern in 1861. Other unions adopting the same policy and structure were the Compositors, the Flint Glass Makers, Bookbinders, Ironmoulders, and the Potters.

Between 1841 and 1848 attempts were made to link the miners into a national union. We are told of the doings of "the miners' attorney-general," W. P. Roberts, in connection with the association which was then started, only to die out in 1848. In 1860 the Yorkshire miners won the right of appointing a check-weigher. After two other attempts had been made, the M.F.G.B. was formed in 1888.

Trades' Councils.-While national unions in particular trades were being started, the branches of these unions often joined with each other to carry on local confficts or agitate for the removal of some legal barriers; for though the model unions frowned upon strikes, these still took place; and though, remembering the failure of the Chartists, the workers were still in the "no politics in the union" stage, adverse judicial decisions and the need for protection of their funds drove the unions into politics.

Soon, in several of the big towns, permanent councils of the trades grew up, which served as rallying points for the agitation and "lobbying" that was necessary to secure legal recognition in 1871. "The movement for the amendment of the Master and Servant Law was initiated by the Glasgow Trades Council, and resulted finally in the passing of the Master and Servant Act of 1867."

The London Trades Council was especially prominent, because working through it was the "Junta," or "Cabinet," of the Trade Union Movement. Several of the important unions had their offices in London, and the permanent paid officials of these centralised unions were able to work in close touch with each other. When the Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into Trade Unionism in 1867, they were able to secure the appointment of Frederick Harrison and Thomas Hughes (two prominent middle-class friends of Trade Unionism) upon it, and to supply them with information which largely influenced the findings of the Commission. At this time the employers were making strenuous efforts to smash the growing power of Trade Unionism by exploiting the public feeling excited by the Sheffield outrages, where a local union had resorted to "rattening" non-unionists and exploding cans of gunpowder. Also, the Lord Chief Justice, in 1867, had ruled that the Trade Unions, being illegal associations, could not take legal proceedings to prosecute any official if he absconded with union funds. The Junta, the most prominent figures in which were Allen (Engineers); Applegarth (Carpenters); Guile (Ironfounders); Coulson (London Order of Bricklayers), and Odger (connected with a small shoemakers' union), directed a counter agitation; and their efforts secured a legal status for the unions, and legal protection for their funds, in the Bill of 1871. While this Bill secured full recognition and expansion of the friendly side of the unions, it was accompanied by another stringently enforcing severe penalties against "picketing," "intimidation," etc., which hampered all trade unions - strikes under such restrictions being still practically impossible. Further agitation secured the repeal of this measure in 1875, peaceful picketing then becoming permissible, and also in the same year the Master and Servant Act was repealed and another placed in its stead, giving both worker and employer the right of suing each other in a court of law for breach of contract.

The Trade Union Congress.-The need for common action by the unions and the Trades Councils gave birth to the Trade Union Congress. The Councils sent delegates to the Congress up to the year 1895, when their representation was destroyed, to prevent duplication of membership. The Congress was first held in Manchester in 1868, and was convened in London by the Junta in 1871 to help in the Repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. Its Parliamentary Committee superseded the Junta, and the Congress became a regular institution. Thus in time, from the Lobby, Labour tried to go inside to make its influence more directly felt in politics. The Reform Bill of 1867, the Ballot Act of 1872, and another Reform Bill in 1884 helped to increase the political power of the working class. Congress sanctioned Parliamentary candidates in 1874, and Alexander Macdonald and Thomas Burt then entered Parliament.

The Awakening and its Cause.-However, it should be clearly understood that these political activities were made necessary in the seventies by the activity upon the industrial field which had excited the employers' hostility-expressed in judicial rulings and legal restrictions. For in the years 1871-5 there was a great extension of Trade Unionism. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants saw the light in 1871. In 1872, led by Joseph Arch, the agricultural labourers formed a union (which finally collapsed in 1894). The Engineers and Builders fought for a nine-hour day. On the other side we hear of the National Federation of Employers in 1873.

Tile slump 1876-9 caused only a temporary disappearance of this militancy; and in the eighties the "new unionism" comes into prominence, spreading among unskilled workers, hitherto unorganized, and often despised by the aristocratic craft unions.

Before noticing the difference between the model unions and the new unions a survey of England's industrial position will help us to grasp the true cause of this militancy. The splendid start England had received from the Industrial Revolution and her consequent prosperity have already been pointed out. While trade went ahead by "leaps and bounds" the capitalist could afford to let a few crumbs fall to the workers from his well-spread table. But when the British capitalists were losing their unchallenged supremacy, when their competitors -chiefly American and German-were catching up to them, then the employers were forced to cut down expenses, and were less disposed to listen to the demands of their employees. Even during the years of rapid expansions, crises had not been absent; but now they became prolonged in their effects. The capitalists of other nations, too, sought for markets in which to dispose of their surplus prnducts. Capitalism like a huge banyan tree, strikes its branches down into the soil of every land, and each branch taking root, itself becomes a part of the tree, sending out still more branches in search of foothold. The country, which to-day is a market, by to-morrow will have imported machinery and become a rival competitor, needing markets herself.

From now on to the end of the century a change can be seen coming over the structure and policy of the trade unions. The new unions organized the growing mass of unskilled workers who had no craft to preserve. They had a lower scale of benefit, and ordinary contributions and smaller reserve funds, and relied upon fighting rather than conciliation to gain their demands. The policy of the model unions was founded upon the recognition of the essential goodwill of the employer; but the increased friction undermined the old ideas of harmony between master and man, though these old ideas even persist in our own day, and the breaking away from them is often performed unconsciously.

With the change in policy, the disappearance of lengthy contracts, and the decrease of reserve and benefit funds, came a change in the structure of the unions. The highly-centralised union, dominated by its officials, who relied upon diplomacy and negotiation, did not respond quickly enough to the feelings of the rank and file. The leaders of the new unionism tried hard to stir the leaders of the old unions from a "craft consciousness" to a "class consciousness." "John Burns and Tom Mann were among the foremost critics of the 'aristocratic' organizations, with their high contributions and lack of militancy, with their miserly solicitude for funds and exclusive attention to friendly benefits, and their apathy and lack of vigour with respect to advancing the industrial position of the wage-labourer--especially that of the unskilled working men and women."[W.W. Craik, in Railway Review.]

In 1887 the Dockers' Union was born, and in 1889 the famous Dock Strike in London occurred. Ben Tillett has described how the "docker's tanner" was won, and how the horrors of the terrible system of the "call on" were removed by this strike, in his Brief History of the Dockers' Union. Previous to this, in 1888, with the help of Mrs. Besant, the match girls of Bryant & May successfully struck to better their conditions. The Gas-workers' and General Labourers' Union won an eight-hour day for the London gas stokers.

Trusting the reader will look up the excellent books, now easily available, for further particulars of the advances made in this period, brief mention will be made, before concluding this Outline, of the propaganda bodies which at this time came into existence. Formerly the unions strove only to remove legal restrictions by their political action, their leaders being impregnated with the individualism of the times; but new conceptions were abroad regarding the way out. The aim of the trade unions, "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work" was altered by the influence of new ideas, which were collectivist rather than individualist. The impossibility of getting "a fair day's wage" and the need of a more fundamental change began to be recognised. The wide circulation of Henry George's Progress and Poverty played a part in the creation and discussion of new ideas.

Propaganda Bodies.- "In the year 1881, an attempt was made," wrote Bax and Morris, "to federate the various Radical Clubs of London under the name of the Democratic Federation. Part of the heterogeneous elements, mainly the mere political Radicals, of which this was composed, withdrew from it in 1883; but other elements connected with the intellectual and literary side of Socialism joined it, and soon after the body declared for unqualified Socialism, and took the name of the Social Democratic Federation." The S.D.F. reduced the Marxian theory of development to a "rigid orthodoxy." The backward state of the Trade Unions gave it no hope from that quarter; and though it joined the Labour Party when the latter was formed, it soon broke away because the trade unionists were not advanced enough to share its views.

The Fabian Society was another Socialist body started in 1884. Mostly composed of middle-class people, it helped to permeate Liberalism with collectivist iaeas. It was frankly opportunistic; out to "break the spell of Marxism"; and distinctly British in its economics. It "glossed over the class struggle," and attempted to organize society from a consumer's point of view. With its excellent literature it has paved the way for the coming of State Socialism.

The Independent Labour Party, formed in 1893, came more into touch with the trade unions than any of the preceding propaganda bodies. Since their formation the New Unions had been active, and the I.L.P. was a manifestation of this new spirit on the political field. It was an attempt to permeate the Trade Unions with Socialism and create an independent political party to displace the Lib-Labs of the Broadhurst, Burt and Fenwick type. The Swansea Congress of 1887 was the scene of a conflict between the new and "the owd gang," personified respectively in Keir Hardie and Henry Broadhurst.

The End of the Century.-Owing to the fall in the cost of living, due to improvements in production and national competition, the industrial unrest was delayed for some time. The end of the century saw the number of trade unionists gradually increasing; the 4 millions of 1898 increased to nearly 2.5 in 1910.

Gibbins speaks of the disastrous cost of the South African War (1899-1903). The General Federation of Trade Unions began in 1899 to attempt to realise its ideal of a million members and "a gigantic central fund," proving that the moneybags method survives, though obsolete.

In 1898 occurred the strike out of which emerged the South Wales Miners' Federation. Prior developments to this event are as yet unrecorded, and their tale should be told while some of the people who took an active part in them, and who remember even farther back, are still with us. From the local craft unions (e.g., hauliers' nd hewers') and the individual colliery owners or small companies came the need of a definite united organisation on both sides. The men financially helping that section of their fellows who were out of work by fighting for the wage advance, formed contacts which he to clear the way for larger unity.

The spirit of revolt against the old structure, the friction between the leader and the mass, and the continued activity on the industrial and political fields were general characteristics of the trade union movement which did not cease with the century.

Books.-Gibbins, Period V. Craik's Modern Working-Class Movement, Sections III. IV., and VI. Trade Unions, by Jos, Clayton (People's Books) contains in a condensed, readable, and cheaper form much information for which the student generally consults the bulkier volumes of Webbs' The History of Trade Unionism and Industrial Democracy.