Early Labour Movement

Labour Unions

Note : in the U.S. referred to as Labour Unions, in the U.K. usually referred to as Trade Unions, in Germany as Gewerkschaften.

The emergence of the urban Proletariat, during the Industrial Revolution, was a new phenomenon. The industrial suburbs lacked a communal organization, neither state nor church took sufficient care of them; both state and church looked at the mass of workers and their misery with suspicion; they may be descrived as the outcasts of the early 19th century. Worse, not only were the workers recipients of little to no charity, legislation long banned the formation of organizations such as labour unions; the workers were deprived of the right to vote, and protective import tariffs (Corn Laws) long held the bread price at an artificially high level.
In England, Robert Owen founded the "Grand National Consolidated Trade Union" (1833-1834); membership quickly grew to half a million. The employers fired union members, in some cases locked out their entire workforce, blacklisted union members. A number of union leaders were arrested and tried; Owen resigned and the GNCTU failed.
Soon after, Trade Unions were formed, in a charter, which demanded universal adult manhood franchise; the movement is referred to as CHARTISM (since 1838). Electoral Reforms in 1867 and 1884, to a large extent, fulfilled their demand.
In Prussia (and in many other German countries), the formation of labour unions, such as that of other clubs and organizations, could only be executed with state approval (Carlsbad Decrees). In 1848, workers were among those who participated in the revolution. The workers in August Borsig's machinery factory in Berlin gave their employer a list with demands, among them a regular workday of 11 hours and increased pay. Borsig agreed, and the matter was settled. The Borsig factory workers had acted as a united body, although formally no union existed. After 1848 restrictions on the formation of organizations were eased somewhat, but lifted only in 1869 (Prussia / Northern German Federation).
In 1848 employer Borsig had sufficient insight to agree to the workers' demands, as there was revolution going on in all of Germany. Yet that was an exceptional situation; usually improvements of the situation of the workers came at the expense of the employers, were rejected by the latter and had to be achieved through labour conflict.
The most successful tools of the unions to press for their goals were demonstrations, strikes and boycotts. Strikes (the word comes from Polish Strajk), i.e. the refusal of the entire workforce to work, have been performed by craftsmen in the 18th century, at smaller scale, though. Boycotts were a new phenomenon, named after Charles C. Boycott, an Anglo-Irish landowner who treated his tenants exceptionally badly and was thrown out of business by a procedure christened after him.
The employers used an arsenal of measures to counter the workers' actions - lockouts, blacklists. Often they hired gangs, referred to as the 'Bucks', who were sent onto the streets to beat up union organizers, socialists and other persons the employers regarded troublemakers. The police rarely took action against the Bucks. On the other hand, police was quick to take action against union members if the latter gave them the slightest excuse, such as violence erupting during a demonstration or strike. Union meetings, in many countries, were attended by the local policeman who reported on the meeting to the authorities.
At large enterprises it was difficult to get all workers agree on a strike; the strikers regarded the workers who continued to work traitors (strike breakers). Picket lines were formed to prevent the strike breakers from reporting to work, or at least show them that they were regarded outcasts by their comrades.
Workers on strike were unpaid; therefore unions needed a fund in order to survive a strike. Members had to pay a membership fee into the fund. After a number of early strikes ('wild strikes') turned violent and gave the authorities an excuse to interfere, European labour unions developed a strict discipline, never to repeat that mistake.

The period from 1849 to 1880 is the period in which labour unions were formed, grew into organizations of size, gained their first experience with labour conflicts, failures and minor successes. The succeeding period, from 1880 to 1914, saw the labour union movement grow into mass organizations, forming an international organization, running major strikes, and causing the electoral laws in many countries to be reformed.

TUC : a proud movement's past, from BBC News
TUC History, from TUC
People's History Museum (National Museum of Labour History, Manchester)
Institut zur Erforschung der Geschichte der Gewerkschaften und Arbeiterkammern (Institute for Studying the History of Labour Unions and Chambers of Labourers), from Arbeiterkammer Wien (Chamber of Labourers, Vienna/Austria), in German
Geschichte des DGB (History of the German Federation of Labour Unions), from DGB Bayern, in German
Evangelische Gewerkschaften in der Schweiz - Die Anfänge (Protestant Labour Unions in Switzerland - the Beginnings), from efb, in German
Streik - Realitat und Mythos (Strike - Reality and Myth), virtual exhibition, from DHM, in German
VIDEO Germinal, French language movie with Engl subtitles, based on novel by Emile Zola, 1994, on (wild) coal miner strike in French part of the Borinage

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on October 30th 2003, last revised on November 16th 2004

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