TRADE UNIONISM IN ENGLAND
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Trade unionism in England was the natural outcome of industrialism.
Before the Industrial Revolution there was no chances for workers to meet and discuss their problems.
But after the Industrial Revolution and establishment of big factories, there were many opportunities for the labourers to meet and talk about their grievances.
Trade unionism can be defined as associations of workers formed with the purpose of improving the conditions under which work is carried on.
Francis Place was a master-tailor who worked ceaselessly for many years with a view to securing the repeal of the legislations (which were detrimental to the interests of the workers).
In the eighteenth century there were many small secret trade unions in England.
The ruling classes always looked upon these unions with suspicion and disfavour.
Towards the close of the century in the wake of the atrocities committed by the French revolutionaries, the authorities thought that similar things might happen in England also.
So they wanted to do something to forestall such violent happenings.
In 1799 and 1800 Combination Laws were passed by which trade unions were made illegal.
It was declared that workers who associated with their fellow workers for demanding higher wages or shorter hours of work were liable to be sent to prison.
It was against such unjust practices that Francis Place worked.
He even withdrew from his business in order that he might devote his full time to the task.
As a result of Francis Place's efforts, in 1824 the House of Commons appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Joseph Hume.
Hume recommended that union for the purpose of bargaining with employers on the subject of wages and hours of work was justified.
Accordingly in the same year an Act was passed to this effect.
THE UNIONS IN 19th CENTURY:
After 1824, trade unions were no longer organised in secret.
In the next few years efforts were made to combine small local trade unions in larger organisations.
Thus the Grand General Union of the United Kingdom and the National Association for the Protection of Labour came into existence.
The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was formed in the year 1834 with the efforts made by Robert Owen.
The membership of this union was about one million.
Though this union was popular in the beginning, as years went by, it failed mainly because the method it followed to settle disputes was general strike.
As a result, the labourers began to lose faith in the efficiency of trade union action.
A revival took place in 1843.
Fortunately there was a change for the better with regard to the aim of the unions of this period.
General strike as a weapon to settle disputes fell into disfavour.
In 1851, a number of unions in the engineering industry united to form the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.
It preferred to settle disputes with employers by negotiation.
The society had substantial funds and therefore was able to maintain a staff of officials.
In course of time in several other industries amalgamated unions were set up on the model of that of the engineers.
One very important feature of the unions of this period was that they demanded substantial subscriptions from their members.
The members in return were assured of payment in times of sickness or death and also allowance during strikes and periods of unemployment.
THE ROYAL COMMISSION:
Trade unions became active in sixties.
But the opponents of the union argued that the unions destroyed the former kindly relations which had existed between employers and employees.
It was also pointed out that the character of the workers deteriorated and that workers derived no financial benefit from the membership of the union.
There were also certain anomalies (irregularities) in the actual working of the unions.
So a Royal Commission was set up in 1867 to inquire into their conduct.
On the findings of the Commission certain temporary legislations were passed by the Parliament.
But a legislation which had long standing effect was the Trade Union Act, passed in the year 1871.
According to the provisions of this Act, the working of the union was rationalised.
Treasurers and other officials of a trade union were compelled to render to the union exact accounts of all the money received by them.
They became liable to prosecution if they were found guilty of misappropriation of party funds.
THE AGRICULTURAL LABOURERS:
During the seventies a large number of unions were formed.
Perhaps the most important union of the period was that of the agricultural labourers founded in 1872 by Joseph Arch.
But in the next one or two decades the union had its ups and downs, chiefly because of the hostile attitude of the squires, the clergy and the farmers.
Any way after the First World War, the National Union of agricultural workers came into existence.
During the sixties and seventies trade unionism was popular only among the skilled workers.
In the next ten years, efforts were made to extend the union movement among the unskilled workers also.
A match workers’ strike was organised by Annie Besant in 1888.
It had the desired effect of getting concessions from their employers.
Similarly in 1889 the union of gas workers was formed and a substantial reduction in their hours of work followed.
In the very same year the dock workers of the London Port embarked on a strike which lasted for many days and in the end they were able to achieve their aim of getting a minimum wage of six pence per hour.
It took many years for the trade union of railway workers to become effective.
The first railway union was formed in 1871.
The Amalgamated Society of Railway servants was organised in 1890 but only one-seventh of the railway workers were members of the union.
The pitiable thing was that most of the railway companies refused to recognise the unions.
In 1911 a strike occurred and it was called off only when promise was given that a Royal Commission would be constituted to consider the grievances of the men.
The Act of 1921, made it obligatory that the railway service should be represented by the railway trade unions.
The twentieth century trade unionism is not confined to manual workers.
Even white-collared employees such as medical men, traders, lawyers, journalists, bank clerks and actors have their respective unions to fight for their rights and privileges.
FEDERATIONS AND ALLIANCES:
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Trade Union movement of recent years is the formation of large federations and alliances.
In England for instance there are the Miners Federation, Engineering Federation, and Printing Traders Federation.
In certain cases unions of allied industries may join together.
The triple alliance of miners, railway workers and transport workers is an example.
Another interesting feature of trade unionism of today is the formation of Trade Union Congress to which are affiliated many unions.
TRADE UNION MOVEMENT:
The Trade Union movement has done much to improve the lot in life of workers.
Trade Union movement does not become harmful.
The present-day tendency of the workers is to do as little work as possible and at the same time demand as much payment as possible.
Social History of England by Louise Creighton
An Introduction to the Social History of England by A.G.Xavier
A Short History of Social Life in England by M B Synge
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