(i) To examine the labour movement as an example of a social movement – perhaps the first social movement of the “modern” world. This will raise some issues, and give us some theoretical perspectives, which we can apply to other social movements.
(ii) To give an overview of the history of the labour movement, noting the context in which it arose, and examining the aims, strategies and beliefs of workers and others involved in the movement.
(iii) To appraise the achievements of the labour movement – in the past, e.g. contributing to the expansion of the franchise, and in the 20th century, viz: protecting workers’ standards of living and working conditions, etc.
1.1 Definition of “the labour movement” #definition
1.2 Contrasting views on the movement #contrasting views
2. Historical context of the growth of the labour movement:
2.1: before the industrial revolution - peasants, craftsmen and guilds #before the industrial revolution
2.2: industrialisation and capitalism – gains and losses for working people: #industrialisation
2.3: economic, political, and social strategies – the first ideas about struggle: choices: #choices & possible reactions by the poor:
2.4 political or economic demands - further discussion: #political
2.5 the beginnings of political parties supporting the labour movement: #parties
2.6 The central question: power #power
2.6.2 Lucas Alternative Plan: #Lucas Aerospace workers' plan
2.7 The dual nature of work: #work
3. The history of the workers’ movement as a power struggle – trade unions, employers and the law – late 19th to early 20th century: #unions and the law
3.1 Overview: changing ideas, and the role of the state #overview
3.3 The Combination Acts #Combination Acts
3.4 Peterloo #Peterloo
3.5 Robert Owen, Grand National Consolidated Trade Union #Robert Owen
3.6 Tolpuddle Martyrs #Tolpuddle
3.7 Chartists #Chartism
3.9 Match Girls #Match Girls
3.10 Dockers #dockers
4. References: #references
The labour movement exists to protect the conditions (including pay) of workers, and to improve them if possible.
Naturally, the movement - that is, workers acting collectively and for consciously-formulated goals (as distinct from mere rebellion or uprisings) - came into existence soon after the industrial revolution, when work began to be focussed on factories.
Today we would include in the labour movement:
1. trade unions, (however, as will be seen, the ‘roots’ of the labour movement can be found in the period before the growth of trade unions)
2. any political parties that exist to represent workers, especially the Labour Party – but note the discussion (2016) around whether the Labour party is a party or a movement (Momentum is a movement within the Labour Party?). Note also Gary Younge’s view in Guardian Weekend 17th Sep 2016: ‘a range of disparate movements around war, feminism, education, inequality’ have converged on the Labour party
3. various political organisations of a socialist, syndicalist, anarchist or Marxist outlook.
The fact that such a movement came into existence can be seen either:
- as evidence of workers resisting exploitation by those who control and manage their work - this is the socialist and Marxist view; or:
- perhaps as evidence that workers are greedy (in their demands for better wages etc) or power-hungry (should they aim to change capitalism) - this is a right-wing, conservative view. As we shall see, the twentieth century has seen the dominance of one view or the other at different times.
2. historical context of the growth of the labour movement:
In pre-industrial society, in
On the other hand, craftsmen (blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers etc) were independent, and in a sense self-employed, so issues of wages and conditions were their own responsibility: they employed apprentices who would learn the trade and follow in their footsteps.
One of the most interesting things about the Middle Ages is the way that craftsmen combined into guilds. These were a kind of precursor of trade unions (see also below), and of the labour movement. But they had very distinctive features which make any direct comparison with the labour movement and trade unions rather misleading. For example, guilds had control over the entry to the trade, they ensured standards and quality of work, and even controlled prices of goods. Both craftsmen and their apprentices were able to join the guilds. During the Middle Ages the guilds became very powerful, and their history is tied in with the way in which large towns and cities had some autonomy. The anarchist writer Kropotkin describes these activities as “mutual aid” in his book of the same name.
All this changed with industrialisation: technology enabled production to become mass production in factories, (goods could be produced more cheaply this way). At the same time, the division between those who controlled work (because they owned the factories) and those who simply worked - carrying out the orders of their employers - became more marked. This is the point at which the labour movement first emerged.
Not only were class distinctions becoming more clear and more polarised, but of course within the capitalist, or market, economy owners competed with each other in their drive for profits - and, naturally, one of the simplest ways of reducing production costs is to reduce wages, or to reduce the number of workers, e.g. through the introduction of machines. Thus, as Marx and others saw it, the owners’ and the workers’ interests were in conflict with each other. Owners hired workers, who were forced into selling their labour (no work = no pay). Marx argued that this class division and class conflict had become the distinctive feature of what was now called capitalist society. All who write about the period agree that the accumulation of capital was a pre-requisite for the growth of production that took place. The disagreement is over the question of who benefited most: was wealth distributed amongst all sections of society, as conservatives (and even Adam Smith) argued – or was it rather the case, as radicals argue, that the owners’ share of wealth outstripped that of the workers?
Writers such as Engels, in “The Condition of the Working Classes in England” (1844 – quoted in ed. Harvie 1970) stressed how workers were pushed together into slums; their working hours were tightly regulated by the factory clock, (no longer, like the peasantry, working according to daylight and seasonal hours); and they were vulnerable to economic slumps and crises, thrown out of work if their labour costs were “too high” - whilst the owners, holding capital, were much more secure and could, to a large extent, determine their own income.
Those who joined the labour movement shared the anger at the degradation of working peoples’ conditions, and were determined to fight back against the unfairness of the system. Given the harsh working conditions, and the lack of power they had, it is little wonder (in my view) that workers resisted. Marx pointed to a sweet paradox: the factory system threw workers together into collectives, but this enabled them to understand, and to begin to do something about, their common predicament – the capitalist system gave birth to its own grave-diggers! (See The Communist Manifesto, etc).
notes (1962, p 251) the social
inequalities of the early to mid 19th century were extreme. He gives
the following illustrative example: whilst at a masked ball in 1842 the
Baroness Rothschild wore one and a half million francs worth of jewellery, the
women of Rochdale were described by a contemporary observer as “dreadfully
hungry”… ready to “devour” a loaf of bread “even if it is covered in mud”.
Hobsbawm adds that even the impoverished rural workers had twice the life
expectancy of urban workers in
So, there were “three possibilities… open to… the poor… They could strive to become bourgeois; they could allow themselves to be ground down; or they could rebel.” (loc cit, p 245). Hobsbawm then notes that trying to become bourgeois was not only extremely difficult, but actually distasteful, since this was not yet a society which had adopted the widespread view now held that each of us has a right to better him/herself whatever the effects on others.
We can, then, identify a spectrum of alternative ways of dealing with the problem, open to the workers of the time, from the self-destructive through to the planning of a revolution:
(i) the ultimately self-destructive: turning to drink, theft, or prostitution; believing in fringe religions i.e. the “second coming”; – even suicide and mental derangement, were all ways (Hobsbawm suggests, loc cit p 249) of escaping “the fate of being a poor labouring man”, whilst avoiding collective action
(ii) rioting and violent rebellion – smashing machines, destroying shops or the houses of the rich
(iii) making specific demands, as with the “Six Points” of the Peoples Charter (*
footnote at end of these notes) - which Hobsbawm (loc cit p 256) argues was an
approach inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, i.e. a Jacobin outlook (for
democracy, respect, recognition and equality)
(iv) ultimately, the planning of revolution by the growing revolutionary proletarian movement (aiming at the “co-operative commonwealth”).
So, the labour movement, when it came into being, was never only making ‘economic’ demands. We can see also that the trade unions were mainly concerned with economic/financial questions, but it is evident that workers were also dramatically faced with political choices, affecting both their strategy and their beliefs about society (ideologies).
As E.P. Thompson (1963) argues, the part of the ‘English working class’ that became aware of the inadequacies of the political and economic system can trace its origins to the 17th century, with the Levellers. In the 18th century the writings of Tom Paine in defence of the American revolution and the ‘rights of man’, the London Corresponding Society (set up in 1792 – see below), together with Dissenters and other religious groups carried the ideas forward.
There is no time or space here to go as far back as this in detail, so for further notes, see:
pp15socialismbeforemarx.htm – for brief notes on the Levellers
pp11burkeandpaine.htm – for notes on Tom Paine.
We have seen, then, that as soon as workers began to organise, differences began to emerge amongst them, especially over the question: what is the best strategy? Should workers simply push for better wages and conditions (purely economic demands) or would this be hopeless without a struggle to change the whole economic system (which involved political demands)?
There was also an argument, promoted by such as William Morris, over the nature of work: was work degrading in itself, or could it be enjoyed as a contribution to social good? Morris argued that the market system meant that production was no longer for need or use, but for profit, and that this distorted everything. Once we had a society where production was for social use, then work would be satisfying – we would no longer even need the incentive of pay to get people to work! (See Morris’s “News from Nowhere”, quoted in Harvie 1970 p 321).
Friedrich Engels noted the unions’ stress on economic goals in 1879: “the English working class movement has confined itself within a narrow circle of strikes for higher wages and shorter hours…. The trade unions in their charters actually bar all political action on principle and in this way they stop the proletariat as a class from taking part in any working-class movement.” (ed. Harvie, 1970, p 131) Harvie adds (p 132) that it was only “when mechanisation struck at the skilled trades in the 1880s, and the unskilled workers were [also] unionised, that a militant and class-conscious movement of the sort envisaged by Engels started to emerge”.
Eventually of course (early in the twentieth century) political parties were formed to make demands on behalf of the workers, by giving them representation in Parliament.
The Independent Labour Party (founded 1890), who put considerable effort into propaganda in the area, and so the spread of socialist ideas was not just a result of the intensification of work at the time. The ILP campaigned on a broad range of issues, including housing and poverty. (See MacIvor 2001)
The Labour Party, which was undoubtedly formed as a result of pressure from the labour movement – though, once formed, it has had to broaden its appeal to keep electoral support. The most natural political allies of organised labour are socialists; but in some European countries you will find others (e.g. Christian Democrats) representing the workers’ interests.
From the time of the formation of labour parties etc, trade unions increasingly served the function of making economic demands, i.e. for higher wages, more time off, and better conditions, whilst leaving the political struggle to the political (socialist) parties, (a ‘division of labour’!!). It can even be argued (in a similar way to Engels as described above) that, if unions focus entirely on their pay and conditions, and in so far as a trade union will very often try to maintain the “differential” between its workers’ pay and the pay of some other group (that is traditionally regarded as not deserving such high pay), trade unions are in practice far from being political at all, let alone socialist!
However, perhaps the distinction between “economic” and “political” is false, or too narrow? For one thing, whenever workers try to improve wages or conditions they are in effect challenging the managers’ and owners’ power. Classical Marxists tend to stress the economic control that owners have over the workers – other socialists (and not just those Harvie calls “middle class radicals”) note that there is another crucial issue that is at the root of much industrial (and social) conflict: who has power, or control, over the work process? (See Notes on Castoriadis).
In other words, it is argued that it is not possible to isolate economic power from other dimensions of power. This idea has been developed by other socialists, such as Gramsci, whose concept of ‘hegemony’ identifies the ruling class’s power over workers’ thinking (consciousness, ideology) as well as over their pay and working conditions.
As further evidence to back up the idea that workers are controlled in other ways than simply not receiving the wage they are entitled to, take the issue of workers’ opposition to technological change (when they are accused of being “Luddites”); this criticism usually involves an over-simplification of the issue. For example, when the (actual) Luddites opposed the introduction of machines that would lead to their losing their skills, they were not opposing technology as such, but the kind of technology and how it was being applied. As Albury and Schwartz (1982) point out in their study of technology (miners’ lamps) in the coal industry there are always choices to be made over the introduction of new technology, there are choices over what kind of technology, and the central issue we always need to address is: who will benefit from the changes? Albury and Schwartz argue that the Davy lamp was not introduced just to save miners’ lives (in fact, the accident statistics show that it didn’t) but because it also enabled the exploitation of gas-filled seams that otherwise would have been more dangerous for miners to work. Productivity, and the owners’ profits, subsequently went up. The number of miners killed in explosions also went up… If the mine owners had listened to the miners’ proposals for safety (more ventilation) then undoubtedly lives would have been saved, but the owners’ profits would have been reduced (ventilation shafts were more expensive than miners’ lamps).
This case, and others like it, demonstrates that workers’ movement is not simply defensive or reactionary (in the sense of reacting to events) – miners already had a solution to the problem of explosions in the mines: the owners resisted this and tried to find a simpler and cheaper solution. An important part of the owners’ viewpoint was their belief that they had the right to make decisions about the work process.
Similarly, when modern-day workers resist the introduction of computer-based production methods, these disputes could be solved by a different approach to technology, if only managers would ‘get out of the way’ and stop insisting on their ‘right to manage’ (which is after all another form of power).
To give another example, when workers (in the late 1970s – see CSR Chapter 4) at Lucas Aerospace were threatened with redundancy (because of a decline in orders from the government for defence-related equipment), they came up with a number of suggestions for alternative products that they could make – still using their advanced skills and technological knowledge. A crucial problem that often arises when managers choose a new technology is the phenomenon of ‘deskilling’ – workers are no longer in control of the work, but pass over their skills to machines (automated systems and robots). The workers proposed hybrid power engines (thirty years later we at last have hybrid powered cars on the road), heat pumps (popular now as a way of heating without producing CO2!), a road-rail bus, and more production of kidney dialysis machines (there was a shortage at the time). The fact that these ideas were not taken up may well say more about the lack of imagination on the part of British management than anything else, and it certainly reflected the management’s mistrust of the workforce, and their need to hold on to their decision-making power (their right to manage)! Mere workers could not be allowed to challenge the managers’ right to make decisions about the product and the output of the business: where would that end?!
2.7 The dual nature of work:
Finally, a recent writer continues the discussion of workers’ attitudes to work with a valuable, and to my mind a balanced, study of the labour movement. A.J. McIvor (2001) focuses on work, how it affects people’s lives, and how the labour movement reacted to changes at work. He stresses the dual nature of work: it brings meaning and dignity or status to people’s lives, (and loss of work is demoralising); but at the same time it can be dangerous (all work was dangerous in Victorian times, he says) and degrading.
Echoing the point made above about a constant conflict, McIvor says that industrial relations in the workplace represents a “frontier of control” – workers develop a sense of solidarity, setting up collective structures (workers’ shop floor committees, unions etc) in order to try to gain control over different aspects of the work (safety, hours, pay, the pace of work etc) but employers and managers will fight to defend their right to manage – their managerial prerogative (and they, too will form collective organisations, such as, today, the CBI).
This dual nature of work goes some way to explaining the complex attitudes of the trade union movement: its aims are to defend jobs, whilst at the same time to prevent jobs being dangerous or alienating. Anarchists would argue that these are contradictory aims: the nature of work in a capitalist society is bound to be exploitative. Thus the old anti-unemployment slogan (used by the International Socialists/Socialist Worker Party) “defend the right to work” suggests that capitalist employment is a good thing… anarchists would argue for “the right to be lazy”! This discussion of course puts a different slant on the question explored above as to whether unions should press for economic or political demands.
3.1 Overview: changing ideas, and the role of the state
- Liberal beliefs in “progress” were challenged (though not refuted, since socialism predicted progress through social change) by the evident poverty;
- the optimism of the economics of Adam Smith was replaced by the “dismal science” of Malthus and Ricardo (who argued, before Marx, that the rate of profit would tend to decline)
- leading figures such as Robert Owen, as well as Engels and Marx, came to have an influence. Marx’s ideas were exceptionally powerful, since he combined the theories of economics, social science and politics into one “system” of thought. Moreover, this system had a powerful ethical appeal: capitalism therefore was evil, but also doomed to fail, for reasons that – he believed – could be identified scientifically and by empirical observation.
The main vehicle workers used to better their conditions and to try to gain more control over their work was, of course, the trade union movement. However, as Engels (Marx’s collaborator) said, in 1844: “The history of these unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories.” (The Conditions of the Working Class in England, in Harvie 1970, p 133). In Engels’s view this was because unions cannot change economic laws, and the capitalist economy inevitably leads to conflict – but the capitalists themselves (the owners and shareholders) always have the upper hand (see also: Marxism - an overview). Others are more positive about the achievements – in the long term – of trade unions (see below). However, to see the labour movement as being weak mainly because it is faced with irrefutable economic laws is not only highly controversial (because it is deterministic), but it is over-simple (as many Marxists would agree!). We need to take into account the other political players – especially the state. As Ben Hooberman notes in the Historical Introduction to his 1974 Introduction to British trade unions: from medieval times the law (i.e. the state, which in the early days of the movement was synonymous with the wealthy) had a say in fixing workers’ wages and conditions (e.g. the Ordinance of Labourers, 1349!).
3.2 London Corresponding Society 1792:
E.P. Thompson’s book (which is of course highly recommended for understanding the Making of the English Working Class!) starts with a striking account of the early days of the London Corresponding Society: this was set up for ‘Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, and Mechanics’ to discuss the question whether they had any right to ‘obtain Parliamentary Reform’? Thus political aims were central... (see 2.6 below).
Its founder and first secretary Thomas Hardy was arrested in May 1794 by ‘the King’s Messenger, two Bow Street Runners, the private secretary to the Home Secretary’ and others, and charged with high treason. The punishment for high treason was to be ‘hanged by the neck, cut down while still alive, disembowelled (and his entrails burned before his face) and then beheaded and quartered’. Fortunately the jury ‘had no stomach for this’ and he was found Not Guilty. However, by the end of the decade the reformers had been repressed, the LCS was outlawed and meetings were banned, as was Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. I quote this as one example of the terrible power of the opposition to demands for rights for ordinary people…
It is not as well-known as it should be, that for many, many years workers were forbidden by law to “combine” – i.e. to get together even to discuss their conditions. The Combination Acts (passed in 1799/1800) made such activity punishable by imprisonment or even by deportation! They were not repealed until 1824, and even then, when the repeal was followed by a series of strikes and riots, the Act was amended in 1825 to restrict the right or workers to combine: they could only do so to agree with employers their wages and hours of work.
In August 1819 the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ occurred:
as the historian Tristram Hunt writes (Guardian newspaper 24.07.06): ‘on August
16th 60,000 workers, artisans, journeymen and radicals congregated
on St Peter’s Fields on the edges of fast-industrialising Manchester to demand
adult male suffrage and a repeal of the Corn
Law price-fixing cartel. Workers had realised that without political power
they would never reap the riches of industrialisation. The meeting represented
a dangerous challenge to the political and economic monopoly of the landed
aristocracy.’ Magistrates demanded that they leave (fears of the influence of
the French Revolution were strong), local officers could not deal with the
crowd and called in the
Still, once they were able to do so, ordinary workers
began to organise into friendly societies, co-operatives, trading associations
and eventually into unions. Skilled workers such as the Manchester Cotton
Spinners (who had a six-month strike in 1929), and the Builders
A key figure at this time (early in the 19th century) was Robert Owen, who believed in workers’ co-operatives – which would free workers from the power and control exercised by employers. Owen set up working communities himself (e.g. New Lanark) where he as owner took a paternalistic interest in the workers’ welfare. In 1834, under Owen’s influence, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was set up, with the aim of buying land and tools so that workers could survive even when on strike. Workers flocked to join the Grand National, which soon had over 1 million members. However, due to its getting involved in strikes and lockouts before it had been fully established, it ran out of funds and collapsed by the end of the year. (Hooberman 1974)
Workers had also been discouraged from joining the
union by the treatment of the Tolpuddle
Martyrs. These were a group of six agricultural labourers who attempted to
set up a Friendly Society: the government, using an Act of 1797, convicted them
of sedition for taking an illegal
oath (as members of the Society – the secret oath was for their protection,
such was the hostility to them in official circles at the time). In 1834
the men were sentenced to seven years
At about the same time, in 1836, the Chartist Movement
was founded: workers realised that Parliament was so unrepresentative of their
interests that it would have to be reformed. Chartists therefore had an explicitly political goal and used political means, such as
demonstrations and petitions, and pressurising parliament, to demand greater
democracy and an improvement in workers’ conditions. A most memorable occasion
was the mass rally of
Chartism (From Wikipedia) was a
working-class movement for political reform in
The People's Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:
Chartism can be interpreted as a continuation of the 18th century fight against corruption and for democracy in an industrial society, but it attracted considerably more support than the radical groups of that time, and economic causes of support for the movement – wage cuts, unemployment etc. – should not be played down.’ Hobsbawm says that these demands were more closely allied to middle class radicalism, than to any self-conscious socialism or communism. Nevertheless, by taking the position that it was those in parliament who ought to be doing something about inequality, the Chartists paved the way for political representation of the workers.
A useful review (Guardian) http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/28/penny-loaves-butter-cheap-stephen-bates-review of a book on ‘Britain in 1846’ sets out clearly the effects of the repeal of the Corn Laws, and in passing mentions how the Chartists ended up, in 1848, presenting a petition to parliament for constitutional reform (rather than manning the barricades as people did in other parts of Europe in that year of revolutions!).
In 1871 the Trade Union Act was passed, and
unions’ objects were no longer unlawful, peaceful picketing became legal, and
their income (provided they were registered) was not to be subject to income
tax. This legislation followed the founding
Another significant event in the growth of trade unions was the 1888 “match-girls strike”: campaigners and writers such as Henry George, H.M. Hyndman, Robert Blatchford, William Morris and Keir Hardie drew attention to the plight of unskilled workers at the time (Hooberman, loc cit). The match-girls were earning pitifully small sums for their dangerous work (a kind of gangrene called phossy-jaw could be caused by working with phosphorous), and employers tried to get them to sign an agreement saying that their working conditions were satisfactory – they refused and went on strike. The girls formed a union, with Annie Besant as Secretary, and eventually the employers had to give way. Now unskilled workers were organised as well.
The next year, 1889, gas-workers under Will Thorne’s leadership formed a union,
forerunner of the General and Municipal Workers Union. There was another
significant successful strike, the “Great
Dock Strike” in 1889 again led by Will Thorne. This strike action was
supported by public donations from as far away as
4. References: (see also social movements - books.htm)
1. History of the workers’ movement etc (main references in bold):
H.A. (1970): The System of Industrial Relations in
Harvie, C. (ed) (1970): Industrialisation and Culture 1830 – 1914, Macmillan for the Open University
Hobsbawm, E. (1962): The Age of Revolution, Pelican
Hobsbawm E (1968): Industry and Empire, Pelican
Hooberman, B (1974): An Introduction to British Trade Unions, Pelican
(2001): A History of Work in
Thompson, E.P. (1963): The Making of the English Working Classes, Penguin
2. Social Movement Theory (see also references in: Social Movements Theory):
T. (1979): Political Sociology,
Paul (1997): Social Movements in
Della Porta, D. (1999): Social Movements, an introduction, Blackwell
Giddens, A (1989): Sociology, Polity Press
Lyman, S. (ed) 1995: Social Movements - critiques, concepts, case-studies, New York University Press
Maheu, L. (ed) (1995): Social Movements and Social Classes, Sage
D. et al (1999): Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements,
J. (1991): Social Movements - the politics of moral protest, Longman,
F. (1968): Middle Class Radicalism,
Scott, A. (1990): Ideology and the New Social Movements, Unwin Hyman
D (1982): Partial Progress, 1982,