Ch 14 The Organisation of the Working Class

CH.14: The Organisation of the Working Class

Hits: 1828

CHAPTER XIV: THE ORGANISATION OF THE WORKING CLASS

SECTION 1: REVOLUTIONARY TRADE UNIONISM

EVER SINCE WAGE EARNERS HAVE EXISTED, ORGANISATIONS HAVE SET OUT TO DEFEND THEIR INTERESTS AND RIGHTS AGAINST EMPLOYERS.

THE GREAT SOCIETY AND YEOMANS’ GUILDS OF THE 14th CENTURY WERE IN ESSENCE TRADE UNIONS OR UNIONS OF TRADES.

THEIR STRUGGLE, WHICH ALL COULD APPRECIATE, SURVIVED ILLEGALITY, CONSPIRATORS, ORDERS, IMPRISONMENT AND THE FULL FORCE OF THE RULING CLASSES’ TROOPS.

IN THE 18th CENTURY, TRADES PROTECTED THEIR MEMBERS AGAINST THE MASTERS. IN 1754, 300 NORWICH WOOL WEAVERS DEMANDED AN INCREASE IN WAGES. THEY RETREATED TO HUTS ON A HILLSIDE OUTSIDE TOWN, WHERE THEY LIVED FOR SIX WEEKS AND WERE FED BY CONTRIBUTIONS FROM FELLOW WORKERS.

BY 1721, JOURNEYMEN TAILORS OF LONDON HAD A POWERFUL AND PERMANENT UNION, AS DID THE HOSIERS OF NOTTINGHAM.

AN ACT OF PARLIAMENT IN 1726 MADE ASSOCIATION FOR CONSPIRACY OR FOR ACTS “IN RESTRAINT OF TRADE” ILLEGAL, FOLLOWING COMBINATIONS AND DESTRUCTION OF STOCKING MACHINES.

CRAFT BODIES CONTINUED MOSTLY UNMOLESTED UNTIL THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, WHEN DISCONTENT COUPLED WITH POLITICAL JACOBINISM TERRIFIED THE RULING CLASSES INTO MORE DRASTIC ACTION AND THE COMBINATION LAWS OF 1799 AND 1800.

THESE LAWS WERE THE WORK OF THE TORY PITT AND HIS SANCTIMONIOUS FRIEND WILBERFORCE. WORKERS WERE PROSECUTED IN THEIR THOUSANDS BY MAGISTRATES, WHO WERE OFTEN ALSO EMPLOYERS.

IN THEORY, THE LAWS APPLIED TO EMPLOYERS AS WELL, ALTHOUGH NONE WERE EVER PROSECUTED.

THE LAW WAS NOT REGULARLY ENFORCED AGAINST OLD FASHIONED CRAFT UNIONS, BUT A NUMBER OF CASES WERE NOTORIOUS: ‘THE TIMES’ COMPOSITORS OF 1810, OR THE COACHMAKERS 1819.  BUT IT WAS THE WORKERS IN THE TEXTILE FACTORIES WHO WERE AFFECTED MOST.

“THE SUFFERINGS OF THE PERSONS EMPLOYED IN THE COTTON MANUFACTURE WERE BEYOND CREDIBILITY: THEY WERE DRAWN INTO COMBINATIONS, BETRAYED, PROSECUTED, CONVICTED, SENTENCED AND MONSTROUSLY SEVERE PUNISHMENTS INFLICTED UPON THEM. THEY WERE REDUCED TO AND KEPT IN THE MOST WRETCHED STATE OF EXISTENCE,” WROTE PLACE.

BY 1800, WAGES IMPROVED, AT FIRST IN SOME SECTIONS OF THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY. BUT THEY THEN DECLINED FOR THE NEXT 20 YEARS, AND EVEN THE SEVERITY OF THE LAW DID NOT PREVENT THE FORMATION OF UNIONS. 

INDEED, THERE ARE FEW MORE SPLENDID EPISODES IN WORKING CLASS HISTORY THAN THE WAY THE LAWS WERE DEFIED, BUT CHANCES OF SUCCESS WERE STILL LIMITED. STRIKES WERE COMMON AND CARRIED THROUGH WITH TENACITY. BUT THEY ALWAYS ENDED IN ARRESTS, BROKEN ORGANISATION, DEFEAT AND NEW REDUCTIONS IN WAGES.

IN 1815, THE TYNE AND WEAR SEAMANS’ STRIKE AGAINST UNDERMANNING OF SHIPS WAS ONLY BROKEN BY CALLING IN THE TROOPS AND MARKED BAD FAITH BY THE SHIP OWNERS. IT WAS SO FLAGRANT THAT IT SCANDALISED THE HOME OFFICE REPRESENTATIVE SENT TO MEDIATE.

IN 1824, PLACE AND OTHERS REPEALED THE COMBINATION LAWS, AND ALTHOUGH IT LEFT THE EXISTENCE OF UNIONS LEGAL, IT MADE ILLEGAL ALMOST EVERY KIND OF ACTIVITY THEY WERE LIKELY TO UNDERTAKE.

EVEN SO, GREAT LEAPS FORWARD WERE MADE.

THE LANCASHIRE WEAVERS, THE MANCHESTER DYERS, THE DURHAM AND LONDON SHIPWRIGHTS AND THE BRADFORD WOOLCOMBERS AND WEAVERS ALL FORMED UNIONS.

THE IRONWORKERS OF DOWLAIS AND MERTHYR STAGED GUERRILLA WARFARE, UNTIL LEADER DICK PENDERYN WAS CAPTURED BY YEOMANRY AND TROOPS EXECUTED HIM IN 1831.

IN SPITE OF THIS, THERE WERE FREQUENT STRIKES AND CLASHES WITH TROOPS, AND THE WHOLESALE DESTRUCTION OF LOOMS AND MACHINERY CONTINUED.

IN LANCASHIRE, JOHN DOHERTY BECAME AN OUTSTANDING TRADE UNION LEADER (COTTON WORKERS), HAVING SERVED HIS APPRENTICESHIP IN THE DAYS OF ILLEGALITY. ‘THE GRAND GENERAL UNION OF THE UNITED KINGDOM’ WAS FORMED. IN 1830 DOHERTY, BECAME SECRETARY TO ‘THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE PROTECTION OF LABOUR’.

THIS BODY WAS THE UNION OF TRADES (OR TRADE UNION), DISTINCT FROM ORGANISATIONS CATERING FOR ONE GROUP OR SECTION OF WORKERS.

MEMBERSHIP REACHED 100,000, WHILE ITS WEEKLY JOURNAL COSTED SEVEN SHILLINGS (DUE TO HIGH TAX) AND HAD A CIRCULATION OF 30,000.

IT PERISHED FOR REASONS STILL OBSCURE, BUT THE OPERATIVE BUILDERS’ UNION FORMED IN 1833 OUT OF A NUMBER OF CRAFTS AND SOON REACHED 40,000. IN 1834, IT MERGED INTO THE GRAND NATIONAL CONSOLIDATED TRADES UNION.

THE IDEA WAS TO HAVE ONE BIG UNION IN ORDER TO RAISE WAGES, OR PREVENT ANY FURTHER REDUCTION, REDUCE THE HOURS OF LABOUR AND ESTABLISH THE PARAMOUNT RIGHTS OF INDUSTRIAL WORKERS AND HUMANITY.

THE UNION SHOULD LOSE NO OPPORTUNITY FOR MUTUALLY ENCOURAGING AND ASSISTING EACH OTHER IN BRINGING ABOUT A “DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS”.

IN THIS DECLARATION, TWO THINGS ARE APPARENT: FIRST, AN INSTINCTIVE AND REVOLUTIONARY CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS; SECOND, THE CONFUSED AND MORALISING OPINIONS OF ROBERT OWEN.

THE TWO TRENDS PROVED INCOMPATIBLE, AND THE GRAND NATIONAL DESTROYED ITSELF.

OWEN HAD REACHED AN UNDERSTANDING CONCERNING THE CONCEPTION OF SOCIALISM AND COOPERATION. BY 1817, THOUGH, IT WAS A SOCIALISM THAT TOOK NO ACCOUNT OF CLASS AND BASED ITSELF ON ABSTRACT IDEAS OF RIGHT AND JUSTICE.

BY 1834, OWEN WAS AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS FAME, AND HE WAS WELCOMED AS AN ALLY BY LEADERS OF THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT. HOWEVER, THE MOOD WAS THAT REFORM IN PARLIAMENT AND POLITICAL ACTION WERE USELESS AND THAT THEIR SOCIAL AIMS COULD ONLY BE ACCOMPLISHED BY INDUSTRIAL ORGANISATION AND STRIKE ACTION.

OWEN SHARED THEIR DISLIKE OF PARLIAMENT, AND HE REJECTED ATTACKS ON EMPLOYERS, ALTHOUGH HE DID ADVOCATE A GENERAL STRIKE FOR AN EIGHT HOUR DAY.

QUARRELS BROKE OUT, AND THE UNION WAS WEAKENED.

HAVING SUCCEEDED IN GROWING TO HALF A MILLION, THE GRAND NATIONAL ORGANISED STRIKES EVERYWHERE AND SCARED THE GOVERNMENT INTO BELIEVING THAT REVOLUTION WAS AT HAND.

IT WAS UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT SIX FARM LABOURERS AT TOLPUDDLE WERE ARRESTED, HASTILY TRIED AND SENTENCED TO TRANSPORTATION, DESPITE ENORMOUS PROTESTS.

100,000 PEOPLE TOOK PART IN A DEMONSTRATION AT KINGS CROSS IN LONDON, WHICH TURNED INTO A VAST PARADE OF TRADE UNION SOLIDARITY.

THE SENTENCES WERE EVENTUALLY REMITTED IN 1836, AND, LATER, THE MEN RETURNED HOME.

ORGANISATIONAL DIFFICULTIES CAUSED BY THE QUICK GROWTH OF THE GRAND NATIONAL CAUSED ITS RAPID DECLINE.

OWEN’S DISPUTE WITH THE ‘LEFT’ GREW SO BITTER THAT HE CLOSED DOWN THE UNION’S JOURNAL TO PREVENT RIVALS EXPRESSING THEIR VIEWS.

IN 1834, THE UNION WAS DISSOLVED. MORRISON HAD ALREADY LEFT AND DIED IN GREAT POVERTY A YEAR LATER.

THE COLLAPSE WAS NOT THE END. LOCAL ORGANISATIONS FLOURISHED WITH NARROWER AIMS AND FEWER MEMBERS. A GENERAL STRIKE WAS NOW PREACHED AS THE END NOT THE BEGINNING OF STRUGGLE.

REVOLUTIONARY TRADE UNIONISM ALONE HAD FAILED, AND THE NEXT STAGE OF AGITATION WAS TO BE A POLITICAL STRUGGLE WITH ITS ROOTS IN THE MASS ORGANISATION OF THE WORKING CLASS.

THE WORKERS WERE FAR FROM DISHEARTENED BY THE DEFEAT OF THE GRAND NATIONAL. ONLY TWO YEARS AFTER ITS DISSOLUTION, THE FIRST SIGNS OF THE CHARTISTS MOVEMENT APPEARED.

THE CHARTISTS IN TURN MADE MANY SERIOUS MISTAKES, BUT THEY WERE MISTAKES AT AN ALTOGETHER HIGHER POLITICAL LEVEL.

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