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THE BRITISH TRADES UNION MOVEMENT

 

PART I

 

All Bible references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIV-UK)

 

GLASGOW, FROM THE Gaelic glas-ghu, means ‘beloved green’, or a favourite view of nature’s idyll. The city once rivalled Liverpool for the number of ships that entered its docks. Her fortunes began in the mid-eighteenth century as a port for the tobacco traffic from British colonies in America.

 

During those times of flourishing trade, Adam Smith (1723-1790) was awarded a professorship at Glasgow University. In 1776 he published his landmark, canny treatise on economics, The Wealth of Nations. The principles which Smith set out in that work form the basis of an understanding of the modern economy and are often cited today.

 

In the chapter, ‘Of the Wages of Labour’, he neatly summarises the vicissitudes of working men and women. The chapter opens with the words, ‘The produce of labour constitutes the natural recompense or wages of labour’.[fn1] Jesus stated the same when sending out the seventy to prepare Israel for the Gospel, saying ‘the worker deserves his wages’ (Luke 10: 7). The bargaining of one’s time in return for a wage is an old tradition, a productive way to escape poverty for those having no land to farm, or whose land cannot sustain a living.

 

Noting that the freedom to seek a buyer for one’s time carries a risk – for prices go down as well as up – Smith puts the situation thus:

 

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little, as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower, the wages of labour.[fn2]

 

The Global Economy

These opposing interests do not necessarily reduce employee relations to a violent struggle. Today’s world economy is a complex equilibrium, providing gainful exchange to many and bringing stability and growth to nations. Modern households are furnished with mass-produced goods, unthought of even a few decades ago: the microwave oven, plasma-screen television, the internet, and so on. Each one of these technologies has been brought to our kitchens and living rooms through the co-operation of employer and employee.

 

Global wealth over the last three hundred years shows a steady rising curve, albeit a curve pock-marked by frequent dips. These dips betray the boundaries of labour relations, those periods during which high wages cannot be sustained, or when low wages become unbearable.

 

Though the cause of the discontent is often difficult to establish, the effect on employee and employer is certain. Mr. Micawber of Dickens’ David Copperfield expressed it in plain accounting terms:

 

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

 

Like a man in a bed shorter than he can stretch himself on, the world economy has failed to provide wealth for all. The twentieth century has seen all economic models fail, in both the free markets of the West and the closed markets of the old Soviet republics – none have been able to sustain full employment throughout subsequent generations. The ‘ideal’, in which wages match the worker’s implicit worth, has never been realised. Footballers, for example, are usually paid vastly more than dustbin men.

 

Supply and Demand

The point of exchange between buyer and seller is ruled by the law of supply and demand. As the number of people (the supply) to keep the streets clean exceeds those with dextrous ball skills, the goal scoring striker wins a higher wage. Market forces direct the money and skill to the point of greatest return (the demand). The resulting inequality of payments has often led to political reforms, such as the minimum wage.

 

But the control of wages, according to Smith, is a hindrance to the market. He trusted business to be prudent and self-interested enough to spend their money with the wisest and most profitable intention. To regulate this process by law, Smith argues, is either useless or hurtful. In his utopian marketplace all buy and sell purely according to enlightened selfish interest, each seeking to get the greatest value in return for the least expenditure. In such a market, the cost of labour would rise and fall according to the balance of supply and demand, and workers would be free to move to where demand and wages are high.

 

Trade on this basis is only truly free when all are able to respond to market changes. It requires only a superficial consideration to realise that mankind is not empowered with such freedom. The free market ideal discounts the sickness and weakness that keeps a man poor, or the family ties that bind a woman to the home. The free market ideal has no barrier to keep out liars and thieves. Social justice insists that the market be regulated, protecting the weak and ensuring a fair exchange. Consequently, English and Scottish law from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries introduced statutes governing wages and trade.

 

A National Labour Shortage

By 1349 the bubonic plague (the Black Death) spread throughout England, killing tradesmen and labourers in their thousands, reducing the population by approximately one third.[fn3] The subsequent labour shortage worked in favour of the country peasant who was then able to name his price for a day’s work. To maintain the balance of power, King Edward III and Parliament issued the Statute of Labourers, designed to suppress excessive wages. The statute became law in 1351 and fixed a worker’s wage at pre-plague rates.[fn4] But landowners were pressed to hire anyone they could to keep their land profitable. Consequently, thirty years after the enactment of the statute, the market had pushed the law aside and a generation of the English working class enjoyed a level of income and secure employment their parents had not known.

 

But prosperity did not bring contentment. In 1381, Wat Tyler and sixty thousand commoners marched on London (‘The Peasants’ Revolt’). The motley band met with the king, asking for tax relief and an end to servitude.[fn5] A similar number of protesters took to London’s streets in 1990 when the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘poll tax’, a fixed levy on those of voting age, regardless of income. Both riots, over six hundred years apart, exemplify the natural response to economic disadvantage and the belief that one’s situation is the result of economic forces beyond one’s control. The global economic collapse of 2008 has exacerbated that feeling.

 

Strength in Numbers

When dividing up England among their kin in the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxons formed frith-guilds, a kind of local government. ‘Frith’ signifies peace, friendship and freedom. ‘Guild’, from gild and geld, means money or payment. These kindred groups provided mutual support, acting as arbiters in disputes, and paying compensation to their members from a common fund in the event of hardship. In the cities, frith-guilds were dominated by merchants and tradesmen who adapted them to serve their own, specialised interests. (An entry in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle for 1036 notes that the shippers guild at London chose Harold as “chief of all England”.)

 

The next two hundred years saw the guilds established as a mediaeval institution. Some guilds, with ambition to broaden their influence, won a Royal Charter from the king, thus becoming guardians of quality, controlling apprenticeships, and regulating the hours and wages of their craft. The guild, however, was not a direct precursor to the trades union, for the mediaeval guilds were comprised of both masters and journeymen. Masters managed the business and supervised the work, engaging journeymen to perform the work. The journeyman was paid by the day and was a skilled artisan, aspiring perhaps to his own, independent business. The craft guilds, then, were more of a private club than a workers’ co-operative and did not prevent negotiations over pay. The Bishop of Ely in 1538 gives an account of twenty-one journeymen shoemakers who assembled on a hill outside of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. They boycotted the town’s guild and threatened the masters of the trade by withholding their labour until wages were raised.

 

Revolutionary Thinking

The Enlightenment and the subsequent advance of learning dismantled the customs of the age of which the guild was a part. Prior to the invention of steam power, businessmen were already building large halls for the manual production of textiles and pottery. The factory mustered all the labour under one roof, economising on the transport of goods and raw materials. Powered machinery and scientific advances boosted the efficiency of the factories and rewarded their owners with grand profits.

 

These new centres of production were as much a revolution as were the liberal philosophies of the Enlightenment. The changes to working life bound together the fortunes of two sections of society – Capital and Labour. The capital class claimed the profits of production by right of ownership; the labour class claimed just recompense for their toil.

 

The guild had no part in this new relation of capital and labour. Though factory work offered some hope of progression and development of skill, it would be unreasonably ambitious for a weaver or mechanic to aspire one day to own a mill. A new organisation was needed to resist the downward pressure on wages.

 

Trouble At Mills

In 1832, Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835), a Member of Parliament, chaired a review of factory conditions. His committee interviewed eighty-nine witnesses. The testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, who had worked in a mill since the age of six, was typical. Her working hours were usually 5.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m. If she slowed her pace the supervisor – paid to ensure that the weekly work quota was met – ‘strapped’ or beat her. Anyone bold enough to appeal against the harsh treatment faced dismissal. By the age of thirteen, Bentley suffered with a deformity of the shoulders, and at twenty-three she retired to the poorhouse, unable to work.[fn6]

 

Elizabeth Bentley’s story is a frightening snapshot of institutionalised tyranny and it is, perhaps, hard for the modern mind with a twenty-first-century awareness of human rights, to understand how such factories were permitted to exist. But not all mill owners were so cruel or indifferent to working conditions. Prior to any parliamentary statute, Robert Owen (1771-1858), a pioneer in the Co-operative Movement, adopted a humane approach to the management of his cotton mill at New Lanark, a small industrial settlement on the River Clyde, in Southern Scotland. Owen enforced high standards of hygiene in the mill and built decent living quarters for his employees. He also set up a school for the infant children of his workers.

 

The Rich Get Rich and the Poor Get Poorer

Society stratifies along the lines of wealth, and despite the examples set by Owen and the reforms begun by Sadler, the inequality of income between employer and worker prevailed. Various acts of Parliament attempted to redress the balance by enacting the poor laws, national insurance, and legislation covering anti-trust practices and inheritance taxes. The underlying principles of such laws can be found in the Mosaic code (Leviticus 25: 10, 28):

 

‘Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.’

 

‘But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.’

 

In this Biblical Jubilee, celebratory year, land surrendered to pay off a debt was to be restored and indentured servants set free. No national legislature today could institute such an arrangement in our complex and linked international economy. The result would be chaos and economic disruption.

 

In the early nineteenth century, steam powered looms and shearing machines were steadily replacing skilled labour in cotton and woollen mills around England. The introduction of the new machinery displaced textile workers and suppressed wages. This touched a raw nerve. Angry crowds threatened mill owners with violence. Between 1811 and 1812 the Luddite Rioters in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Yorkshire, vandalised the equipment.[fn7] They were not wholly opposed to improvements, but asked that the changes be made gradually. The hour of crisis gave an opportunity for charismatic men to harness the mob’s passions to their radical ideology. ‘(General) Ned Ludd’ was the alias given in letters and court appearances as the leader of the action. ‘Luddite’ has entered the lexicon as the eponymous term for anyone resistant to progress.

 

To Be Continued

 

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FOOTNOTES

NB: Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.

 

^[fn1] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Pennsylvania State University, 2005), 8.1, p. 58.

 

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^[fn2] Smith was appointed to the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow University in 1751 after studying at Glasgow and Balliol College Oxford, though he is most famous for his writings on political economy. His publication of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is not so widely fêted.

 

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^[fn3] With no census data from the period, calculating the exact number of deaths due to bubonic plague is difficult. However, some records from the time, such as church registers, financial receipts and court rolls allow the historian to make a reasoned estimate. There are instances where the death rate is very high, such as the manor of Cuxham in Oxfordshire, which lost over two-thirds of its inhabitants.

 

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^[fn4] Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896). See also <http://www.witheridge-historical-archive.com/black-death.htm>:

 

‘It was lately ordained by our lord king, with the assent of the prelates, nobles and others of his council against the malice of employees, who were idle and were not willing to take employment after the pestilence unless for outrageous wages, that such employees, both men and women, should be obliged to take employment for the salary and wages accustomed to be paid in the place where they were working in the 20th year of the king's reign [1346], or five or six years earlier; and that if the same employees refused to accept employment in such a manner they should be punished by imprisonment, as is more clearly contained in the said ordinance’ (retrieved 19 June 2010).

 

 

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^[fn5] The French historian, Jean Froissart (1338-1410), gives an account of the rebellion in his Chronicles. The account is phrased in terms biased against the commoners, probably due in part to Froissart’s royal patrons. Other writers of the time, though sympathetic to working men and women, also condemn the uprising, because the peasants enjoyed a comparatively good standard of living. Froissart’s Chronicles are available online; the account of Wat Tyler’s rebellion is given in Chapter 3 : <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/FroChro.html> (retrieved 19 June 2010).

 

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^[fn6] E. Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution In Britain (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).3.(c).2, p. 121.

See also:

<http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/IRbentley.htm> (retrieved 19 June 2010)

<http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/life-in-victorian-britain-bleak-times-512883.html> (retrieved 19 June 2010) (Link broken)

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^[fn7] Frank Peel, The Rising of the Luddites, Chartists and Plug Drawers (fourth edn.; Abingdon: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968)

 

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Article copyright May 2010 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk

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