A Short History of Trade Unions

Back in medieval times, most peasants worked the land belonging to their feudal lord. They would not be paid a wage, but could keep a small amount of their output for themselves and build themselves a home. They did not own their labour, and could not move to another lord’s land for a better deal: their existence was that of toil dependent entirely on their lords whim. Few workers were free to ply their trade wherever they wished, these were mostly craftsmen. If you were lucky enough to be apprenticed to a craftsman you might just be paid a wage. Then you’d probably die of plague or something. Fast forward to the end of the 18th century, and with increased industrialization most were employed with wages. You could work for a variety of employers and get compensated for your labour, then probably die falling
into some machinery or something. Conditions were terrible, safety standards non-existant and wages low, so it was natural for workers to join together as a “combination” or
trade union for mutual support and to negotiate better pay and conditions. The main weapon for organized workers was the strike: to withdraw their labour until they employers accepted their demands. This was not to the advantage the factory owners and their investors who formed the government. This was a time of war and revolution throughout Europe, and strikes increasingly became seen as having a political motive. Trade Unions
were an integral part of a move towards socialism, and as such Trade Unions have from the start had a political dimension. So, in 1799 and 1800 the Combination Acts banned trade unions and collective bargaining. This failed to halt the movement, and workers began to join organizations which hid their true purpose as unions, such as the Philanthropic Society in Manchester in 1818. The laws banning trade unions were briefly lifted in 1824,
but after a wave of strikes reinstated. This, too, failed to prevent agitation among workers. In 1831 coal and steel workers in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales began mass protests against low wages and employment. The Merthyr Rising, as it was called, is notable for being the first appearance of the Red flag of revolution. In 1832 six agricultural workers in Tolpuddle, Dorset formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to bargain for better pay and to
protest growing automation. These Tolpuddle Martyrs were prosecuted and sentenced to transportation to Australia, leading to mass protests and eventually a pardon. Events like these continued until in 1871
a Royal Commision decided that their could be advantages for employers as well as employees in collective bargaining, and trade unions were legalised in the UK. Most other industrialised countries did so at a similar time. Five years before that the United Kingdom
Alliance of Organised Trades was formed, and it eventually grew into the Trades Union Congress or TUC, a group that brings together and represents many different trade unions, and which still represents the majority of trade unions in the UK. So that there would be a party representing employees and not just employers in parliament, the TUC along with socialist societies such as the Fabian Society founded the Labour Party in 1900. As the Labour Party gained influence, replacing the Liberals as the main opposition party and then forming its first administration in 1924, the Trade Unions, as their main source of funding, also gained power. Strikes became a political weapon as well
as a bargaining tool. Workers could form picket lines to stop those who wanted to continue working during a strike, and in some cases these pickets were formed by members of Trade Unions from other industries than those actually involved in the action. Trade Unions were
allowed to form closed shops where everyone working for a particular workplace or even
in an entire industry was required to join the union in order to get a job. In 1926 the TUC called a general strike of
over one and a half million workers in support of coal miners who were in dispute with the government. This strike was later ruled illegal. Bitter disputes continued to be fought between unions and employers, often with an overt political dimension. In 1978, after a Labour government led by Jim Callaghan had tried to persuade the unions to use more restraint in their negotiations in a difficult economic situation, a series of strikes known as the
Winter of Discontent brought down the Callaghan government and ushered in a long period of Conservative rule under Margaret Thatcher. These governments brought in tough anti-union legislation, ending cross-picketing and closed shops, applying strict rules for strike ballots and restricting the amount of money unions could give to the Labour party. They defeated major strikes by coal miners in 1984 and 1985, and by print workers in 1986. The influence of Trade Unions began to decline as the nature of employment itself began to change with more self-employed people and individual contracts. The Trade Union movement does however retain a great deal of power and influence. Indeed, it is undergoing something of a renaissance, but specifically within its original remit of collective bargaining and support for workers. The traditional links with the Labour party remain, but their power within the party has diminished. As technology brings large changes to the workplace and globalization gives greater power and influence to the wealthy owners and investors, the future of Trade Unions
is difficult to determine. There is no doubt, though, that exploitation of workers throughout the world remains a serious problem, so there is still quite definitely a place for them.

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