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Trade unionism


Early trade unionism

Skilled workers in Britain began organising themselves into trade unions in the 17th century (preceded by guildsGlossary - opens new window in medieval times). During the 18th century, when the industrial revolution prompted a wave of new trade disputes, the government introduced measures to prevent collective action on the part of workers. The Combination Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800, during the Napoleonic wars, made any sort of strike action illegal - and workmen could receive up to three months' imprisonment or two months' hard labour if they broke these new laws.

Hatmakers' petition, 1777 - opens new window
Hatmakers' petition,1777
Document (187k) |Transcript
Trade union delegation ignored, 1839 - opens new window
Trade union delegation ignored, 1830
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Despite the Combination Acts, workers continued to press for better pay and working conditions during the early part of the 19th century, and trade unions grew rapidly in London and elsewhere. Finally, after violent LudditeGlossary - opens new window protests in 1811 and 1812, Parliament repealed the Combination Acts in 1824 and 1825. Trade unions could now no longer be ignored as a political force, though employers remained reluctant to treat workers' representatives as their equals.
During the 1830s labour unrest and trade union activity reached new levels. For the first time men began to organise trade associations with nationwide aims, such as Robert Owen's short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, formed in February 1834. Agricultural workers were also adopting new forms of collective action - a notable example being the Swing Riots in 1830-1.
Anti-Swing poster, c. 1830 - opens new window
Anti-Swing poster, c.1830
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The Tolpuddle Martyrs (cartoon), 1834 - opens new window
The Tolpuddle Martyrs, 1834
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The Tolpuddle Martyrs

In March 1834, with the connivance of the WhigGlossary - opens new window government, six agricultural labourers who had formed a trade union in the Dorsetshire village of Tolpuddle were arrested on trumped-up charges and transported to Australia. The unfair treatment of the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs', as they became known, triggered brief public protests throughout Britain. But the harsh sentences discouraged other workers from joining trade unions, and many of the nationwide organisations, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, collapsed.

Rapid trade union growth

Although trade union membership continued to grow during the next two decades, up to around 1850 they tended to be overshadowed by political movements such as ChartismGlossary - opens new window. But in the improved economic conditions of the 1850s and 1860s the foundations of a powerful trade union movement were established and membership rose from approximately 100,000 in the early 1850s to around a million by 1874.

TUC's questions for parliamentary candidates, 1879 - opens new window
TUC's questions for
parliamentary candidates, 1879
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Gas stokers' plea for clemency, 1873 - opens new window
Gas stokers' plea for clemency, 1873
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Engineers, miners and agricultural labourers formed new national or regional trade organisations. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), a national forum for co-ordinating trade union demands, was founded in Manchester in 1868. The 1871 Trade Union Act, introduced by William Gladstone's Liberal government, established the legal status of trade unions - although other legislation made it difficult for unions to organise picketing and strikes.

'New unionism'

The economic slump of the 1870s and 1880s presented new challenges. Labour leaders such as Thomas Mann, one of the chief organisers of the successful London dock strike (1889), argued that the trade union movement needed to become far more open and inclusive. 'New unionism' reached out to the many unskilled workers in Britain who lacked union representation. The first women's 'trade societies' also began to emerge during this period. The strike by the female workers at the Bryant & May match factory, in the East End of London, in July 1888 highlighted the expanding boundaries of trade union activity in Britain.

Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875 - opens new window
Conspiracy and Protection
of Property Act, 1875
Document (143k) | Transcript
Tom Mann, first Secretary of the Independent Labour Party (photograph)  - opens new window
Tom Mann, first Secretary of the
Independent Labour Party
Document
By the early 20th century trade unions were larger and more influential than ever before. Particularly after the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893, the trade union movement developed a close relationship with the political left. This bond was strengthened by the Taff Vale case (1900-1), in which the House of Lords supported the right of the Taff Vale Railway Company to sue members of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for striking in August 1900.
Many trade unions subsequently joined the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), an organisation created to unite trade unionists and socialists in a single political movement. Between 1900 and 1906, the number of Labour MPs in Parliament rose from 2 to 29. The link established in this period between the Labour Party and trade unionism still exists today.
Taff Vale Railway strike (poster), 1900 - opens new window
Taff Vale Railway strike, 1900
Document (162k) | Transcript

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