[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

The “Pompous Trades”

Lads unite to better your
When eggs are scarce,
eggs are dear;
When men are scarce,
men are dear.


The collapse of Chartism opened up new problems for the British working class. For more than a decade, a significant layer of workers had broken with the parties of property and privilege, the Tories and Whigs, and had taken the revolutionary step in creating the first independent workers’ party in history. The demise of the Chartist movement marked a decisive break in this development. For the next twenty-five years, the labour movement was dominated by a radically different outlook, that of the “pompous trades and proud mechanics”, to use the words of Feargus O’Connor. “Defence not Defiance” became the motto of the skilled craft unions that now sprung up. But a defence, not of the workers as a whole, but of vested sectional interests, combined with a conscious policy of working within the parameters of the capitalist system. This was in stark contrast to the Owenite unions of the 1830s.

This abandonment of revolutionary trade unionism was no mere aberration or accident. The basis for this profound change was rooted in the spectacular development and growth of British capitalism and its all-embracing domination of the world market. The nineteenth century was the British Century, in the same way as the twentieth was the American. By the end of the Forties, the triumph of free trade pursued by the British ruling class permitted an unlimited expansion of its commerce, wealth and power. With its world-class navy, Britain ruled the waves unhindered and unchallenged. The rate of profit of British industry in these years was not of the level of five or ten per cent, but thousands of percent. During the 1850s and 1860s, Britain constructed the vast majority of the world’s railways, which served to create an ever-expanding market for its heavy industry. The governments of Peel and Gladstone championed a vigorous imperialist foreign and trade policy, where “trade followed the flag”. As a consequence, British exports went to every corner of the globe. It was the “Golden Age” of British capitalism. It was her epoch of wealth, glory and Empire. The poet Byron aptly described Britain’s aggressive imperialism with the words:

How all the nations deem her their worst foe,
That worse than worst of foes, the once adored
False friend, who held out freedom to mankind,
And now would chain them, to the very mind.

Ever since the introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815, repeal had long been the hue and cry of the manufacturers. Of course, this had nothing to do with the plight of the working class, and everything to do with the size of their wallets. They wanted to cut the price of corn, so as to cut the price of bread, and thus reduce wage costs.

“Well, we admit”, stated a Free Trader, “that competition among the workers, which will certainly not have diminished under free trade, will very soon bring wages into harmony with the low price of commodities”.[1]

The Anti-Corn Law League, led by William Cobden and John Bright, was launched for this purpose, but suitably cloaked, as always, in the phraseology of the “national interest”. But the working class, as Marx explained, had interest in neither free trade nor protectionism, which were head and tail of the same coin. In fact, Marx described the Anti-Corn Law League’s leaders as the “worst enemies” of the working class. The Liberal Cobden related on one occasion that he would sooner live under the dictatorial rule of the Bey of Algiers than under the rule of the trade unions. However, the worker has no such choice. The working class has a perpetual “Bey of Algiers” hanging over them in the form of the money-grabbing employer. This tyranny cannot be undermined or alleviated other than by trade union organisation and defence.

“If the landlords were to sell our bones,” said a worker at a Free Trade meeting, “you manufacturers would be the first to buy them in order to put them through a steam-mill and make flour of them.”

The Great Exhibition of 1851 epitomised Britain’s colossal industrial superiority. The ruling class exuded confidence in itself and in its system. From the middle of the century onwards, Britain had became the classical “workshop of the world”. The urban population had swollen beyond all recognition, with only about 18 per cent of the population still engaged in agriculture. Britain’s advanced technique made her the industrial school for Europe and America. However, the laws of uneven and combined development would give great advantage to both American and Europe, which were rapidly catching up. Britain’s competitors did not have to go through the exact same steps of capitalist development. They could simply assimilate the best that she could offer, then refine and develop it still further. Nevertheless, being at the height of her economic, political and military power, in the language of coal, pig iron, steel, railways and steam power, British capitalism towered like a colossus over her contemporary rivals.

Britain’s industrial monopoly, together with her Empire, produced super profits for the ruling class, which were then used, like crumbs off the rich man’s table, to grant concessions to the upper layers of the working class. This encouraged a tactic of “divide and rule”, which had been perfected by British imperialism abroad, and was now used to sow divisions at home within the working class. These concessions were to include the introduction of the Ten Hour Act in 1847 – “the first great victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of capital”, wrote Marx – which enormously benefited the workers, especially the skilled artisans. However, this policy in turn served to cultivate an “aristocracy of labour”, standing apart from the great mass of unskilled workers. This privileged layer, which earned reasonably good wages compared to the general population, developed a more conservative disposition that fitted well with its newfound social position. In the realm of politics, these privileged workers tended to support alliances with the liberal bourgeoisie and spurned suggestions of class struggle or class independence. This “aristocracy of labour” was cosseted in narrow, newly established craft unions, very different from the radical trade unions of the earlier period.

Both Marx and Engels, who lived in England, recognised this conservative characteristic of these “aristocratic” layers. In a letter to Marx in 1858, Engels observed:

“The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justified.” He also noted in parentheses, “With the break-down of that [England’s industrial] monopoly, the English working class will lose that privileged position…”

New Model Unions

These upper echelons of the working class saw their interests reflected in the “new model unions”, to use the phrase of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. These unions were epitomised by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), an amalgamation of a number of local craft societies, established in January 1851. The ASE was founded by William Newton and William Allan, and became the prototype of new model unionism, setting a new standard of stability with its high contributions and benefits, centralisation of control, and class collaborationist policy. In effect, they adopted a combination of trade union and Friendly Society functions, mostly the latter, which marked a clear break from the earlier “schools of war”.

With this new-found stability and resources came a professional apparatus and functionaries. Their high union dues allowed them to pay for a firm centralised organisation run by full-time officials. While this constituted a colossal advance in terms of organisation, these officials tended to be of a very moderate disposition. Unlike the working-class giants, such as Owen, Penderryn or Docherty, a different type of individual rose to prominence in the union movement. They had a different character that reflected, and was more suited, to the changed times. A layer of conservative-minded officials and opportunist negotiators, concerned increasingly with day-to-day issues and piecemeal reforms, took charge of the new unions. In contrast to the all-embracing unions of the 1830s, their outlook and policies were fundamentally different, the forerunners of present-day “New Realism” and class collaboration.

“We believe”, stated William Allan to a Royal Commission, “all strikes are a complete waste of money, not only in relation to the workers, but also to the employers.” How little the right wing philosophy has changed! Such language could easily have come from the lips of Sir Ken Jackson or Eric Hammond. Ever keen to condemn militant action and industrial confrontation, these new model union leaders sought close co-operation with the employers. They were content to simply ask for no more than a “fair share” from the bosses’ expanding profits. As opposed to strikes and the class struggle, they favoured arbitration and consensus. They increasingly handled a series of “friendly benefits”, such as unemployment, sickness, accident and death allowances. On the trade union front, to protect their sectional membership, they attempted to restrict the supply of labour into the trades. Meanwhile, the mass of unskilled workers was simply left to the mercy of the employers, as they were regarded with typical craft snobbery as “beyond the pale” of trade unionism and organisation.

The respectable Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, eager to promote arbitration and conciliation, urged its members to “become respectful and respected.” The Flint Glass-Makers’ Magazine told its readers to “get intelligence instead of alcohol – it is sweeter and more lasting.” The virtues that the unions now extolled were prudence, temperance, enlightenment and respectability. Other publications put the same arguments, but more crudely. As a verse in Songs For English Workmen To Sing, published in 1867 illustrates:

Work, boys, work and be contented
So long as you’ve enough to buy a meal;
The man, you may rely,
Will be wealthy by and by
If he’ll only put his shoulders to the wheel.

The respectable leadership of these “model” unions was known as “the Junta”. These included a number of general secretaries such as William Allan (Engineers), Robert Applegrath (Carpenters and Joiners), Daniel Guile (Ironfounders), Edwin Coulson (Bricklayers) and George Odger (Ladies’ Shoemakers). They regarded themselves as administrators rather than trade union agitators, and, for the first time, took on the social character of a trade union bureaucracy. In this light, the employers used a different, subtler approach to ensnare them in a “common bond” between labour and capital. They were cultivated and groomed by the capitalist Establishment and made to feel very important and respectable. Of course, these trade union leaders were willing partners in this charade. “The chairmen and secretaries of trade unions and political workingmen’s societies, as well as other well-known labour spokesmen who might be expected to be influential in their class, had overnight become important people”, noted Engels. “They were visited by Members of Parliament, by Lords and other well-born rabble, and sympathetic enquiry was suddenly made into the wishes and needs of the working class.”[2]

Despite the efforts and intentions of their “moderate” leaders, the new model unions could not abolish the class struggle or prevent the growth of strikes. After all, strikes are caused not by agitators, but by social conditions. Within a year of the founding of the ASE, the union was faced by a series of lockouts in its chief strongholds of London and Lancashire over the introduction of shorter working hours (part of the Nine Hours Movement). The employers accused the Society of attempting to “interfere with management” by placing a ban on overtime and changing the forms of piecework prevalent in the engineering industry. However, union resistance to the lockout was defeated and the engineers were forced back to work. In the process, many had to sign the notorious “Document” renouncing trade union membership.

Although the employers succeeded in defeating the ASE in this struggle for shorter hours, the union was soon able to recover its strength. Under the impact of the employers’ attacks, membership had fallen from 11,000 to 9,000, and its funds had sunk to £5,000. Yet within three years, the ASE was able to turn the situation around and its membership emerged much stronger, growing to 12,500, while its funds grew to a considerable £35,000. The success of the union stemmed largely from greater resources and more permanent structure, which allowed it to sink deeper roots into sections of skilled workers. During the 1850s, the AES won a number of recognition deals and developed a formidable national presence and organisation.

By far the biggest industrial struggle since the “Plug Riots” of 1842 was the Preston lockout. It affected both spinners and weavers and was part of a general struggle that extended over a considerable part of the cotton industry. The unions had been seeking a restoration in wages cut in the depression of 1847. The employers retorted to a general lockout, refusing to re-employ workers unless they agreed to sign the “Document”. They also used the full weight of the law against the union leaders, which, although subsequently dropped, did considerable damage in undermining and eventually breaking the strike.

By 1859-60, agitation for a shorter working week was becoming widespread. After a successful London building workers’ strike that won shorter hours, the struggle began to spread. The Nine Hours movement, as it was called, affected engineering works, cotton mills and coalmines, where the working week was sixty hours on a normal ten-and-a-half hour day. Despite their weak leadership, events were to demonstrate the organisational strength of these new model unions, bolstered by the financial muscle of a relatively stable affluent membership. Beginning in the North-East, a series of battles in engineering in the early 1870s, managed to secure a nine-hour day, which intensified the movement for shorter working hours elsewhere.

Working class confidence was on the rise. In the mid-Sixties, there was growing pressure for the extension of the electoral franchise. In scores of industrial towns huge demonstrations were held demanding the vote. In London there were massive gatherings at Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. Working class pressure began to build up on the government from different quarters – from heightened Reform agitation and the revival of trade unionism to the spectre of the First International – all of which served to convince the Tories that they were on the verge of some revolutionary upheaval. It was to avoid such rebellious trouble that the Tory Prime Minister Disraeli pushed through the 1867 Reform Act, giving the vote to urban male workers who paid rates, thus doubling the size of the electorate. As a matter of course, women were excluded. Yet the property qualification still excluded the vast majority of the working class. These concessions, however, did not sit well with the bourgeoisie and aroused the gloomiest forebodings in sections of the ruling class. For instance, Walter Bagehot, the famous nineteenth century constitutionalist, argued that the “ignorant masses” did not understand politics and could never be relied upon to exercise the vote in the correct manner. “What I fear,” wrote Bagehot in his English Constitution, “is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes…” He predicted that this measure would all end in tears or far worse.

In 1867 Parliament had established a Royal Commission on trade unions, using some incidents of “rattening” (terrorising blacklegs) in Sheffield as a pretext for the inquiry. At this time, there was no legal protection for trade union funds and strikers could still be imprisoned under the law for “conspiracy” and “intimidation”. Eager to force through some concessions from the government, the “Junta” established a Conference of Amalgamated Trades to influence the Royal Commission. This pressure had some partial success as Whigs and Tories now began to vie for working class electoral support. After the publication of the Commission’s findings, new legislation was introduced that gave unions some minor concessions. However, even under these “enlightened” laws, a worker was still liable to imprisonment for “aggravated” breach of contract. In such cases, discretion was left to the courts, while the employers, if found guilty, only faced limited damages. Picketing was still subject to severe restrictions and if transgressed met with tough penalties. It was, as always, class legislation, completely bias towards the employing class.

In the spring of 1871, to the horror of the European ruling classes, revolution had broken out in Paris, this time under the leadership of the working class. The revolutionary masses of the French capital seized control and proclaimed “La Commune”, and what was to become the first workers’ state in history. The old French capitalist state apparatus had collapsed and a new revolutionary state founded in its place. This revolutionary democracy was based upon the election of all deputies, with the immediate right of recall, where the functions of executive and legislative were combined. In order to eliminate careerism and privilege, these deputies received only workers’ wages. Marx immediately rallied to the defence of the Commune, hailing the heroic Parisian masses who “stormed heaven” in search of their own emancipation. “History has no such example of a like greatness”, stated Marx.

The French ruling class, which fled Paris, immediately sought refuge and help from the German general staff, who were besieging the capital. There they established a common cause – French and German rulers – to drown the revolutionary Commune in cold blood. In the end, after the fall of Paris, the armies of counter-revolution murdered 20,000 Communards in the streets and a further 3,000 perished in the dungeons of Paris. The military tribunals lasted until January 1875, and had carried out 13,700 sentences, condemning men, women and children to prison and exile.

“The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women, and children during the last six days”, stated the London Times on 29 May. “So far as we can recollect there has been nothing like it in history…”[3]

However, despite the savagery of defeat, these titanic events proved an inspiration to all workers who sought to keep the flames of revolution alive. “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune”, predicted Marx in his Civil War in France, “will be for ever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”

Following the Paris Commune, the astute Benjamin Disraeli granted reforms, despite divisions in the ruling class, to avoid any such social explosion in Britain. While Paris was ablaze, it was again a question of timely reforms from above to prevent revolution from below. With the extension of the franchise in 1867, further government concessions were made towards the trade unions in 1871, this time improving their financial status – an act that greatly impressed the upwardly mobile trade union leaders of the day. But as always, the concessions were limited and the legal restrictions on the right to strike were still retained. It took a further five years of intense working-class pressure to force the government to grudgingly eradicate these impositions.

Marx and the First International

Although the Chartist movement disappeared in the 1850s, many of its leaders and activists joined new movements associated with the cause of the working class. For instance, Ernest Jones and Julian Harney entered into close collaboration with Marx, who had come to live in exile in London after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution. Ernest Jones became an open advocate of the class war and came very close to the ideas of scientific socialism. At a special Chartist Convention in 1852 he secured an overt policy of independent working-class struggle and sought to reorganise the National Chartist Association on the lines of a Marxist workers’ party. In this endeavour, he was anxious to rally the trade unions, but unfortunately his “Labour Parliament”, called during the period of union solidarity after the great Preston strike of 1853, was spurned by the conservative union leaders and the initiative fell on stony ground.

Marx and Engels had followed the development of the Chartist movement with keen interest. Engels was in fact a regular contributor to the Chartist paper Northern Star. Under their influence, Julian Harney had launched a new left-wing paper, the Red Republican, which published the first English edition of the Communist Manifesto in 1850. Again, both Jones and Harney played a leading role in establishing the Fraternal Democrats, an international association that promoted the ideas of working class internationalism. These progressive trends were later to merge into the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), founded by Marx and Engels in September 1864. This organisation, which became known later as the First International, drew into its ranks the leaders of the British trade unions, such as the moderate general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, Robert Applegarth. Despite the narrow outlook of these trade union leaders, Marx regarded this development with the utmost importance. The task of the International was to establish fraternal relations between working class organisations in different countries, and sought to co-ordinate their activities as widely as possible. On the basis of experience, Marx and Engels believed the labour movement would ultimately move in the direction of, and embrace, scientific socialism.

Trade unions, “without being aware of it”, stated Marx, “became the focal points for the organisation of the working class, just as the medieval municipalities and communities became such for the bourgeoisie.” But for Marx they were much more than this. They were not simply “focal points” for workers’ struggles, important as this was, but – drawing parallels with the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism – potentially an “organised means to promote the abolition of the very system of wage labour.”

Marx, who had been dogged by illness, studiously avoided time-wasting, and was deeply engrossed in writing Capital, nevertheless threw himself into the work of the First International with relish. “Although for years I have systematically refused to take part in any ‘organisations’ I have accepted this time because here there is a possibility of doing some real good”, wrote Marx. “There is now evidently a revival of the working classes taking place.” As de facto leader of the International, Marx was given the responsibility of drafting its founding Rules and Address. In this, he showed enormous skill in knitting together the divergent opinions of British trade unionists, French Proudhonists, German Lassalleans, supporters of Bakunin and other trends. The International, wrote Engels in the preface to the Communist Manifesto German edition of 1890, “was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trades unions, the French, Belgian, Italian and Spanish Proudhonists and German Lassalleans.” Before the movement could run, it had to learn to walk. It was the first time in more than twenty years that an overtly political organisation had established such close working relations with the trade unions.

“Had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform,” Engels explained in a letter of 27 January 1887, “where should we be today?” Again Marx wrote about the need to avoid sectarianism and to connect with the real movement of the working class:

“It is very difficult to present the matter in such a way that our view might appear in a form acceptable to the present position taken by the labour movement… Time must elapse before the re-awakened movement will permit of the former boldness of language.”

For them, in an attempt not to crudely put off their new collaborators at this key moment, it was a matter of presenting their ideas “mild in manner and bold in content.” They understood that the work of the First International represented an historic step forward in the evolution of the movement. One real step forward for the workers’ movement was worth a thousand correct programmes, noted Marx. On the basis of experience, the conscious sections of the working class would inevitably move in the direction of scientific socialism. For the moment, in this early stage in its development, the task was of consistent and patient work, and taking things one step at a time.

Impact in Britain

Marx and Engels succeeded not only in holding the International together, but through their consistent work, the International managed to sink roots in a whole number of countries. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of the movement, their work in these years laid the basis for the future growth of socialist ideas in the mass ranks of the Socialist (Second) International founded in 1889. In the meantime, the First International made a considerable impact on a wide layer of workers in Britain during its brief lifespan, as the minutes of the General Council of the IWMA bear witness.

On 21 February 1865, a letter from the bricklayers’ union was read to the General Council in which they expressed the desire to join the International. On 28 March 1865, a deputation of the General Council reported on its visit to the shoemakers’ union conference, which passed a resolution agreeing with the principles of the International Working Men’s Association and pledged to “endeavour to spread its liberal and glorious ideas among our constituents.” On 1 April 1865, the Carpenters’ Union of Chelsea asked that deputies be sent to explain the principles of the International Association. John Weston, a member of the General Council, also reported on their delegation to the Miners’ Union. On 3 April 1866, the Executive Committee of the British Tailors’ Union “expressed kind feelings toward the Association and a promise to join it.” At that time the General Council also heard a communication that the Ribbon and Small Wares Weavers of Coventry wished to join the IWMA.

On 10 April 1866, “the President reported that the West End Bootmakers’ Society had granted one pound for the use of the Council and that they had proposed Citizen Odger as a delegate to the Congress.” On 17 April the Tailors’ Association was accepted as a branch of the International Working Men’s Association. Also it was reported that Weston and Jung had been delegated to attend the meeting of the Plasterers’ Committee. On May Day 1866, Hermann Jung, the Swiss representative, reported on his and Paul Lafargue’s visit to the local branch of the Operative Bricklayers. They had been most enthusiastically received and were given promises of support. On 15 May the Darlington section of the Amalgamated Tailors’ Union was admitted to the International. On 17 July a communication was read saying that the Hand-in-Hand Society of Coopers, who had agreed to join the International, levied each member one shilling for the expenses of the Congress in Geneva. At this same meeting, it was reported that a deputation had visited a meeting of cabinet-makers from the International. It had been agreed that they would also levy one pound for Congress expenses. On 17 August, a report was made that the London Society of Compositors had elected their secretary to the Geneva Congress of the IWMA. On the other hand, the Amalgamated Engineers’ Society declined the proposal to send a delegate to the Congress and refused to give permission for a deputation to visit its branches.[4]

On studying the minutes of the IWMA one can see that Marx played a leading day-to-day role in the General Council, outlining the class issues that faced the International at each stage. Despite its mixed composition, Marx also skilfully explained the ideas of socialism at every suitable occasion, without in any way artificially imposing his ideas. At one point, however, a formal debate was held at a General Council meeting in June 1865 around the economic arguments put forward by John Weston, a supporter of Owenite socialism. He maintained that higher wages were illusory and that the trade unions activity was pointless, even harmful! Marx countered Weston’s economic views, and explained in a simple form his labour theory of value. At the same time, Marx took up the arguments of Proudhon and Lassalle, who played down the importance of economic struggle of the working class. Marx resolutely defended the role and significance of the trade unions but stressed the importance of linking their economic struggles to the ultimate aim of the proletariat – abolition of wage slavery itself. In these discussions Marx attempted to demonstrate through facts, figures and arguments the superiority of his method and analysis, which served to raise the political level of the members of the General Council, and through them the most advanced sections of the working class movement. Marx’s two lectures were later transcribed and produced as the classic pamphlet Wages, Price and Profit.

The majority of British trade unions represented on the General Council did not, however, concern themselves too much with such “highbrow” arguments. The union leaders, Cremer, Applegrath, Weston, Lucroft, and Odger, tended to look upon the First International as a body that could serve practical aims, namely solidarity – especially against the threat of international strike-breaking. Despite these limits, the British trade union leaders did play an active role in the General Council, with George Odger becoming its first President. At the Trades Union Congress held in Birmingham in 1869, Cremer even moved a successful resolution urging British unions to affiliate to the International.

“As the International Working Men’s Association endeavours to consolidate and extend the interests of the toiling masses, which are everywhere identical,” stated the resolution, “this Congress heartily recommends the Association to the support of the workingmen of the United Kingdom, especially of all organised bodies, and strongly urges them to become affiliated to that body believing that the realisation of its principles would also conclude lasting peace between the nations of the earth.”

While the efforts of the British trade unionists certainly strengthened the First International, their narrow craft outlook would later bring them into conflict with those wanting to broaden the movement. Marx was always pushing at the boundaries, seeking to raise the consciousness of those involved. In a resolution to the Geneva conference, he outlined the fundamental role of the trade unions in linking up the day-to-day tasks with the need to transform society:

“In addition to their original tasks, the trade unions must now learn how to act consciously as focal points for organising the working class in the greater interests of its complete emancipation. They must support every social and political movement directed towards this aim. By considering themselves champions and representatives of the whole working class, and acting accordingly, the trade unions must succeed in rallying round themselves all workers still outside their ranks. They must carefully safeguard the interests of the workers in the poorest-paid trades, as, for example, the farm labourers, who due to especially unfavourable circumstances have been deprived of their power of resistance. They must convince the whole world that their efforts are far from narrow and egotistic, but on the contrary, are directed towards the emancipation of the down-trodden masses.”[5]

Throughout its brief history, the bourgeoisie internationally regarded the IWMA with complete horror. Lord Aberdare, the Home Secretary, was constantly pressed to ban the International and arrest Marx as “menaces to life and property”. Under the influence of the International, the British trade unions demonstrated their solid support for the North in the American Civil War, despite the cotton famine resulting from the Northern blockade. The struggles of Poland and Italy for self-determination were also heartily supported. The revolutionary events of the Paris Commune, and Marx’s robust defence of the heroic Communards, however, proved a bit too much for the British trade union leaders to swallow. After the defeat of the Commune in the summer of 1871, the trade union leaders separated themselves from the International. These leaders were prepared to collaborate on basic trade union issues, but recoiled at the very thought of defending the revolutionaries of Paris! They were more concerned with protecting their new respectable image, and not offending the British Establishment, than lending their support to foreign revolutionaries. On such a fundamental question Marx was not prepared to bend. Marx resolutely stood by the Communards and showed nothing but contempt towards those who turned their backs on those most in need.

The Trade Union Congress

During the early 1860s, a new form of trade union organisation emerged, namely the Trades Councils. These bodies attempted to draw trade unions in a certain locality under the umbrella of a single representative council. Promoted by the need for solidarity in the building workers’ dispute of 1859-60, the London Trades Council was formed. Other cities and towns then followed this example. Periodically, Trades Council conferences were called in an attempt to further unify this movement. In 1864, for example, Alexander Campbell of the Glasgow Trades Council called a national trade union conference to oppose the anti-working class Master and Servant Act, which had become a burning issue. Under this legislation, strike action deemed in breach of contract remained a criminal offence, while a lockout by masters was not. Over the previous twelve months prior to the conference, there were no fewer than 10,393 prosecutions for taking part in strikes; thousands of trade unionists were jailed for being in breach of the Act.

Such was the success of the conference that it was followed by a second in 1866 (Sheffield) and a third in 1867 (London). In April 1868, the threat of further anti-union legislation spurred on the Manchester and Salford Trades Council – probably the most important Trades Council in the country – to propose a regular congress of trade unions. This became the starting-point for an annual event, which went down in labour history as the first official Trade Union Congress (TUC). At the gathering, a Parliamentary Committee was established to act as its co-ordinating leadership. In 1920, the Parliamentary Committee changed its name to General Council of the TUC. While this congress was received with great enthusiasm in the areas, the conservative “Junta” was extremely wary, fearing too much rank-and-file interference over their own union affairs. However, the government’s anti-union actions soon forced them to lend their authority to the newly established TUC – the better to keep it under control, than risk it falling into the hands of dangerous agitators.

Gladstone’s Acts of 1871 were a classical case of giving with the left hand and taking away with the right. While they served to protect trade union funds, they also served to hamstring the effective operation of the unions in other areas. While employers were free to do as they pleased, any peaceful attempt by workers to persuade others to strike was deemed “coercion” and deemed a criminal offence. Judges simply made it a criminal conspiracy to interfere with an employer’s “freedom of action” and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

The law was simply interpreted by judges to ensure that unions were constantly in breach. Under these conditions, which threatened their ability to operate, the trade unions had no alternative but to launch a determined fight to repeal the laws, and ensure “immunities” for damage. After all, business interests received their “immunities” – in the form of limited liability – in the 1856 Companies Act. So why not the trade unions?

On Whit Monday, 1873, a mass trade union demonstration was called. It was the opening shot of an astonishing campaign that was to force the Liberal government out of office and secure the repeal of both the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the hated Master and Servant Act. Under working-class pressure came new legislation in 1875 whereby “peaceful picketing” was made legal, and the old words of “coerce” and “molest” disappeared from British law altogether. Breaches of contract also become a civil matter, with no imprisonment or fines. All appeared wonderful! But it would not last.

While old offences were abolished by Parliament, judges responded by creating the civil law offence of conspiracy, for which employers could claim damages. The limited legal right to picket was virtually removed by judicial “interpretation” by which picketing became illegal “watching and besetting”. In South Wales seven women were imprisoned for saying “Bah!” to a blackleg! In Perthshire six shoemakers were imprisoned for simply “watching” a scab working during a dispute. In London, a strike of gas-stokers led to the prosecution of 500 men for breach of contract and their leaders for criminal conspiracy.

The trade unions are now in a similar legal position more than 100 years later. The “immunities” from liability for damage forced from the ruling class by the pressure of the labour movement were always under threat. Everything depended on the class balance of forces at a given time. With the attacks initiated by the Tories in the early 1980s, these immunities were largely removed by the employment acts of 1980 and 1982, and by the trade union act of 1984. These left trade unions prey to employers willing to use the one-sided advantages offered them by the Tory laws. To defend their rights, history has shown that trade unions have always had to break unjust class laws. As we will see, class action and the balance of forces always affect the way the law operates in practice.

Vicious circle

In the countryside during the early 1870s, agricultural labourers began to stir into action around the inspirational figure of Joseph Arch, a Warwickshire farm labourer. The atrocious conditions of these workers made them ripe for unionisation. When the call was put out, thousands rallied to the union cause and the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union was formed at Leamington. Almost immediately a strike for better wages and conditions broke out, which received substantial solidarity support from the rest of the union movement. In May 1872 the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union was formed with branches throughout the country. By the end of the year membership had climbed to 35,000. New unions sprung up elsewhere, resulting in some 150,000 agricultural workers joining the trade union movement.

It did not take long before the capitalist gentry and landlords, backed by the Church of England and the magistrates, reacted with fury. A whole series of lockouts took place, and the full force of the law was brought to bear against the unions. The bourgeoisie showed no mercy. In Ascot 17 women were charged with the crime of “mobbing”, and were all condemned to Oxford prison, several with their breast-fed babies. By 1874, amongst scenes of near civil war, the workers were starved back to work on the employers’ terms. Under the hammer blows of the state, the agricultural workers’ union was beaten down to 4,000 members and soon disintegrated.

A trade recession in the mid-1870s resulted in a series of bitterly fought strikes, notably the South Wales miners (1875), the stonemasons (1877), the Clyde shipwrights and the Lancashire cotton workers (1878). However, under the pressure of events, the inadequacies of the conservative leadership of the amalgamated unions led to growing discontent within their ranks. In 1872, the pattern makers broke away from the ASE in disgust. They would not be the last.

The difficulties of the narrow and parochial outlook of the new model unions were to surface in the next period. They proved a decisive barrier to the development of the trade union movement and the organisation of the unskilled mass. Frederick Engels wrote at the time, “the British Labour movement is today, and for many years has been, working in a narrow circle of strikes for higher wages and shorter hours without finding a solution”, since they “are looked upon not as an expedient and not as a means of propaganda but as an ultimate aim.”[6]

On 20 August 1883, in a letter to August Bebel, a leader of the German social democracy, Engels outlined how he thought the British workers were likely to break out of this “narrow circle”. He wrote:

“But a real working class movement will develop here – unless something unexpected happens – only when the workers will begin to feel that the British world monopoly has been broken. Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the economic basis of the political nullity of the British workers. Dragging along at the tail-end of the bourgeoisie in the economic exploitation of this monopoly, but always sharing in its profits, they naturally, from the political point of view, drag at the tail-end of the ‘great Liberal Party’ which has thrown them some small sops, recognises trade unions and the right to strike, gave up the struggle for the unlimited working day and gave the bulk of the higher-paid workers the right to vote. But if America and the joint competition of the other industrial countries make a breech in this monopoly (as far as iron is concerned, the time is not far off, but unfortunately in cotton this is not yet the case), you will see things moving here.”[7]

Fredrick Engels remarkable estimation was born out by events. Britain’s relative decline signalled the breach in her industrial monopoly and ushered in a new crisis for British capitalism. From this time onwards, competition especially from Germany and the USA began to weaken and undermine Britain’s dominant position. These new powerful competitors entered the world market with devastating consequences for British industry in the years that followed. These radically different circumstances, as Engels had foreseen, brought about a new social realignment. The mass of unskilled workers ignored and isolated for so long were about to explode onto the stage of history. The days of the conservative “Junta” and “pompous trades” were rapidly coming to an end.


[1] Quoted in Lenin On Britain, p.20, Progress Publishers 1973

[2] Marx and Engels, op. cit, pp.505-6

[3] Quoted in Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris, p.417, London 1990

[4] See ‘Documents of the First International, 1864-66’, London, 1974

[5] Resolution of the IWA on trade unions, Geneva, 1866

[6] Engels to Bernstein, 17 June 1879, On Britain, p.555

[7] Engels to Bebel, 30 August, 1883, On Britain, p.562