Trade Unions and the Industrial Revolution

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Trade Unions had struggled to achieve the freedom to exist in the early stages of the industrial revolution. Provide a critical account of their early developments, noting some of the major changes in their formation and character.

A trade union can be described as an organization of workers who have banded together to achieve common goals in key areas and working conditions. They were established around the early eighteenth century and membership was low and most were from within crafting industries but as the success of trade unions became apparent, workers in other industries began to see the benefits of unions to allow them to go from strength to strength and establish themselves in a wider variety of sectors. However, up until the late eighteenth century trade unions were mainly illegal, “unions were forbidden by special statutes, and they could be proceeded against at common law, for ‘conspiracy in restraint of trade’.” (Derry and Jarman, XXXX, p. 141). Since then, memberships levels, mergers, formations, dissolutions and breakaways, have all had an impact resulting in changes in union formation and character, these can be seen largely through the parliamentary acts that have been passed in relation to it. By examining the various historic triumphs of workers over their employers such as the Match-girls and the London Dockers, it is possible to establish the changes in formation and character and how trade unions managed to pull through the industrial revolution to become such an influential part of society today.

One of the first noteable changes was an increase in membership levels because as the employment sector grew with the industrial revolution, workers began to see the opportunities available to them, to improve the quality of their working life by joining trade unions and thus made the effort to form specialized organisations that would protect their interest against exploitive employers. However, in 1799 and 1800 William Pitt, the Prime Minister, passed Combination Laws which made it illegal for workers to join together to pressure their employers for shorter hours and more pay or prevent employers from choosing whom they wish to employ selectively. This made it increasingly difficult for trade unions to even form and as a result they were effectively made illegal. One could say that towards the end of the eighteenth century, tat the journeymen's societies had developed into trade unions.

The Combinations Acts were used infrequently and combinations continued to spread across a variety of occupations and the Acts were repealed in 1824, however, this was followed by an outbreak of strikes and as a result the 1825 Combination Act was passed which again imposed limitations on the right to strike. As a result of this, trade unions were forced to use debate and other more cerebal methods to achieve their goals rather than immediately resorting to violent strikes.

Another noteable change in formation amongst trade unions became apparent in 1834 when there was an attempt to establish a Grand National Consolidated Trades' Union bringing together all the unions but it never attracted general support. From 1830 onwards, attempts were made to set up national general unions to try and widen the movement and increase awareness and involvement, most notably Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) in 1834, which gained 250,000 members. Unfortunately it collapsed due to internal strife and lack of funds. Around the same time there was the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs from one of the GNCTU’s sub divisions, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers who were sentenced to seven years transportation but a campaign launched for their release had their sentence remitted in 1836. This was the first of its kind and now people were beginning to see a real change and workers interests were being represented more in society and now a large majority of employees belonged to trade unions.

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