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How The Workers' Rights Movements Began

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 27 Sep 2017 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights Industrial Revolution

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the beginnings of which were seen in the late Eighteenth Century, the feudal system had long gone and in its place was a hierarchy based on class. This is not to say that hardship had disappeared with it, in some ways worse was to come.

Movement of Labour

Most of the lower classes still worked the land or worked as servants, but a middle class of merchants and traders had emerged along with public service roles such as doctors and teachers, although education was still very much controlled by the church. The United Kingdom had begun to change with the explosion of global trade that started in the Elizabethan era, enabled by Great Britain's naval power. This had created economic growth and an increase in the birth rate, providing the resources for the change.

The technological advances that fuelled the Industrial Revolution weren't only in manufacturing but also in transport. With the advent first of the canals and then the railways, the ability to move supplies and goods faster than ever increased the need for larger concentrations of workers than had ever been seen in the agricultural days. This was driven from the other end too, as enclosures forced labourers off the land with the increasing unemployment in rural areas.

Upper Class Social Reformers

Peasants flocked into the fast-expanding cities to become workers and were kept in the slums that most factory workers were content to provide. The prevailing attitude was that giving the lower classes work was a social duty and only a few factory owners, such as Robert Owen, a Welshman working in New Lanark, and Titus Salt in Bradford, felt it right to give workers good living and working conditions in return for their labour.

Slowly these and other reformers managed to drag a series of Acts through Parliament to improve the lot of the working classes. Successive Factory Acts throughout the 1800s limited the hours that children could work, then women, and then all workers, with the result that, by 1874, a 56 and 1/2 hour working week was the legal maximum for all workers, and no woman or child could work before 6am or after 6pm.

At the same time as these reforms were being driven from the top down by upper class social reformers, pressure was also coming up from below. A key event was the formation in 1832 of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in Tolpuddle, Dorset. Although formed as a Friendly Society, the rules and regulations were those that we would recognise as those of a trade union.

The Guilds Drop Away

Guilds were still very much active at this time but were largely restricted to craftsmen in towns or cities, and there was no representative body for agricultural workers. The guilds' power was waning in any case as they were seen as opponents of free trade and free markets, and were an obstacle to the technological advances and associated business growth of the day. The technical advance also made their jealously guarded trade secrets either obsolete or easy to reproduce and communicate outside the guilds.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they were to become known, used the power of their solidarity to set a Minimum Wage, below which they would not work. The poverty of the time had led to a resurgence in rioting in 1829 and 1830, after bad winters and poor harvests had increased the hardship of agricultural labourers.

After two years, a local landowner complained to the Prime Minister and the Martyrs were tried, found guilty of breaking an old law, which outlawed secret oaths, and transported to Australia. But within three years the groundswell of public support had become so great that all six of the Martyrs were repatriated.

Birth of Trade Unionism

The Tolpuddle Martyrs are feted the world over as laying the seeds that grew into the Modern Trade Union Movement, but in fact, although their contribution as standard bearers was massive, trade unions had begun to be formed just before the Tolpuddle incident. But the deportation of the Martyrs did have the desired effect as far as the government was concerned, and the general rank and file shied away from trade unionism. Not for long, however.

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Really interesting site. Shame we are not taught our own history at school. These people fought for the rights I have today at work
Worker - 27-Sep-17 @ 12:29 PM
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