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The History of Workers' Rights

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 4 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Workers Rights Peasants' Revolt Feudal

The history of workers' attempts to establish their rights in the United Kingdom goes back to the Middle Ages as far as we can tell. There were almost certainly earlier attempts to escape the shackles of the feudal system but the first well-known and documented organised protest was the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

Feudal System

The feudal system had evolved across Europe as societies turned from being hunter-gatherers to farmers with permanent dwellings, after the invading Normans introduced the concept to England. Land was parcelled out by ruling monarchs to lords and barons, usually in return for military service. These would then divide it again among the lower lords and other nobles who pledged allegiance to them. This hierarchical society trickled down, supported by the lowly peasants, who worked the land.

The peasants, or villeins, weren't allowed to own land. They worked the land of the local noble and in return were allowed to subsist on the produce of a piece of land they were allowed to farm.

Peasants' Revolt

The Peasants' Revolt was a backlash against the enforcement of a poll tax introduced to finance the Hundred Years' War, although the seeds of discontent had been sown some years earlier with the introduction of the Stature of Labourers Law in 1351. This set wages at the level the same as before the Black Death, three years earlier, which had decimated the labour force and caused wage rises and inflation, as competition for the labour of the surviving workers increased.

Tax collectors, and subsequently government troops, were repelled when trying to collect the unpopular tax, first at Brentwood in Essex but then all over Kent and Essex. Groups of common men invaded London and attacked properties belonging to the King's most unpopular ministers and enforcers. After some attempts at mediation, the unofficial leader of the uprising, Wat Tyler, was killed and the uprising put down by a hastily assembled militia of 7,000 soldiers.

Craftsmen's Guilds

Around the time leading up to the Peasants' Revolt, organised labour groups had begun to emerge in the larger towns and cities in the form of the Craftsmen's Guilds. These were trade organisations formed to protect the interests of craftsmen, who were able to control their trade in a way that the peasants could not.

Guilds took tithes from their members and used the money to support injured members who were unable to work, or their widows and orphans, and other good works. They also laid down standards that members had to conform to, which protected the reputation of each craft. They also contributed greatly to the social life and festivals in cities and towns, but also introduced the notion of a closed shop and protected their local markets very strongly.

Riots Against Enclosure

The next uprisings against the ruling classes were riots against enclosure. This was the closing off, with hedges and ditches, of common land, land that had previously been anyone's to use for cattle or agriculture, although it nominally belonged to the monarch. Enclosure went on throughout the Middle Ages in fits and starts, sometimes prompted by changes in agriculture techniques, sometimes by economic pressure, and sometimes just plain greed.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, anger against the enclosures prompted a series of uprisings and riots, the first notable one being Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk in the summer of 1549, culminating in the Midland Revolt of 1607. This last uprising, as with all the others, was eventually put down by force, and turned out to be the last time that commoners were in open conflict with the gentry in the United Kingdom.

Foundations Laid for Further Gains

Although open conflict would never happen again, the concepts of labour as a commodity and solidarity among the weak had been established by the guilds and tested by protest. The next major shift in workers' rights would come with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

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