Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 1 - Working Men in their Public Relations - Trade Societies and Strikes

[-back to main menu-]



I HAVE said that trade-unions such as I have described are favourable to the interests of the employers of their members; and I think that if any unprejudiced person will look at the facts of the case, they will arrive at the same conclusion. In the first place, none are admitted into a trade-union unless they are known to possess good abilities as workmen, and are of steady habits and good moral character; so that, by employing a member of a trade-society, an employer secures a workman possessing those qualifications; and again, any member of a trade-union who is discharged from his employment for misconduct, is debarred from the benefits of the society till he again finds employment; so that the members of a trade-union have an additional inducement to conduct themselves properly while at work.
    It is often asserted by the opponents of trade-unions, that one of the objects of these societies is to have all workmen, whether good or bad, paid alike; but this is a mistaken notion. All that the rules of such societies insist upon is, that as they admit no one to be a member unless he is possessed of good abilities as a workman, no member must work for less than the average rate of wages paid to members of the same branch of trade in the district in which he is employed.* (* This same regulation is practically observed among all barristers and physicians of repute.) But [-57-] they by no means seek to place the superior and the only average workman upon an equal footing, as there are superior workmen in all trades who are paid at a considerably higher rate than ordinary workmen. And though the rules upon this point savour of trade dictation, they are found in practice to be as much in favour of masters as workmen; for though they forbid a man to work for less than the average wages of the district in which he is employed, they compel him, should he be out of employment, to take work in any district in which it is offered to him, at the rate of wages current in that district, however much higher a rate he may have been previously earning. We will suppose, for instance - and it is a very common case - that there is a "slap" of dull trade in the London district, and that in consequence a number of the London workmen - who are, as a rule, the pick of the trade - are on the funds of the society. Matters being in this state, the secretary of a London branch of the club hears, through the secretary of a provincial branch, that men are wanted in his (the provincial secretary's) district. The London secretary then instructs some of those who are out of employment to go and apply for work in the district in which men are wanted, and if work is offered them in reply to their application, they must take it or forfeit the out-of-work pay of the society, though the wages of that district may be ten shillings a-week less than they have been in the habit of getting in London. And as there is not one working man in a thousand who would refuse work offered under such circumstances, even if he were in such a pecuniary position as would justify him in running the risk, the result is, that masters, through the influence of the club, frequently get first-rate workmen at a third-rate price.
    [-58-] ·Whether or not the protectionist principle that enters more or less into every trade combination, under whatever name or form such combination may exist, is in the abstract justifiable, is a question that admits of much debate, and which need not be discussed here. But so long as that principle is permitted to be put into practice, I think that the mechanic who has paid a premium and worked for five or seven years at a merely nominal rate of wages, to acquire the knowledge of his art, has quite as much right as doctors, lawyers, or members of the stock exchange, to protect the interests and exclusiveness of his trade. When a case occurs in which a number of working men threaten to "turn out" against an unqualified man who is working for under wages - here, my masters, exclaim the opponents of trades-unions, "is a case of tyranny and monopoly for you!" and perhaps it is but would a persevering solicitor's clerk, or a clever apothecary, who tried to force themselves into the legal or medical professions have fared any better at the hands of the "qualified practitioners"? Doctors and lawyers could not well, even if they were willing, resort to so vulgar a proceeding as a turn out, but legal and medical "etiquette," or the legal enactments which guard the trade combinations of the "learned professions," would soon, I ween, "do for" the unqualified aspirants to professional honours and profits. To object to a person's employing the services of whomsoever he may choose, or to a man's selling his services at his own price, is, as a first principle, utterly and self-evidently unjust. But it is as self- evident that it is acting upon the equally unjust first principle that that's in the captain but a choleric word which in the soldier is rank blasphemy, to condemn such proceedings on the part of comparatively ignorant and uneducated mechanics, while approving of their [-59-] practice by those who should set the example of sacrificing self-interest to abstract justice, and who are more capable of understanding the poetic beauty of appeals founded upon first principles.
    It will probably be said that the society of which I wrote in a previous chapter is an exceptional one, and to a very considerable extent this may be said with truth. The trades which form that society are not confined to any particular district, and owing to the great competition and frequent fluctuations in trade, and the abundant facilities for travelling, the bulk of the men following the trades have to knock about the country a great deal. And this same knocking about, although frequently involving considerable suffering and regarded as somewhat in the light of a grievance, has a wonderful tendency to eradicate from the working-class mind that bigoted, narrow-minded tone of feeling which gave rise to the old aggressive style of trade-union, and which, in districts almost exclusively devoted to one particular branch of trade, and where the great majority of the workmen are natives of, and never remove from, the district, still retards the development of the true principles of trade-unions. In their knockings about these men have learned that whatever may be the much-talked-of rights of labour, capital has also its rights, and that a mutual respect and toleration of rights is likely to be most beneficial to all parties concerned. They have also learned that masters as well as workmen require to be allowed some little freedom of action, and that it is a waste of time, money, and energy to assume a position of antagonism towards employers upon merely technical grounds which do not materially affect vital principles, or the ever-to-be-remembered, but apparently never-to-be-defined rights of labour; and they have further learned to abolish all [-60-] secret proceedings in connexion with their union, and to work with union and non-union men in equal good fellowship.* [* On this last point, however, no particular credit is due to them. The benefits of the society in question are so manifest, that the difficulty is not to get members to join it, but to keep out applicants for admission who, as workmen, do not come up to the society standard, and every year numerous candidates for admission are rejected, and numbers who have obtained admission under false pretences are excluded. But though not qualified for admission into the society, many of these men are able to earn a living at the trade; and for society men to refuse to work with them, or object to their working for whatever rate of wages they can get, would be simply dastardly.] But to those who know the working classes, and the mode of thought and action prevailing in some trades-unions, the mere fact of the various trades that form "the amalgamated society" having combined, will furnish the strongest proof of the advanced intelligence and liberality of the general body of the members of the society. For though, broadly speaking, the interests of the trades are identical, there is such divergency of interests among them on minor points as would in such districts as Sheffield and some of the iron and mining districts have kept them apart, if not in direct antagonism for ever and a day. The members of this society have learned, in short, that a trade-union, to be really beneficial to a trade generally, and the members of it individually, should hare nothing in its constitution antagonistic to the just rights and interest of the possessors of capital or employers of labour; or of a dictatorial or aggressive character either as regards employers or workmen; but should be conducted solely with a view of assisting-by an organized system of mutual insurance-its members when suffering under any of the adverse circumstances incidental to the condition of the working man; and of so associating the artisans engaged in the trade as [-61-] to enable them to act together and spontaneously in promoting their common interests, or resisting any manifestly unjust or unnecessary attempt to depreciate the fair market value of their labour. And the general result of the liberal policy which these lessons have induced them to adopt in the management of their society, is that since the great lock-out of 1852 (which was the second year of the existence of the society), there has been no general dispute between masters and workmen in the engineering trade, and the few partial misunderstandings affecting single workshops, or localities, that have arisen since then have generally been speedily and amicably arranged, while the workmen in the trade are amongst the highest paid class of mechanics, and the capital invested in it yields large profits. The great majority of the masters, and more especially those of them who are practical men as well as capitalists, or who have risen from being working men, give a decided preference to society men, knowing that in them they are sure to secure skilful workmen, while masters and workmen have a mutual and salutary respect for each other's power of making a determined stand should any misunderstanding upon really vital points be allowed to go to extremes; and the tone and self-respect of the trade are materially improved by the members of it-the great bulk of whom are also members of the trade-union-being by their title to the various benefits of the union placed in a comparatively independent position when out of employment, or when permanently or for a time incapacitated by accident, disease, or old age from following their ordinary occupation.
    That the principle of trades-unions is sound, and that when well conducted such unions are useful and beneficial institutions, there can, I think, be no doubt. [-62-] But unfortunately there can be equally little doubt that this principle is in some instances grossly perverted, and that in these instances the conductors of such societies, instead of aiming at making them mutual assurance societies, with benefits regulated to meet the ordinary drawbacks to which all working men are liable, and such others as may more particularly affect the particular trades with which they are connected, try to make them into weapons of offence against capital and freedom of action either in masters or workmen who do not belong to the societies, and to secure for their members a monopolizing and dictatorial power. And it is the tone of feeling prevailing in trades-unions of this kind, that gives rise to those most diabolical and cowardly of all modern crimes-trade outrages. The unions connected with the trades that have become notorious for these outrages may not be legally responsible for such crimes, no member of the union may know by whom the outrages have been perpetrated, and many of the more manly and better educated of the unionists may regard them with all the abhorrence they deserve; but still, speaking broadly, the unions of this class, by their generally aggressive policy, their unwritten but perfectly understood laws, their blatant inflammatory spouters, and their lukewarm, half-hearted condemnation of the outrages and the unscrupulous ruffians by whom they are committed, are morally responsible as instigators of, and accessories to, the crimes. And so long as a monopolizing and aggressive spirit is permitted to enter into the composition of trade-unions, so long will trade outrages continue to be perpetrated, so long will the unions of the trades in connexion with which these outrages take place be held morally responsible for them, and condemned by [-63-] the public voice, and so long will those whose political or pecuniary interest it is to do so continue to use the dastardly proceedings of isolated trades as arguments for the condemnation of all trade-unions, and so injure such unions in the estimation of those who have hut a superficial knowledge of the constitution and aims of, and benefits derived from the better class of them, by the most pernicious and hardest to refute of all  misrepresentation - generalization founded upon distorted and insufficient, though not absolutely false, premises and deductions. And for these reasons it becomes the duty of the members of the more liberal and advanced trade-unions, to do all in their power to raise the moral tone and alter and improve the constitution of those unions in which the true principles of trade union are as yet but little understood, and in which the opinions, traditions, and practices that have come down from a ruder and less civilized period still prevail.
    As trade-unions are intimately connected with the question of strikes, a few observations upon strikes will not, perhaps, be considered out of place in concluding this paper. That strikes are serious evils, and are ultimately detrimental to the commercial and manufacturing interests of the country in which they take place, and should, consequently, be avoided whenever it is possible, are, I believe, regarded as understood truisms by all who have either a practical or theoretical knowledge of political economy. Still, circumstances may arise under which a strike would he the lesser of two evils between which a body of workmen were driven to choose; and in that case a strike would be justifiable, however much the necessity for adopting such a mode of settling or attempting to settle a vexed question between employers and employed might be [-64-] deplored. But the evil that is greater than a strike must be great indeed, so great that the probability of it arising in the present age of competition is very small; and the frequency with which strikes occur is, in my opinion, in a great measure attributable to the fact, that the general run of working men do not fully comprehend the nature and magnitude of the evils involved in a strike, and lacking the check that would arise from a thorough understanding of these evils, they adopt a strike as a first, instead of a last resource. A strike is under any circumstances a great evil to the workmen engaged in it; it involves actual loss of wages during the time that it lasts, and consequent suffering to wives and families; it tends to send the home trade to foreign markets, and by thus sending away work while leaving hands, depresses the value of labour in the particular trade concerned, and so reduces the men to the necessity of accepting a lower rate of wages. Or it often has the effect of overstocking and permanently depreciating the value of skilled labour in a trade, by letting into it large numbers of "handy" labourers -men of somewhat similar, but less well-paid trades - runaway apprentices, and the thousand-and-one other dwellers on the threshold, who are always found ready to supply the place of men "on strike," and who, getting "the run" of the trade during the period of the strike, acquire a knowledge of the little of it that they had still to learn; and, finally, strikes invariably tend to demoralize the trades in which they occur. If, as often happens, workmen "on strike," after holding out for a considerable length of time, are at last compelled to give way from the sheer want and poverty which continued loss of wages inevitably brings, the masters, partly from the bitterness of feeling engendered by the [-65-] strike, and partly with a view to recouping themselves for their loss, often impose harder terms than those against which the men had struck, and the men return to their work sullenly, and secretly resolved to "pay off," or "be straight with," the masters, at the earliest possible date. While, if the masters have to "knock under," they often "keep it in" for the men, so that one strike frequently lays the foundation for others, and creates a distrustful, unsympathetic, and bickering tone between employers and employed, from which the latter are ultimately the greatest sufferers. And if working men generally could only be induced to calmly weigh these obvious considerations, instead of allowing themselves to be influenced by the clap-trap of professional strike-mongers, to whom a strike is "a paying concern," and who stand in the same relation to workmen "on strike" as the boys did to the frogs in the fable, strikes would become much less frequent occurrences than they are at present, and working men would, in the long run, be the gainers by the change. In the present day, too, all working men should, for their own sake, remember that England is no longer the absolute autocrat as a manufacturing nation that she has been; foreign countries are running her close, and nations that less than a generation ago were almost entirely dependent upon her for many of the most important descriptions of manufactured goods, now not only supply themselves with those classes of goods, but are formidable competitors with her for supplying the foreign, and even the home, markets. There has certainly been considerable exaggeration with respect to the extent and character of this foreign competition ; but all the recent talk about it has not-as many working men flatter themselves is the case-been got up for political party purposes.
    [66] There has been some mere political and alarmist "cry" on the subject, but there is also undoubtedly a good deal of "wool" in what has been said. "Foreign competition" is an established fact, and to all dependent upon or connected with English manufacturing industry, a most important one, and as such, and on the principle that delays are dangerous, it should he grappled with. But while foreign nations have made, and are still making, rapid progress in the manufacturing arts in which England formerly reigned supremely dominant, England can yet give " a start and a beating" to the best of her competitors, if all whose fortunes are cast in with her manufacturing boat will pull together; but it is only by the proverbial long pull, and strong pull, and pull all together, that she can any longer hope to maintain her still decided lead in the manufacturing race. And while English workmen are to be commended for endeavouring to obtain the highest market value for their labour, and a legitimate share of the wealth they help to create, they should be careful that the means they adopt to gain their ends are not of a suicidal character. They should bear in mind that whatever may be done in matters of detail, it is only by a cordial co-operation of English capital and labour that foreign competition can be beaten off. In short, the time has now arrived, and capitalists and workmen are alike called upon to recognise the fact, when of capital and labour, in connexion with English manufacturing industry, it may be said, with literal truth, united they stand, divided they fall-fall before competitors their own inferiors in everything save unity of action.

[-nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.-]