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Robert Owen and Trade Unions

Robert Owen has been called the 'father of English Socialism'. A very practical man, he concentrated on the means to the end. He believed that if the working man ever was to achieve equality, then the man must change first - in attitude. Also, the working man had to know of, believe in and be equipped to fight for the cause, according to Owen. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual's personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy.

Owen was an authoritarian and much too heavy-handed; his workers at New Lanark were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. He received no criticism from below, and he simply bought out critical partners. The result of this was that Owen became dogmatic. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual. Owen forgot, at times, that 'mankind' was made up of individuals and so he failed.

In 1832 the Operative Builders' Union was formed. It was a federation of the seven building trades. Lodges were autonomous but each sent representatives to district meetings. The Builders' Union was influenced by Owen's idea of co-operative production. It appealed to builders who could take over from middle-men because there was little fixed capital involved in the building trade. In 1833 the builders in Liverpool launched an attack on the contractors; the employers used the Document so the Builders' Union called its members out on strike. In Manchester, the strike lasted for sixteen weeks. In September 1833 Owen spoke at the annual Builders' Parliament and outlined a scheme for a worker take-over. As a result of this, the Grand National Guild of Builders was formed. This meant that there were two builders' unions: the Operative Builders' Union (trying to get better conditions under the capitalist system) and the Grand National Guild of Builders (trying to abolish capitalism). Both had failed by 1834 because of internal dissent.

Owen believed that the ineffectiveness of the working classes was a result of a lack of co-ordination, and made another effort to establish one big union, aimed at ending the capitalist system. He intended that all individual competition would cease and industry would be carried on by 'national companies'. Owen called on the workers to organise into lodges and associations of lodges; a grand union of all trades would follow. The idea spread rapidly and a conference was held in London.

In February 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was founded. Owen brought all the widespread but disparate industrial activity under one big union with the object of ending the capitalist system - another side-show. He wanted to use unionism to change the economic system while his members wanted to use the unions to wring higher wages from their employers.The inclusion of all workers, including women, was ensured. Lodges had their own sick, funeral, superannuation and other benefits and there were no regular subscriptions to central funds. There was a general levy of members to acquire land and set up workshops, however. Membership was said to have reached 1 million within a few weeks, although there was no accurate record of the membership and it is believed that there were only 16,000 paid-up subscribers. The aim was syndicalist government, founded on a pyramid system of representation. Owen disliked strikes because he believed that unions thus used were part of the class war, rather than being used as a means of social regulation.

The G.N.C.T.U. was mainly London-based with a membership predominantly of artisans but branches did exist in other parts of the country; members were mostly artisans. It failed because of

Owen failed to understand the cruelties of life in the 1830s, which turned men against masters. He sympathised with men, but he could not identify himself with them. To the last he remained what he had always been: a benevolent paternalist. He was never a democrat because democracy would mean the rule of the ignorant and the unenlightened.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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