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Characteristics of Trade Unions 1830-50

  1. They were Utopian and naive. Both leaders and members suffered from democratic ideals, which they put before reality. They believed that the 'brotherhood of man' was close
  2. Founders of TUs followed a policy of setting up all-embracing TUs - mass movements:

Owen believed - as did Doherty - 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. 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. The GNCTU 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

The GNCTU was the last mass union.

  1. The working classes lacked education, know-how, economic and social power so they could be easily beaten by employers, the law and the government
  2. Divisions existed between old and new industries and different trades had different needs. Also different areas had different needs: the woollen and cotton industries were mutually hostile because they were in competition with each other; hand and machine spinners and weavers were mutually hostile for the same reason.
  3. There was no homogeneous working class as yet.
  4. The unions lacked money especially in times of economic hardship such as that found in the 1830s and 1840s. This period saw a vicious spiral of distress because wages were falling; unemployment was rising; the population was increasing and increasingly it was an employer's market.
  5. The unions suffered at the hands of poor administration. TUs had few affordable means of communication at their disposal and the railways were only just being built.
  6. Political factors worked against the unions.
    1. The Tories did not see the need for political reform
    2. The Liberal Tories did not see the need for the inclusion of the working classes in politics or for greater democracy
    3. The Wellingtonian Tories did not see the need to give anything to the working classes
    4. Whig knowledge of economics was poor. They gave the working classes nothing (apart from workhouses after 1834)
    5. The middle classes could not be expected to give the working classes anything because free trade was the most important thing for the manufacturers and traders
  7. Alternatives to work were
    1. claiming poor relief from the parish
    2. going on to the streets
    3. after 1834, going into the workhouse.
  8. Trade Unions usually could not afford to give strike pay
  9. Union leaders dissipated their energies in many different movements. For example,Doherty was involved with the Spinners' Union and the N.A.P.L. and Robert Owen was involved with
  10. The Document caused the final collapse of TUs. The trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs was a test case in 1834 and the message from the courts and the government seemed to be "Join a Trade Union and see Australia".

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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