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To what extent was the growth and influence of Trades Unions in the period 1830-50 limited by the lack of a developed working-class consciousness?

The underlying assumption behind the question, that the development of trades unions was limited, has to be qualified. At the beginning of this period trades unions proliferated and had a wide influence due to the political fraud of the 1832 Reform Act and the subsequent class consciousness and conflict. Indeed, the trades unions flourished because they represented this newly-formed class tension or conflict. However, trades unions were soon in rapid decline due to the repressive action of the government and employers, financial difficulties and disorder, internal dissension and the attraction of other movements like Chartism and the Anti-Corn-Law League. Although it could be argued that working class consciousness was in its infancy and at its most vulnerable, that there was not a developed working-class to sustain trades unionism, these arguments have to be rejected. The fact that Chartism was sustained throughout the 1840s by the working class throws into question the complacent assumption that there was not a homogeneous working class in this period.

Initially there was an explosion of trades unions in the 1830s partly as a result of the 'Great Betrayal' of 1832, which created a new working class consciousness. Despite this, trades unions had been growing from about 1828 because of economic improvements, as can be seen by the formation by John Doherty of the 'Grand General Union of All the Operative Spinners of the United Kingdom' in 1829. In 1832 the Operative Builder's Union was formed in Huddersfield and Doherty's apparently failed Cotton Spinners' Union had revived. Besides these general unions the Potters' Union and the Clothiers' Union were formed and other regional associations. The degree of the explosion in enthusiasm and support for trades unionism can be gauged by the fact that in 1833 it has been estimated that the total union membership was 800,000. The 'Grand National Consolidated Trades Union', which was formed in February 1834 (or, according to Cole and Postgate in October 1833), makes the other trades unions seem insignificant because of its ambitious aim to unite every trade into one union. Although the GNCTU's official journal estimated its membership at ½ million, the registered paying membership was a lot less. However, it is possible that the effective membership of the GNCTU was not that short of the ½ million because a significant number of members would be unable to pay their fees. Although the GNCTU quickly failed this does not seem to be because of a lack of a working class consciousness:

Those who call themselves the liberal statesmen of the present day, must go progressively with the people; but in the work PEOPLE ... they must, brethren, include us, the productive labourers, for what are the people without us? And yet, brethren, while we work not for ourselves, but for the capitalists and profit-mongers, we can hardly rank with the PEOPLE. The people have a political position, but we have none that we can make any use of with benefit to ourselves!!!
('Senex', Pioneer, 28 June 1834)

The fear and subsequent repression of trades unions by the ruling class in the early 1830s was comparable to Pitt's suppression of the Corresponding Societies in the 1790s. The usually astute Peel, when retiring as Home Secretary in 1830, pointed out to the new Whig Home Secretary, Melbourne, the danger of the trades unions. The Duke of Wellington, in 1832, complained about the trades unions, claiming that half of the labourers in the country were unionists. For these prominent Tories to have commented upon the growing influence of the trades unions indicates that trades unions had substantial influence because the Tories rarely admitted to being influenced by pressure from without. The fact that Nassau Senior also called for their suppression suggests that trades unionism was becoming a potent working class force in politics. However, the governing classes and employers effectively curtailed this force by the widespread use of The Document, which forbade employees to support a union.

When the employers used The Document, strikes were precipitated and there were numerous lock-outs in Lancashire and Birmingham. As a Leeds trades unionist said, 'The very men who had pampered Political Unions, when they could be made subservient to their own purposes, were not endeavouring to crush the trades unions' (Leeds Times, 17 May 1834). Simultaneous to industrial action, the Builders' Union in Birmingham idealistically started to build their own Guildhall, and the Derby workers began co-operative production. Not only did the unions underestimate the hostility the employers felt toward them, but they also failed to realise how limited their funds were. Therefore, when the Derby strikers returned in desperation to work in 1834, it seemed that Union was '... a bubble so easy to burst...' and was ' ... nothing more than sounding brass ...' (the words of Manchester unionists to their employer, quoted in Cole and Postgate, The Common People, p. 266). Similar to the Treason Trials of 1794, the 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' were charged under the Illegal Oaths Act of 1797, which was designed to quell mutiny in the navy, because the evidence was very flimsy. Since the government had ' ... a special jury for the purpose...' (George Loveless, Victims of Whiggery, 1838) the Tolpuddle Martyrs were sentences to seven years' transportation. Although the GNCTU organised many petitions in protest to this vitriolic decision and organised a procession of about 27,000 in London, which suggests that trades unionism was still vibrant, the combination of government suppression, idealism and indigence destroyed the trades union movement.

The unrealistic expectation and the idealism of the movement is aptly expressed by a trades unionist in 1841 when he wrote

We were present at many of the meetings of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, and have a distinct recollection of the excitement that prevailed in them - if the apparent determination to carry out its principles in opposition to every obstacle - of the enthusiasm exhibited by many of the speakers ...

This Utopian enthusiasm and confidence of success bears a remarkable resemblance to Chartism and trades unionism fell as quickly as Chartism when faced with concerted opposition from the authorities. As Cole and Postgate said, 'Continually, the Chartists, as much as the Unionists, mistake their desires for facts. They believe that the intensity of their wish in some way must bring their hopes to achievement' (The Common People, p. 272). It was hardly surprising that trades unionism failed because its leaders were just as quixotic