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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 as the led. Owen campaigned for better working conditions, improved education for the masses and when he decided that bishops or the monarchy were unnecessary he idealistically outlined his theories to the offending people, expecting them to bow to his wisdom and abolish themselves. Like the Chartists, therefore, the trades unionists, and Owen especially, 'were the true pioneers in all the great movements of their time'. This pursuit of too many contrasting causes is similar to the trades unionists' creation of all-embracing unions composed of competing and antithetical trades: the basis upon which trades unions in the 1830s were built were almost designed to self-destruction. Unlike the trades clubs and societies after 1800, the GNCTU and the Operative Spinners' Union , for example, would be unlikely to sustain other competing trades in strike action for long. The fact that the GNCTU grew so fast and was unable to organise mass protests to the draconian punishment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs indicates that this was not due to the lack of a class-consciousness. Rather the mass trades unions failed so quickly partly because of the unrealistic aims of the leaders, the diverse and contrasting causes of the leaders and led and because of internal disagreement.

Like Chartism, trades unionism was scarred by internal dissension: Robert Owen was similar to Feargus O'Connor in that he was an idealistic and enigmatic and popular leader who loathed opposition. Owen has to bear some responsibility for the failure of trades unionism since '... a far more powerful and competent trades union organisation could have survived, if the advice of Smith and Morrison had been followed, instead of that of Owen' (Cole and Postgate, The Common People, p. 269). However, just as it would be wrong to use O'Connor as the scapegoat for the failure of Chartism, it would also be wrong to use Owen as the scapegoat for trades unionism's failure. The internal disagreements and conflicts which contributed to the failure of trades unions were as much the fault of Smith and Morrison as they were of Owen.

Since there was a developed working class after 1832, one must look elsewhere to explain the decline of trades unions. As usual Bronterre O'Brien says perceptive things about the new class consciousness and conflict:

These two classes never had, and never will have, any community of interest. It is the workman's interest to do as little work, and to get as much for it as possible. It is the middle-man's interest to get as much work as he can out of the man, and to give as little for it. Here then are their respective interests as directly opposed to each other as two fighting bulls.
The Destructive, 24 August, 1833

The hostility described by O'Brien is clear through the government's determination to suppress the trades unions, which culminated in the persecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The fear expressed by Peel and Wellington in the early 1830s of trades unions is highly significant because these High Tories were largely correct in their analysis of the consequences of parliamentary reform; the influence asserted at the start of the 1830s was substantial. Trades unions declined from this high point due to a combination of official repression, financial difficulties, the conflicting aims of the members of the mass unions, internal dissension and the growing attraction of other movements like Chartism as the country slipped into as economic depression. However, since Chartism inherited most of trades unionism's foibles - internal conflict, too diverse aims and disproportionate idealism, for example - its failure was almost ensured. But the fact that the working class was able to sustain movements in prosperous times - trades unions, and in 'hard times' - Chartism, proves that there was a homogeneous working class in this period. The final failure of these movement was due more to the governing classes' hostility (and therefore class conflict) towards them than to the alleged lack of class consciousness. Indeed, historians frequently obscure this class-consciousness in the face of substantial evidence because of their political bias.


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