Rise of New Labor Unions in the UK in the 19th Century

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In the early nineteenth century, artisans, craftsmen and the skilled workers of the United Kingdom organized into trade unions. They had a skill that their employers needed which gave them leverage in negotiating their pay rates, hours and benefits.

By the late nineteenth century, the economy was booming. Employers needed workers to make their production schedules. The unskilled worker gained the advantage here.

A network was form to aid workers in finding jobs, houses of call or trade houses were set up across Britain. These houses provided a meal and a place to stay for the unemployed who were looking for work. Therefore, workers gathered here to discuss job prospects. In addition, a traveling system was set up during a strike to remove strikers away from the threat of prosecution. The trade house soon became the central office of the union and would act like a present day unemployment office sending members to fill job vacancies in the area. The relationships between trade societies from town to town helped organized the unions on a national level and eventually led to the pursuit of a political party which became the labor party.

New labor unions were founded by the Socialist movement. William Thorne, who was instrumental in organizing the Gas Workers Strike of 1889, joined the Socialists movement early in his careers. Thorne's secretary was Karl Marx's daughter, Tussy, who helped him to read and write. Another Socialist, Ben Tillet organized the Great Dockers Strike in the same year. The Socialist movement made working class solidarity a reality. Moreover, it was a revolutionary idea uniting unskilled workers together. These workers only strength was in their numbers and their ability to stick together.

The network to aid workers in finding jobs was already in place when the socialists organized the unskilled workers into the new labor unions. Using the network provided, new labor unionism was able to spread quickly throughout the country. This network was established early in the nineteenth century by the skilled workers unions. These skilled workers had the strong organized trade unions which were made up of artisans and craftsmen.

The success of these new labor unions gave hope to the working class and transformed the labor movement from an elite few to encompass the entire working class throughout Britain and the world. This eventually led to the establishment of a political labor movement which worked to make laws to protect workers from unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.

Skilled workers had leverage with their employer because their skills were in demand. To build a more efficient union which could best serve their interests, skilled trade union workers developed a central organized body which shared funds. A relationship was established between trade unions from different towns where information and ideas interchanged freely.

During strikes companies used strikebreakers to work in place of the strikers. Strikebreakers were called blacklegs in England and scabs in the United States. Strikers would form mass picket lines to block the strikebreakers from entering the company. Many strikebreakers got through the picket line with the help of police or soldiers but they suffered injuries and casualties in doing so. During one strike at a Gas Works Company in 1889, strikebreakers marched to the works guarded by soldiers and police. Thousands of people gathered on the sidelines forming a gauntlet and pelted the strikebreakers with rotten vegetables, stones and what not. As the strikebreakers reached the main gate of the works, a mass of people rushed in as the gates opened. There was too many for the soldiers could not hold back the crowds. The strikers charged the strikebreakers and beat them unmercifully which prompted the strikebreakers to leave town quickly. Their transportation fares were gladly paid for by the union. As they left, the blacklegs swore they would never cross another picket line again. Churches throughout the community condemn the Gas Works Company for trying to break the union. In the end, the Gas Works Company found they could not operate without their workers and gave in to the unions demands. Therefore, the strike was a victory for the union.