William Thorne facts - 19th century UK labor organizer

 Research Topics Presentation Tips History Essays British History UK Labor Unions Labor Organizer

William Thorne, like most labor union organizers, was born into poverty. He worked his first job when he was six years old to help his family. His mother worked over sixteen hours a day any work she could get[1]. His father worked as a brick maker in the summer and in the winter worked in the gas works as a stoker. [2] He was a drunk and died from injuries received in a brawl when Thorne was seven. Despite the long hours his mother worked and the long hours Thorne worked, the family was still so poor that they were able to receive some relief from the Poor Law office where Thorne collected four bad loaves of bread and four shillings a week. [3] It was not enough to keep hunger at bay. Growing up poor had a profound effect on Thorne. He believed that the unions would eventually end poverty.[4] Organizing became a holy mission for him as it was for other Socialist union organizers. Moreover, beginning work at age six and enduring terrible work conditions, Thorne swore that I would do everything in my power to help prevent other children going through the same hardships, misery, and suffering that I had to go through. [5] He also felt that companies were indirectly responsible for union organization by their slave driving methods of working their help. It forced the worker to seek justice and respite. [6]

Thorne worked many jobs, never settling down to one job for long. Employers tried to cheat him most of the time or didn't pay Thorne what he considered a fair rate. So, he just quit. In his autobiography, Thorne called it his first strikes. It was common in the late nineteenth century to negotiate a pay rate before the work was performed. There was no minimum wage. Moreover, employers often cheated the worker by paying less than the agreed upon rate. Thorne wrote, I would like to say that just the fear I had of a fair rate for piecework being lowered when extra effort is made by a workman is the fear born of experience that still exists among all workmen. [7] On the other hand, Thorne was not afraid of unemployment. He was once fired from a job for not accepting a lower pay rate than another employee received for the same job. Instead of grieving, Thorne remarked, I went, glad to be away from the grimy, noisy works, its heat and heavy labor. I always had hoped that there were better jobs and better things in the future, and it was with no regret that I left what was to me a little hell on earth.[8]  One of the biggest problems noted by Thorne in organizing workers was the workers fear of unemployment. Most workers were grateful for the little pay they did received because they were often on the brink of starvation. Therefore, the employer held the upper hand in negotiating pay rates and showed little apathy towards the plight of the workers.[9] Things began to change in the late 1880s, when the economy boomed. Thorne learned from experience when the right time was to strike. After a strike at a munitions factory ended favorably, Thorne noted for future reference, The firm was pressed for orders-Germans and French both wanted cartridges, and were paying well for them. The firm gave in and the advance in wages was granted. This was one of my earliest lessons in the law of supply and demand. "[10] Thus, when the economy boomed, workers had the greatest leverage and unions thrived. [11] Likewise, when the economy plummeted, union members disappeared too.

While working at the Gas Works Company in Birmingham, Thorne agitated his fellow employees by trying to convince them that they needed and deserved a Sunday off. The workers finally agreed to unite if Thorne would be their spokesman. The workers had not the courage as of yet to form a union. The lack of courage and the sheer ignorance of the work force was one of the biggest obstacles union organizers had to overcome. [12] Labor leaders can testify that often their hardest work is not in fighting the employers, but in driving the fear out of their own men. They will tell you, also, that their hardest kicks and greatest abuse come from those they are trying to help and serve.[13]However, Thorne went to the foreman and presented his case anyway. The foreman argued back that it would be impossible to achieve. However, Thorne convinced the foreman to talk to the chief engineer. After many negotiations with higher ups, the mayor and the gas committee, Sunday was designated a day off. It was soon afterwards, Thorne began agitating for the eight hour work day.[14]  He risked his job because a worker could be fired for agitating unrest among his fellow workers. In addition, Thorne could have been black listed and unable to get a job elsewhere for union agitating. He also could have been harassed or possibly beaten by the police who were bribed by company owners to do so. Despite Thorne's risks and efforts, the eight hour day was not won until the Gas Works finally formed a union.

Thorne believed that the unions goal should focus on winning the eight hour day first. After gaining this milestone, then everything else would fall into place. According to Thorne, the eight hour day would be the biggest improvement to workers conditions. The worker would live a healthier longer life because he would not be so worn out from physical labor. He would have time to rest and would not be exposed as long to the hazardous working conditions such as fumes, extreme heat, steam, chemicals and so forth. It would give the worker time to heal somewhat. Another benefit of the eight hour day would be less unemployment because employers would have to fill the hours with additional workers. Thus the workers labor became more valuable to the employer and the union would gain strength by gaining more members.[15] Therefore, as the leader of his union, Thorne would not spend the funds collected from the union members for unemployment, health or burial insurance. He felt the money best used as strike pay so strikers would not cave to employers pressures so easily.[16] Thorne was able to win the eight hour day for other companies, too. It was always first on the table in contract negotiations before any other grievances. However, he felt that the eight hour day would not be won completely for the working class until it became an act of Parliament. [17] The significance of the Gas Workers Union winning the eight hour day and Sundays off was that it gave other unskilled workers in other industries hope and the courage to form unions in order to rectify long standing grievances and gain better wages.

Thorne had a knack for negotiating which he proved in the Gas Workers strike. The success of the strike earned Thorne a reputation for getting results around town. One day, Thorne was approached by shop assistants from a tea company and asked if he help them shorten hours and increase their pay. Thorne approached the shop assistants manager and convinced him that it would be in the shops best interest to treat their employees better. Afterwards, Thorne took an interest in organizing the shop assistants into a union.[19]

See also, The Great Dockers Strike