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BRITISH TRADE UNIONISM IN THE MID-VICTORIAN ERA IRVlNG GARBATI BRITISH trade unions, comprising now almost eight million members,' are the most important single element in the Labour party. Out of its total membership of 5,422,437 in 1948,4,751,030 members were furnished by the trade unions.' The Labour party, it must be remembered furthermore, derives its original authority from the Trades Union Congress, when in 1899 it authorized the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee,' which became the Labour party in 1906. The trade unions thus not only officially support one political party but are committed to a programme envisaging the ultimate establishment of socialism in Great Britain. The present-day trade unionist accepts these facts as a matter of course. But to the trade union leaders of the seventies and eighties they would appear to be the rankest unorthodoxy. There is in some vital respects a wide gulf indeed between the ideology or philoscphy of the trade unionist in our era and that of his grandfather. But while these differences are striking, equally striking are the similarities. The present, after all, stems from the past. Indeed, there is a consistent strain in the character of British trade unionism which we should understand if we wish to understand present-day labour politics. It would therefore be eminently worth our while to examine the characteristics of British trade unionism in the era which nourished them. While this article does not claim to develop an original viewpoint on the history of British trade unionism, a history which has been definitively written by the Webbs,' it is based on primary sources and brings together the leading strands in British trade unionism of the mid-Victorian era. The continuous line of development of modern British trade unionism may properly be said to begin in the middle of the last century. The "new model" unions then established, such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Amalgamated Association of Carpenters and Joiners, the Amalgamated Association of Boot and Shoe Finishers , and others, put a permanent stamp upon British labour unions. The term "new model," used to distinguish the large centralized lFor this figure and other recent information concerning British trade unions see the interesting study by N. Barau, British Trade U nions (London, 1947). zLabour Party, Report of the 48th Annual Conference (London, 1949), 35. 8Trades Union Congress, Annual Report (London, 1899), 64-6. 4Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism (London, 1894). A second edition was published in 191 1, but the text was left unchanged, the Webbs contenting themselves with the addition of a long introduction. Another edition was published in 1920, which brought the History up to date. 69 UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, vol. XX, no. 1, Oct., 1950 70 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY unions from the localized, sporadic, petty unions that grew up in the first part of the century, gave expression to the sharp break which labour at this time was making with its past. Ideologically speaking, these new unions were also a reaction to two other phenomena in the labour world dominant in the previous period. One was the Grand National Consolidated Union of 1833-4, conceived by Robert Owen to realize his dreams of a new society. The other was Chartism, a synthesis of diverse forces and purposes, which aimed at a reconstruction of society by political means. Both were manifestations of the struggles of a class bewildered by the immense changes fashioned by the growth of industry and deeply dissatisfied with things as they were, turning first to one and then to another method to achieve some equilibrium in a rapidly changing social order. "Bitter discontent grown fierce and mad" is the eloquent dictum pronounced by Thomas Carlyle in 1850 on Chartism.' Both movements collapsed after arousing an enormous amount of enthusiasm and left labour limp and disappointed. Fifty more years were to pass before it again turned to large schemes of social reconstruction . In the meantime the unionism of the fifties and sixties was an ideological reaction against political and social utopianism. It is perhaps superfluous to point out that the "new model" unions and the new spirit animating them...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 69-84
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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