1902 Encyclopedia > Trade Unions

Trade Unions

TRADE UNIONS are combination for regulating the relations between workmen and masters, workmen and workmen, or masters and masters, or for imposing restrictive conditions on the conduct of any industry or business. By the common law all such combinations were, with certain rare and unimportant exceptions, regarded as illegal. They were considered to be contrary to public policy, and were treated as conspiracies in restraint of trade. Those who were engaged or concerned in them were liable to be criminally prosecuted by indictment or information, and to be punished on conviction by fine and imprisonment. The offence was precisely the same whether it as committed by masters or by workmen. But, although, the provisions of the common law applied mutatis mutandis to both of them alike, it was, practically speaking, in reference rather to the latter than to the former that their effects were developed an ascertained. While it was held to be perfectly lawful for workmen, as individuals, to consent or to refuse to labour for any remuneration or for any time they pleased, when two or more of them joined together, and agreed to labour only on certain stipulated terms with respect either tot he payment or the duration of their labour, they were guilty ipso facto of a misdemeanour. it was immaterial whether the end they had in view was to determine wages or to limit work ; or whether the means they adopted for promoting its attainment was a simultaneous withdrawal from employment, and endeavour to prevent other workmen from resuming or taking employment, or an attempt to control the masters in the management of their trade, the engagement of journeymen or apprentices, or the use of machinery or industrial processes ; or whether in seeking to enforce their demands they relied merely on advice and solicitation, or restored to reproach and menace, or proceeded to actual violence. In any event their combination in itself constituted a criminal conspiracy, and rendered them amenable to prosecution and punishment. From the reign of Edward I. to the reign of George IV. the operation of the common law was enforced and enlarged by between thirty and forty Acts of Parliament, all of which were more or less distinctly and explicitly designed to prohibit and prevent what we have learned to describe and recognize as the "organization of labour." But the rise of the manufacturing system towards the end of the last century, and the revolution which accompanied it in the industrial arrangements of the country, were attended by a vast and unexpected extension of the movement which the legislature had for so long and with so much assiduity essayed to suppress. Among the multitudes of workmen who then began to be employed in single factories or in neighbouring factories in the same towns, trade unions in the form of secret societies speedily became numerous and active, and to meet the novel requirements of the situation a more summary method of procedure than that which had hitherto been available was provided by the 40th Geo. III. cap. 106. By this statute, passed in 1880, it was enacted that all persons combining with others to advance their wages of decrease the quantity of their work, or in any way to affect or control those who carried on any manufacture or trade in the conduct and management thereof, might be convicted before one justice of the peace, and might be committed to the common jail for any time not exceeding three calendar months, or be kept to hard labour in the house of correction for term of two calendar months. The discontent and disorder of which, in conjunction with a state of commercial depression and national distress, the introduction of steam and improved appliances generally into British manufactures was productive in the first quarter of the current century led to the nomination of a select committee by the House of Commons, to inquire into the whole question of what were popularity and comprehensively designated the "combination laws," in the session of 1824. After taking evidence, the committee reported to the House that "those evidence, the committee reported to the House that "those laws had not only not been efficient to combinations either of masters workmen, but on the contrary had, in the opinion of many of both parties, had a tendency to produce mutual irritation and distrust, and to give a violent character to the combinations, and to render them highly dangerous to the peace of the community," they further reported that in their judgment "masters and workmen should be freed from such restrictions as regards the rate of wages and the hours of working, and be left at perfect liberty to make such agreements as they mutually think proper." They therefore that "the statute laws which interfered recommended that "the statute laws which interfered in these particulars between masters and workmen should be repealed," and also that " the common law under which a peaceable meeting of masters or workmen might be prosecuted should be altered." In pursuance of their report, the 4th Geo. IV. cap. 95 was at once drafted, brought in, and passed. But the immediate results of he change which it effected were regarded as so inconvenient, formidable, and alarming that in the session of 1825 the House of Commons appointed another select committee to re-examine the various problems, an review and predecessors in the previous year. They reported without delay in favour of the total repeal of the 4th Geo. IV. cap. 95, and the restoration of those provisions of the combination laws, whether statutory, or customary, which it had been more particularly intended to abrogate. The consequence was the enactment of the 6th Geo. IV. cap. 129 of which the preamble declares that the 4th Geo. IV. cap 95 had not been found effectual, and that combinations such as it had legalized were "injurious to trade and commerce, dangerous to the tranquility of the country, and especially prejudicial to the interests of all who were concerned in them." The effect of the 6th Geo. IV.cap. 129 was to leave the common law of conspiracy in full force against all combinations in restraint of trade, except such as it expressly exempted from its operation as it had been before the 4th Geo. IV. cap. 95 was passed. It comprised, however, within itself the whole of the statute law relating to subject, and under it no persons were liable to punishment for meeting together for the sole purpose of consulting upon and determining the rate of wages or prices which they, being present, would require for their work or pay to their workmen, or the hours for which they would work or require work in any trade or business, or for entering into any agreement, verbal or written, for the purpose of fixing the rate of wages or prices which the parties to it should so received or pay. But all persons were subjected to a maximum punishment of three months’ imprisonment with hard labour who should by violence, threats or intimidation, molestation, or obstruction do, or endeavour to do, or aid, abet, or assist in doing or endeavouring to do, any of a series of things inconsistent with freedom of contract which the Act enumerated and defined. Afterwards, in order to remove certain doubts which had arisen as to the true import and meaning of the words "molestation" and "obstruction," it was provided by the 22d Vict. cap. 34 that "no person by reason merely of his endeavouring peaceably and in a reasonable manner, and without threat or intimidation direct or indirect, to persuade others to cease or abstain from work, in order to obtain the rate of wages or the altered hours of labour agreed to by him and others, should be deemed to have been guilty of ‘molestation’ or ‘obstruction.’" In spite of the partial recognition which trade unions had thus received, they continued to be unlawful, although not necessarily criminal, associations. In certain cases, they were by statute exempted from penal consequences, and their members were empowered to combine for specified purpose, and to collect funds by voluntary contributions for carrying them into effect. But in the estimation of the common law the special privileges which had been accorded to them under particular circumstances did not confer any general character of legality upon them, and where their rules were held to be in restraint of trade, as in the prohibition of piece-work or the limitation of the number of apprentices, they were still regarded as conspiracies. hence they were practically excluded from the advantages in regard to the security of their property and the settlement of their disputes which, under the Friendly Societies Act, 18th and 19th Vict. cap. 63, had been granted to all associations established for any purposes which were not illegal. In this condition the law was when what became notorious as the "Sheffield and Manchester outrages" suggested the appointment of the royal commission on trade unions, which investigated the subject from 1867 to 1869. The outcome was, first, a temporary measure for the more effectual protection of the funds of trade unions, passed in 1869, and, secondly, the two measures which, as amended and amending, are cited together as the "Trade Union Acts 1871 and 1876"—the 34th and 35th Vict. cap. 22 and the 39th and 40th Vict. cap. 31.

By these statutes, constructed with the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875, the 38 and 39 Vict. cap. 86, the law relating shape in which it exists at the present time. In connexion with trade disputes no person can now be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit an act which would not be criminal if committed by him singly, and consequently employers and employed alike may lawfully do in combination all that they would be entitled to do as individuals. The purposes of trade union are not to be deemed illegal merely because they are in restraint of trade, and the circumstance that they are in restraint of trade is not to render any member of it liable to prosecution, nor is it to avoid or make voidable any agreement or trust relating to it. No court, however, can entertain legal proceedings with the object of directly enforcing or recovering damages for the breach of an agreement between the members of a trade union as such, concerning the conditions on which the members for the time being shall of not sell their goods, transact their business, employ or be employed, or the payment by any person of any subscription or penalty to a trade union, or for the application of the funds of a trade union to provide benefits or to furnish contributions to any employer or workman not a member of such trade union in consideration of such employer or workman acting in conformity with the rules or resolutions of such trade union, or to discharge any fine imposed upon any person by any court of justice or any agreement made between one trade union and another, or any bond to secure such agreements. But such incapacity to sue on such agreements is not to be taken as constituting any of them illegal. Every person, however, commits a misdemeanour, and on conviction is liable to a maximum fine of £20, or to a maximum imprisonment of three months with hard labour, who wilfully and maliciously breaks a contract of service or hiring, knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that the probable consequence of his so doing, either alone or in combination with others, will be to endanger human life or cause serious bodily injury, or to expose valuable property, whether real or personal, to destruction or serious injury, or who, being employed by a municipal authority or by any company or contractor on whom is imposed by Act of Parliament, or who have otherwise assumed, the duty of supplying any place with gas or water, wilfully and maliciously breaks a contract of service or hiring, knowing, or having reasonable cause to believe, that the probably consequence of his doing, alone or in combination with others, will be to deprive the inhabitants of that place, wholly or in part, of their supply of gas or water, ; or who, with a view to compel any other person to do or to abstain from doing any act which such other person has a right to abstain from doing or to do, wrongfully and without legal authority uses violence to or intimidates such other person or his wife or children, or injures his property ; or who persistently follows such person about from place to place ; or who hides any tools, clothes, or other property owned or used by such other person, or deprived him of or hinders him in the use thereof ; or who watches or beset the house of other place where such person resides or works or carries on business or happens to be, the approach to such house or place ; or who follows such other person with two or more persons in a disorderly manner in or through any street or road. But attending at or near the house or place where a person resides or works or carries on business in order merely to obtain or communicate information is not watching or besetting within the statute. In regard to registration, trade unions, are placed on a similar footing with friendly and provident and industrial societies, and they enjoy all the privileges, advantages and facilities which those associations possess and command. On their side, however, they have to comply with the same conditions, are subject to the same liabilities, and are compelled to make the same periodical returns.

Although there are several large and influential societies among the employers of labour within the legal definition of trade unions, what are commonly as well as more accurately meant by trade unions are societies exclusively composed of the employed,—the suppliers of labour whether skilled or unskilled. Of trade unions in this sense,—those of which the members are all artisans or labourers,—the organization is everywhere pretty much the same, although the rules and regulations of various associations differ in detail more or less distinctly and widely from one another. Their ordinary constitution is that of a society divided into districts, and again into smaller local bodies. The seat of the governing authority—the general or executive council—is usually fixed at some large centre of industry or commerce, as London, Manchester, or Birmingham, and it is often changed at stated intervals by a vote of the society at large. It is the policy of the trade unions, by this method of organization, to extend the area of their influence, and so to increase their power in dealing with the masters or in controlling their own members in any emergency. Each of the branches has a government for special purposes. But for general purposes all the branches are under the command of the executive council or central committee, which is constituted of members or officers who are elected by the whole society. The terms on which members are admitted are different in different associations. But in all of them there are certain limits as to age and the number of years during which the candidate has been apprenticed to our has worked in the trade. The revenue and reserve of all the societies are derived from admission fees and weekly or monthly subscriptions, together with the amount of the rules and regulations. These sources of income are sufficient for ordinary purposes; and extraordinary charges, such as are entailed by a "strike" or a "lock-out" are nearly always, if not invariably, met by means of "levies" made on the members by order of the executive council or central committee. The following account of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers may be accepted as furnishing a typical example of the organization and management of a large and flourishing trade union.

According to the thirty-third annual Report of that society, it appears that in 1883 the union consisted of 424 branches, chiefly in towns in the British Isles, but with a fair sprinkling in Canada the United States, Australia, India, and other parts of the globe. The number of members was 50,418. A branch must consist of not fever than seven members or more than three hundred. The constitution is pre-eminently democratic. Each branch is itself a completely organized body. It selects and elects its own officers ; it collects, holds, and spends its won funds ; and it manages the whole of the business which affects alone. The officers of the branch are elected at general meetings at which every member must be present under the penalty of a fine. Member who refuse to be nominated for office, or who refuse to serve if elected, are also subject to fines, and officers who neglect their business either by coming late to meeting or absenting themselves altogether are similarly punished. A meeting of the members of each branch is held every fortnight for the transaction of ordinary business, such as receiving subscriptions and deciding upon proposition for new members. These meetings begin at half-past 7 in the evening and close at half-past 9 or 10 o’clock, but the hours are altered when it is convenient to alter them. The duties of the secretary are onerous, and his responsibility is great. No one therefore is eligible who has not been in the society two years successively, and "no number shall be elected as secretary who keeps a public or beer house." He has charge of the accounts of his branch, and conducts its correspondence. He has to see to the payment of members who are entitled to travelling relief donation, sick, superannuation, or funeral benefit. He has to summon meetings, keep minutes, report to the general secretary as to the state of trade in the district, the number of men out of work, or on the other hand he has to state what men are wanted, and he was also "to transact any other business that belongs to his office." The president, vice-president, and assistant secretary of a branch are elected quarterly, while the secretary and referee are elected annually. Members are exempt if they are fifty years of age, or if they reside more than 3 miles from the club house ; and they are disqualified if they are 10s. in arrear with their contributions. There are also bookkeepers, money stewards, doorkeepers, treasures, and auditors, the nature of whose work is evident from their titles. There are also sick stewards, whose duties are to visit the sick twice a week, to report their visits to the meetings of the branch, and to carry the invalid his sick benefit. None of the offices are honorary. In branches numbering fewer than fifty upwards 6d., for his attendance on branch meeting nights. The secretary is paid annually and according to the size of the branch. The lowest amount is £1, 5s. for a branch of ten members, the highest £10, 4s. for a branch of three hundred. The auditors are paid at a lower rate, which varies from 9d. to 4s. 8d., while the treasurer is paid 10 per cent. on the sum set apart for use. Each branch has also a committee, which has power to determine anything whereon the society’s rules are silent. The books of the branch are open to their inspection ; they can summon meetings, and they have various other duties. Each member of this committee receives 6d. for each meeting he attends, and is fined 6d. for each meeting from which he is absent. In any district in which have are more branches than one, a local district committee must be formed, consisting of seven members, each branch as nearly as practicable selecting an equal number. Where there are seven branches, each one sends a representative. The duties of this committee are to "watch over the interests of the trade, and transact such business as affects the district generally." It must not, however, interfere with the business of any particular branch of the society. The central authority is vested in a general or executive council, consisting of thirty-seven members, of whom eleven represent metropolitan branches, the others being from the provinces, including Scotland and Ireland. As the country councillors cannot conveniently attend frequent meetings in London, the ordinary management is entrusted to the eleven London members, who are called the local council, and the council is also further broken up into various committees for managing the details of the society. This council hears appeals from branches, advises, forbids, initiates, and terminates strikes. The general secretary receives a salary of £4 a week and lives rent free. He also receives 1s. 6d. each time he attends a council meeting, and paid for any special journeys undertaken or extra work done. His assistants receive £2, 10s. a week each, and have to give the whole of their time to the association. They have to compile and issue a monthly report as well as quarterly and yearly reports. The last-named is quite a formidable volume, consisting of nearly 400 pages of large post octavo, and those of other societies are similar. The general secretary’s hours of business are fixed from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. He has power to authorize members who are on donation to be removed from one branch to another where there is a probability of employment, and he has to keep register of all the members of the society, stating when and where admitted, age, married, or single, and whether a member has received any part of the financial money. In the Amalgamated Society of Engineers the contribution of each member is generally 1s. a week, and if a man be in arrears he is suspended from the benefit of the society, unless he is out of work or in distressed circumstances. At the end of 1883 the union had a balance in hand of £178,128, or upwards of £3, 10s. a man.

In some trade unions.—for example, those of the compositors—there is a special body ("fathers of chapels") whose business it is to see that the rules and regulations of the societies belong to are faithfully observed in the establishment where they are employed. In others again—from instance, in the National Agricultural Labourers Union, as distinguished from the Federal Union of Agricultural Labourers—the system of management is completely centralized, the secretary ofr the executive committee having entire control of the funds and business of the whole association. In all large towns there are trade councils formed of delegates from the different trade unions within their area, whose function it is to discuss and supervise the general interests of the unionists in the several trades of which they are representative. Moreover, an annual trade unions congress is held in some great centre of industry and population in one of the three kingdoms, at which delegates from almost all the trade unions throughout the realm are present and take part in debating questions, whether social or political, which are of special interest to the working classes. At these assemblies, which have now been held for twenty consecutive years, a parliamentary committee, which remains in existence for the ensuing twelvemonth, is chosen, to whom the whole body of trade unionist looks for counsel and assistance with respect to legislation intended or desired on the behalf. To the action of the trade unions congress and their parliamentary committee much of the legislation which has been recently effected on questions affecting the welfare of the order of the community to which they belong is to be attributed,— notably the Employers’ Liability Act and the amended Factory and Mines Acts. (See Trade Unions, &c., by William Trant.)

The objects of trade unions are twofold,—first, those of a friendly or benefit society, and, secondly, those of a trade society or guild. In the former capacity they afford relief to their members when they are out of work from any cause, including sickness or accident ; they occasionally provide them with superannuation allowance, and they almost always make burial allowances on account of deceased members and their wives. In the latter capacity it is their special business to promote what they conceive to be the interests of the trade with which are connected by placing the workmen, so far as combination will fulfill that purpose, on a footing approaching to equality with the capitalists by whom they are employed in the disposal of their labour. Of course this is the great object for which the unions really exist. But, as the commissioners on trade unions have pointed out, it is found desirable to conjoin the objects of a friendly or benefit society with it, because by that means additional members and funds are obtained, and the authority which the union as a trade society has over its members is thus augmented. The leading aims of all trade unionism are to increase wages and to diminish the labour by which it is needed to earn them, and further to secure a more equal distribution of work among the workmen in any given trade than would be the case under a régime of unrestricted competition. Hence their rules prescribe a minimum amount of wages to be accepted and a maximum amount of work to be done by their members, and which the unionists endeavour toa accomplish their end, which is in a sense the monopoly of the labour market, are either direct or indirect. The direct method is a "strike," or simultaneous cessation of labour on the part of the workmen. It is the ultimate sanction as between the employed and their employers of the demands made by the union. But, where the unionists are strong, the mere threat of a strike is often sufficient to fulfill the intended purpose, and arbitration is still more frequently found effectual for bringing about a settlement or compromise. The indirect methods to which the trade unionist resort for the reaching their aims by limiting the number of workmen to be employed in any trade repressing or discountenancing competition among those who are actually employed in it. Most of them forbid admission of more than a stipulated proportion of apprentices, and some of them prohibit the engagement of women to do work which can be done by men. Nearly all of them resist the common employment of unionists, and do their best to exclude non-unionists from employment altogether. But the amount expended by trade unions in the conduct of trade disputes is very much less than is generally imagined. Mr George Howell, for instance, showed conclusively in the Contemporary Review that such was the case three years ago, and Mr Murchie, the chairman of the parliamentary committee, stated at the trade unions congress congress at Stockport in the autumn of 1885 that Mr Howell’s contentions had been signally confirmed by more recent experience. Taking the seven largest trade unions, those whose statistics had been relied on the Mr Howell—namely, the Amalgamated Engineers, the Ironfounders, the Boiler Makers and Iron Shipbuilders, the Steam-Engine Makers, Ironmoulders of Scotland, Amalgamated Tailors, and Amalgamated Carpenters and Joiners—he affirmed that, while in the nine years preceding 1884 their receipts were £2,818,548, their expenditure was £2,963,186, of which amount £1,207,180 was spent unemployed benefit, £592,273 in sick benefit, £975,052 in compensation for loss of tools, superannuations, accidents, funerals, minor grants and benefits, and expense of management, only £188,680 had been spent in connexion with "trade movements," or about 6 _ per cent. of the whole sum expended.

There are no really trustworthy means of arriving at anything approaching to an accurate estimate of the actual numerical strength of the trade unions in the United Kingdom. According to the last Report of the register general of friendly societies, there were in the year 1883 registered in his office 195 trade unions with 253,088 members and £431,495 funds, of which 12 returned over £10,000 funds, 9 over 10,000 members, and 6 over £10,000 income. But this of conveys a very inadequate notion of the dimensions to which trade unionism has attained, since many of the largest and most influential societies are still unregistered.

The following table shows the number of delegates and the aggregate membership of the societies represented by them at the trade unions congresses in years from 1880 to 1886, both inclusive:—


We shall not be far wrong, perhaps, if we set down then the number of trade unionists in all three kingdoms at about 800,000. (F. DR.)

The above article was written by Frederick Drummond, Brighton.

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