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The Economic Development of France and Germany: 1815–1914 (1921)

The Industrial Revolution concentrated labour into mills, factories and mines, thus facilitating the organisation of combinations or trade unions to help advance the interests of working people. The power of a union could demand better terms by withdrawing all labour and causing a consequent cessation of production. Employers had to decide between giving in to the union demands at a cost to themselves or suffering the cost of the lost production. Skilled workers were hard to replace, and these were the first groups to successfully advance their conditions through this kind of bargaining.

The main method the unions used to effect change was strike action. Many strikes were painful events for both sides, the unions and the management. In Britain, the Combination Act 1799 forbade workers to form any kind of trade union until its repeal in 1824. Even after this, unions were still severely restricted. One British newspaper in 1834 described unions as “the most dangerous institutions that were ever permitted to take root, under shelter of law, in any country…”[141]

In 1832, the Reform Act extended the vote in Britain but did not grant universal suffrage. That year six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the gradual lowering of wages in the 1830s. They refused to work for less than ten shillings a week, although by this time wages had been reduced to seven shillings a week and were due to be further reduced to six. In 1834 James Frampton, a local landowner, wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to complain about the union, invoking an obscure law from 1797 prohibiting people from swearing oaths to each other, which the members of the Friendly Society had done. James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, George’s brother James Loveless, George’s brother in-law Thomas Standfield, and Thomas’s son John Standfield were arrested, found guilty, and transported to Australia. They became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Chartist movement was the first large-scale organised working class political movement which campaigned for political equality and social justice. Its Charter of reforms received over three million signatures but was rejected by Parliament without consideration.