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The earliest unions were trade clubs and friendly societies. Some began as guilds, some were new. Often they were locally based in a public house and were concerned mainly with friendly society benefits. They were also concerned with apprenticeships and wage agreements. Standards and rates were fixed by trade clubs.
During the early years of the French Wars trade clubs and societies were effective in demanding wage rises which were needed to keep pace with inflation. The government saw wage claims as clear signs of disaffection. Common law already had sufficient legal weapons to deal with subversive claims by workmen; for example combination 'in restraint of trade' was indictable as conspiracy and punishment could be severe. Also, employers in different trades had had laws passed separately to deal with workmen's combinations.
In 1799 the London Master Millwrights petitioned the House of Commons to prohibit combinations within their own trade. William Wilberforce condemned combinations as a 'general disease in our society' and called for comprehensive legislation; Pitt introduced the Bill. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 introduced no new principle but offered faster application of the law via summary trial before a JP instead of trial at an Assize. The 1800 amendment allowed appeals to the Quarter Sessions. The maximum penalty under the Combination Acts was three months' imprisonment, which was very light when one considers that the old laws called for seven years' transportation. The Combination Laws also forbade employers' combinations and provided arbitration in wage disputes which was legally binding on both parties.
The Combination Acts were not widely used but were passed because of
Trade Unions actually registered great advanced while the Acts were in force because
The textile industry unionised rapidly. In 1792 the Stockport and Manchester Spinning Society was established and conducted strikes in 1810 and 1818. The 1818 strike saw the first attempt to set up a General Union of the Trades. The Lancashire textile workers contacted London shipwrights and the Spitalfields silk weavers then got in touch with skilled workers such as colliers, hatters, bricklayers and shoemakers. The organisation was called the Philanthropic Society; it collapsed when its five leaders were arrested.
By the early 1820s the 'Enlightened Tories' were making reforms and the Combination Acts were virtually a dead letter anyway. Place and Hume got a Select Committee of Inquiry set up under the chairmanship of Huskisson, which found that the Combination Acts served 'to produce mutual irritation and distrust [and] to give a violent character to Combination'
The Committee recommended repeal, which was carried out in 1824. Overt public disorder occurred 1815-1824 because there was no safety valve through which the lower orders could express their dissatisfaction but the repeal of the legislation was unfortunate in timing. In 1824-5 many TUs flourished and there was an expansion in trade. Union men demanded 'closed shops' and there were many strikes and much violence. In 1825 the Conspiracy Laws were strengthened and an amendment to the repeal legislation was passed, limiting the purpose of combinations. Although TUs had made gains out of the 1824 and 1825 legislation, their funds were not protected by law; members could be sued for breach of contract or for action 'in restraint of trade'; members could not picket, 'molest' or 'obstruct' while pursuing TU objectives and employers used 'the Document' to prevent collective bargaining.
Characteristics of the trade unions 1825-35 which contributed to their failure, show a distinct parallel with the later Chartist movement. Trade union activity filtered into Chartism, which also failed in the short-term. However, in the period 1836-51 there was some Trade Union activity and after 1851 trade unions took on a new lease of life with the founding of the New Model Trade Unions.
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