Labour movement

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The labour movement or labor movement[a] consists of two main wings: the trade union movement (British English) or labor union movement (American English), also called trade unionism or labor unionism on the one hand, and the political labour movement on the other.

  • The trade union movement consists of the collective organisation of working people developed to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and, by the implementation of labour and employment laws, from their governments. The standard unit of organisation is the trade union.
  • The political labour movement in many countries includes a political party that represents the interests of employees, often known as a "labour party" or "workers' party". Many individuals and political groups otherwise considered to represent ruling classes may be part of, and active in, the labour movement.

The labour movement developed in response to the depredations of industrial capitalism at about the same time as socialism. However, while the goal of the labour movement is to protect and strengthen the interests of labour within capitalism, the goal of socialism is to replace the capitalist system entirely.[1]


Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

Abraham Lincoln, December 3, 1861[2]

In Europe, the labour movement began during the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when agricultural jobs declined in relative importance and employment moved to more industrial areas causing an influx of low-skilled labour and a concomitant decline in real wages and living standards for workers in urban areas. Prior to the industrial revolution economies in Europe were dominated by the guild system which had originated in the Middle Ages. The guilds were expected to protect the interests of the owners, labourers, and consumers through regulation of wages, prices, and standard business practices.[3] In England however the guild system was usurped in its regulation of wages by parliament in the 16th century with the passage of the Elizabethan Era apprentice laws such as the 1562 Statute of Artificers which placed the power to regulate wages in the hands of local officials in each parish.[4] This legislation was intended to ensure just compensation for workers throughout the country. This status quo remained until 1757 when parliament rescinded the Weavers Act of 1756, abandoning its power of wage regulation, a sign of its newfound dedication to laissez-faire economics.[5] As the guild system became increasingly obsolete and parliament forswore responsibility, the workers began to form the earliest versions of trade unions.[6] The workers on the lowest rungs found it necessary to organize in new ways to protect their wages and other interests such as living standards and working conditions.[7] The idea met with great resistance. Forming unions or combinations was made illegal under legislation such as Britain's 1799 Combination Act and groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs of Dorset were punished and transported. Nevertheless Trade unionism remained active during the early to mid-19th century and various labour parties and trade unions were formed throughout the industrialised parts of the world.

There is no record of trade unions existing prior to the 18th century.[8] Beginning from 1700 onward there are records of complaints in the United Kingdom, increasingly through the century, that show labourers "combining" together to raise wages had become a phenomenon in various regions and professions.[8] The first groups in England to practice early trade unionism were the West of England wool workers and the framework knitters in the Midlands.[9] Despite these widespread cases of collective action by workers, there was no generalized political trade unionism in this period. Regardless, trade unions or "combining" were made illegal in Britain in 1799 under legislation passed by Pitt the Younger during the French Revolutionary Wars. The origins of a large scale, organized labour movement in the United Kingdom can be traced back to 1808 with the failure of the 'Minimum Wage Bill' in parliament.[10] Prior to this point there had been no organized political groups dedicated to representing the common labourer or improving their lives and working conditions. However after the failure of the Minimum Wage Bill and the British government's informal commitment to laissez-faire policy, labourers began to express their discontent in the form of strikes and other mass actions.[10] Within days over 15,000 weavers would begin striking in Manchester resulting in one dead striker and mass vandalism of machinery.[11] Agitation was not ended until it was agreed that weavers would receive a 20% increase in wages.[11] In 1813 and 1814 parliament would repeal Elizabethan Era laws known as the apprentice laws which had protected wage rates and employment.[12][13] The United Kingdom saw an increasing number of large scale strikes that followed the earlier 1808 strikes among the cotton and wool weavers in Lancashire, first in 1810 among the miners in Northumberland and Durham, and later in 1812, a general strike among weavers was called in Scotland after employers refused to institute wage scales.[12] These strikes in the far north of Britain failed due to suppression by the police and the military. In 1811, around the same time as the first failed strikes in northern Britain, a new movement known as the Luddite, or machine-breaker, movement began. In response to the declining living standards, workers in the English Midlands started to sabotage and destroy the machinery used in textile production such as stocking frames. As the industry was still decentralized at the time and the movement was secretive, none of the leadership was ever caught and employers in the Midlands textile industry were forced to raise wages.[14]

In 1812 one of the first radical pro-labor societies, the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, named after the radical social agitator Thomas Spence, was formed. Spence, a pamphleteer in London since 1776, believed in the socialized distribution of land and changing England into a federalized government based on democratically elected parish communes.[15] The society was small and had only a limited presence in English politics, and even before Spence's death in 1814 other leaders such Henry Hunt, William Cobbet, and Lord Cochrane, known as Radicals, rose to the head of the labor movement demanding the lowering of taxes, the abolition of pensions and sinecures, and an end to payments of the war debt.[16] In the aftermath of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a general economic downturn in 1815 led to a revival in pro-labour politics with many working class papers being published and received by a wide audience. These included Cobbet's "Weekly Political Register, Thomas Wooler's The Black Dwarf, and William Hone's Reformists's Register . In 1816 Henry Hunt gave a speech to a mass audience in London, dealing with issues such as universal suffrage and the Corn Laws. During his speech a group of Spenceans initiated a series of riots, later known as the Spa Fields riots during which rioters raided gunsmith shops and attempted to overtake the Tower of London. This outbreak of lawlessness led to a government crackdown on agitation and the suppression of the Spencean society.

The International Workingmen's Association, the first attempt at international coordination, was founded in London in 1864. The major issues included the right of the workers to organize themselves, and the right to an 8-hour working day. In 1871 workers in France rebelled and the Paris Commune was formed. From the mid-19th century onward the labour movement became increasingly globalised.

Labour has been central to the modern globalization process. From issues of the embodied movement of workers to the emergence of a global division of labour, and organized responses to capitalist relations of production, the relevance of labour to globalization is not new, and it is far more significant in shaping the world than is usually recognized.[17]

The movement gained major impetus during the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the Catholic Social Teaching tradition which began in 1891 with the publication of Pope Leo XIII's foundational document, Rerum novarum, also known as "On the Condition of the Working Classes," in which he advocated a series of reforms including limits on the length of the work day, a living wage, the elimination of child labour, the rights of labour to organise, and the duty of the state to regulate labour conditions.

Throughout the world, action by labourists has resulted in reforms and workers' rights, such as the two-day weekend, minimum wage, paid holidays, and the achievement of the eight-hour day for many workers. There have been many important labour activists in modern history who have caused changes that were revolutionary at the time and are now regarded as basic. For example, Mary Harris Jones, better known as "Mother Jones", and the National Catholic Welfare Council were important in the campaign to end child labour in the United States during the early 20th century.

Labour parties[edit]

Modern labour parties originated from an increase in organising activities in Europe and European colonies during the 19th century, such as the Chartist movement in the United Kingdom during 1838–48.[18]

In 1891, localised labour parties were formed, by trade union members in the British colonies of Australia. They later amalgamated to form the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In 1899, the labour party in the Colony of Queensland briefly formed the world's first labour government, lasting one week.

The British Labour Party was created as the Labour Representation Committee, as a result of an 1899 resolution by the Trade Union Congress.

While archetypal labour parties are made of direct union representatives, in addition to members of geographical branches, some union federations or individual unions have chosen not to be represented within a labour party and/or have ended association with them.

Labour festivals[edit]

Labour festivals have long been a part of the labour movement. Often held outdoors in the summer, the music, talks, food, drink, and film have attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees each year. Labour festival is a yearly feast of all the unionism gathering, to celebrate the fulfillment of their goals, to bring solutions to certain hindrances and to reform unjust actions of their employers or government.

Labour and racial equality[edit]

A degree of strategic bi-racial cooperation existed among black and white dockworkers on the waterfronts of New Orleans, Louisiana during the early 20th century. Although the groups maintained racially separate labour unions, they coordinated efforts to present a united front when making demands of their employers. These pledges included a commitment to the "50-50" or "half-and-half" system wherein a dock crew would consist of 50% black and 50% white workers and agreement on a single wage demand to reduce the risk of ship owners pitting one race against the other. Black and white dockworkers also cooperated during protracted labour strikes, including the general levee strikes in 1892 and 1907 as well as smaller strikes involving skilled workers such as screwmen in the early 1900s.

Negroes in the United States read the history of labour and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us [...] They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table [...] Our needs are identical to labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures [...] That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.

— Martin Luther King, Jr, "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins", December 11, 1961[19]

Development of labour movements within nation states[edit]

Historically labour markets have often been constrained by national borders that have restricted movement of workers. Labour laws are also primarily determined by individual nations or states within those nations. While there have been some efforts to adopt a set of international labour standards through the International Labour Organisation (ILO), international sanctions for failing to meet such standards are very limited. In many countries labour movements have developed independently and represent those national boundaries.

Development of an international labour movement[edit]

With ever-increasing levels of international trade and increasing influence of multinational corporations, there has been debate and action among labourists to attempt international co-operation. This has resulted in renewed efforts to organize and collectively bargain internationally. A number of international union organisations have been established in an attempt to facilitate international collective bargaining, to share information and resources and to advance the interests of workers generally.

List of national labour movements[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Eatwell & Wright, Roger & Anthony (March 1, 1999). Contemporary Political Ideologies: Second Edition. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 83. ISBN 978-0826451736. If ‘labourism’ sought to protect and defend the interests of labour in relation to this system, ‘socialism’ sought to change the system itself...
  2. ^ Selections from the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, by Abraham Lincoln, edited by Ida Minerva Tarbell, Ginn, 1911 / 2008, pg 77
  3. ^ Webb, Sidney; Webb, Beatrice (1902). The History of Trade Unionism. Longmans, Green and Company. pp. 16–17. the Craft Guild was looked upon as the representative of the interests, not of any one class alone, but of the three distinct and somewhat antagonistic elements of modern society, the capitalist entrepreneur, the manual worker, and the consumer at large.
  4. ^ Webb & Webb 1902, p. 41-42.
  5. ^ Webb & Webb 1902, p. 43-45.
  6. ^ Webb & Webb 1902, p. 35-37.
  7. ^ Webb & Webb 1902, p. 19-20: "the artisans of the eighteenth century sought to perpetuate those legal or customary regulations of their trade which, as they believed, protected their own interests. When these regulations fell into disuse the workers combined to secure their enforcement."
  8. ^ a b Webb & Webb 1902, p. 20-21.
  9. ^ Webb & Webb 1902, p. 39-40.
  10. ^ a b Sally Graves (1939). A History of Socialism. Hogarth Press. pp. 12–14.
  11. ^ a b Burwick, Frederick (2015). British Drama of the Industrial Revolution. Cambridge University Press. p. 127.
  12. ^ a b Cole, G.D.H. (2002). A Short History of the British Working Class Movement: 1789-1848. Routledge. pp. 61–62.
  13. ^ Webb & Webb 1902, p. 53-55:In 1814....the Act of 54 Geo. III. c. 96 swept away the apprenticeship clauses of the statute, and with them practically the last remnant of that legislative protection of the Standard of Life which survived form the Middle Ages."
  14. ^ Cole 2002, p. 62-63.
  15. ^ Cole 2002, p. 65-66.
  16. ^ Cole 2002, p. 67-68.
  17. ^ James, Paul; O’Brien, Robert (2007). Globalization and Economy, Vol. 4: Globalizing Labour. London: Sage Publications. pp. ix–x.
  18. ^ "The National Archives Learning Curve | Power, Politics and Protest | The Chartists". Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  19. ^ A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by James Melvin Washington, HarperCollins, 1991, ISBN 0-06-064691-8, pg 202–203

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