History of Trade Unions (Labor Unions), Who founded the first trade union and when?


In origin, trade unions are a consequence of capitallst development. Secondary similarities of function and practice between unions and the craft guilds of medieval Europe have inspired attempts to trace the direct descent of the former from the latter.

A lineal connection, however, cannot be established. Basically, craft guilds and trade unions are comparable only as historical types of combination, corresponding to different stages of economic development and successive social systems. They are analogous, rather than related, associations.

Trade Unions (Labor Unions)

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Craft Guilds

The craft guilds, which appeared for the first time toward the cnd of the llth century, followed the separation of industry from agriculture concomitantly with the rise of towns and the development of urban economy. industry developed on the basis of handicraft production in small workshops to satisfy existing demand of definite customers in local markets, and hence separately from commerce.

The craft guilds were societies of artisans, comprising master craftsmen who were both handicraftsmen and the proprietors of workshops, owning the tools and raw materials used in production, directing the work, and owning and disposing of the finished product; apprentices; and journeymen, artificers who had completed their apprenticeship and occupied an intermediate position between apprentices and masters. By custom, guild regulation, and law, apprentices and journeymen were regarded as potential master craftsmen; and all three were held to be, not distinct groups with separate interests, but necessary stages in the development of competent artisans. The guilds were controlled by the masters.

The craft guilds were essentially middleclass associations of handicraft producers. Their chief function was the protection of artisans against competition among themselves by minute, restrictive, and comprehensive regulation of all phases of production, and against competition from other towns by monopolistic control of local markets. The guilds corresponded to a precapitallst stage of economic development, in which, on the one hand, the functions of industrial production and commerce were discharged separately by artisans and merchants, and, on the other hand, the roles of producer and owner were combined in the artisan.


Growth of Merchant Capitallsm

More to the point in determining the precursors of labor unions are the journeymen’s fraternities or societies, variously designated in different countries, which sprang up during the decay of the craft guilds. As markets widened, beginning in the 13th century, the growth of trade made increasing demands on production. The guilds were fundamentally allen to production in volume for extensive markets not subject to monopolistic control, but open to competition and entailing, therefore, individual initiative and hazards foreign to the nature of the guild system. Production, consequently, developed independently of, and in opposition to, the guilds; and resulted in the evolution of the capitallst mode of production. Merchants, who theretofore had served only as intermediaries between producers, promoting the exchange of commodities, began to take direct control of production, while at the same time, energetic and ambitious master craftsmen began to produce for wider markets, reaching out for control of commerce. Control of production and commerce were combined; merchants became manufacturers ; producers, merehants ; and both, capitallsts. As merchant manufacturers were the predominant type of capitallst entrepreneur, it is customary to refer to both types as merchant manufacturers or merchant capitallsts, and even merely as merchants.

At the same time that control of production and commerce were combined in the merchant capitallst, the artisan was stripped of ownership of the instruments of production, and the roles of owner and producer were embodied separately in employer capitallsts and wage workers. The merchant manufacturers bought directly from independent handicraftsmen; contracted with master craftsmen for the output of their shops; and set handicraftsmen and peasants and their women and children to work in their own homes and in rented workshops. By these practices, the merchant manufacturers preserved the handicrafts as the teehnieal basis of production. On the other hand, they also established a number of relatively large \vorkshops in which hand machinery was used and division of labor within the workshop was instituted by the partial splitting up of a number of handicrafts into their component operations.

As in all these instances, the merchant manufacturers generally supplied the raw materials, invariably disposed of the finished produet, and tended increasingly to supply the principal tools, master craftsmen were transformed into middlemen between merchants and producers; and independent handicraftsmen, who continued nominally to seli their produets, but disposed of them for prices which were determined by the merchants and were, consequently, the equivalcnt of wages, became a type of wage worker; direct employees of the merchant manufacturers were wage workers.

Under the spur of inereasing trade, which it in turn, stimulated, the rising system of manufacture undermined the guilds. In the 16th century, following the emergence of a new world market in consequence of the epochal explorations and discoveries of the 15th century, manufacture became the prevailing form of industrial production, assuring the economic supremacy of the merchant manufacturers and ushering in the era of merchant capitallsm.

Journeymen’s Societies

On the journeymen, the impact of these developments was calamitous. all hope of their becoming independent producers vanished as the manufacturing system made necessary for the establishment of new enterprises larger amounts of capital than journeymen could acquire in the traditional way. Their access to mastership was made increasingly difficult and, in the end, virtually impossible by the master craftsmen who, in striving to maintain themselves against the subverting and encroaching influence of the new system of production, tended to make mastership exclusive and hereditary. Journeymen were deprived of representation in the guild assemblies, and were ejected from the municipal governments in which they held office. They suffered legal persecution and were frequently maltreated. Thus there took place in the guilds, beginning in the 14th century, a process of social differentiation which culminated in the 16th century with the divorce of the journeymen from the decisive instruments of production, in the transformation of the journeymen into wage workers.

In selfdefense, the journeymen formed independent associations with their own officers and ritual, and with complcte systems of initiation fees, dues, fines, and various benefits. They set high standards of workmanship and moral conduet for membership. The early associations, formed in the 14th century, were principally fraternal and religious in character. And while mutual aid continued to be one of the principal functions of journeymen’s societies throughout their existence, broader functions were inevitably acquired by these associations. They appealed in vain to legislatures and courts to perpetuate the restrictive measures which had proteeted artisans against competition and other adverse factors. At the same time, they attempted to establish control over the placement of workers in shops. They resisted the efforts of the masters to increase the number of apprenticcs and reduce the number of betterpaid journeymen. And they protested the debasement of working conditions and the extension of the workday which the masters instituted. When their demands were refused, the journeymen frequently were successful in withholding workers from the masters, occasionally on a citywide scale. They conducted sporadic strikes. The stronger societies tried, without success, to win control of the guilds; a number won a recognized place in the guilds. Everywlıere, journeymen’s societies encountered not only the opposition of the masters, but also the hostility of governments. They were repeatedly prohibited, and continual efforts were made to suppress them. Persecution caused many societies to succumb, but new associations continually sprang up to replace those which perished because of governmental hostility or failed for other reasons. In general, journeymen’s combinations persisted as secret societies. And as journeymen were transformed into wage workers, the combinations they formed became unions.

Trade Unions (Labor Unions)

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The first unions, created during the later stages of the period of merchant capitallsm, gave abundant evidence of their historical origin. Indicative of their genesis was the frequent inclusion of “journeymen” in the names of the British and American unions and of its equivalents in the designations of unions in other countries And, in fact, the unions of this period were combinations, in greater part, of journeymen who, although wage workers, were, as before, skilled handicraftsmen.

They were exclusive associations, formed on a craft and, usually, a local basis. They exhibited little sense of solidarity with the workers of other crafts and trades and excluded semiskilled and unskilled workers, but frequently admitted to membership the artisan proprietors of small shops, who labored side by side with their workers, were often as poor, and, in consequence, were presumed to have common interests with them, especially against competing shops and the capitallsts for whom they worked under contract. These early unions were concerned principally with the relief of distress among their members, and strove to increase the bargaining power and protect the interests of their members by controlling access to their crafts through limitation and strict regulation of apprenticeship, by establishing the closed shop,* and by maintaining and improving wage rates. They engaged in sporadic strikes. Like journeymen’s societies, they came under the ban of laws prohibiting combinations of workmen, but many were tolerated. Essentially, these early unions were a transitional form of combination between journeymen’s societies and modern labor uniorfc. By some historians they are regarded as journeymen’s societies; by others, as trade unions. But however designated, they are generally held to be the true forerunners of the modern tradeunion movement.

The Factory System

The tradeunion movement is a consequence of the industrial revolution which occurred in England from about 1760 to approximately 1830 and in other countries at varying later dates; and which, in creating the factory system, transformed merchant capitallsm into industrial capitallsm. Production in factories, based on large aggregates of tools and workers, the application of power to machinery, extended division of labor in the factory, speciallzation of tools and operations, and improved means of communication, superseded handicraft production, which, however, survived but decreased greatly in economic importance. It gave rise, on the one hand, to a class of industrial capitallsts who supplanted the merchant manufacturers as the controllers and directors of production, and appropriated in greater part the function of the merchants in exchange. And, on the other hand, it brought to an end the role of the handicraftsman as the dominant type of industrial producer and transformed large numbers of handicraftsmen and immense numbers of peasants into the characteristically propertyless factory proletariat of modern times.

The factory system enormously increased production and productivity and enriched the industriallsts. But it took a frightful toll in human suffering as men, women, and children were mercilessly exploited by employers who, in accordance with prevailing views, were without social obligations generally and virtually without responsibilities toward the human sources of their wealth. Caught in the grip of vast inimical forces which they did not understand, large numbers of workers tried to escape by striking blindly at what they assumed to be the cause of their misery. By riots and incendiarism they sought to destroy factories and machinery. But such methods of protest proved ineffectual. With increasing understanding, workers learned to distinguish between machinery as a valuable instrument of production and the uses which employers made of it to the detriment of workers. The formation of coalltions of workers, intended to end competition among them and to pit their collective strength against their employers in the determination of working conditions, offered an alternative method of resistance, based on acceptance of the factory system as the existing form of industrial organization.

The Nature of Unionism

Thus the modern trade union originated as an elementary form of organization of the working class created by the industrial revolution. Genetically, it was primarily economic. its immediate interests lay in the field of industrial relations. And these pivoted on the relationship between workers and employers—labor and capital—in the process of production. As this relationship, however, constituted the basic social relationship of the rising industrial order, it influenced and was influenced by all the economic, social, and political processes of capitallst society. The impact of the unions, consequently, had necessarily to transcend the splıere of industrial relations, and unions inevitably had to react to all the influences affecting industrial relations. Potentially, therefore, their sphere of interest extended to the whole of society. And inherently, if only secondarily, they were also social and political, as well as economic, associations.

The connection between the economic and political interests of the unions was manifest at their birth. The first demands made by the unions did not challenge private property generally, nor private property in the means of production specifically, but strove only to abridge rights corollary to ownership by limiting the autocratic industrial power of employers. Under the law, all individuals were equal; and as equals, in accordance with the prevailing practice of freedom of contract, employers and workers entered into individual labor contracts to conduct the process of production. But legal theory did not correspond to economic reallty; and employers, in consequence of their superior economic power as owners of the means of production, dictated the terms of employment to workers whose only marketable asset was their ability to work and who faced continuously the alternatives of work or imminent starvation. For dictation of working conditions by employers, the unions proposed to substitute collective bargaining by organized workers with their employers. They demanded principally standardized equal wages and shorter hours, especially for women and children. Essentially, these were protective measures and marked the unions as defensive associations rather than as aggressive bodies formed to assault the capitallst system.

Nevertheless, they affrighted employers and beneficiaries and proponents of the new industrial order generally. For, in attempting to circumscribe property rights and restrict freedom of contract, the unions impinged directly, with adverse afîect on employers, on the source of profit and appeared, therefore, to threaten the foundation of the wealth and power of the industrialists. Furthermore, in seeking as collective bodies to influence industrial relations, the unions controverted the doctrine of laissez faire (q.v.) which held that the interests of society are served best when economic affairs are conducted in accordance with “natural law” (q.v.), by individuals, and without restriction by any other human agency. Unionism thus appeared to challenge and imperil the very basis of social existence.

The unions were met, accordingly, by employers and governments with savage hostility. Unionists were blacklisted. Scabs and violence were used to crush strikes. Undercover agents were employed to disrupt unions. Existing statutes excluding combinations of workmen from freedom of speech and assemblage were invoked against the unions, and new laws outlawing them were enacted. Thereby the existence and, therefore, development of unionism was inseparably connected with basic political relationships, among which freedom of association • was vital.

As in former times, legal prohibition proved powerless to prevent combinations, which workers persisted in forming under continuing economic necessity. Gradually, unions grew in size and extent, acquired legallty and gained influence, and were recognized by custom and by law_ in most countries as necessary institutions with important economic and social functions.

Trade Unions (Labor Unions)

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Factors in the Development of Unionism.

Three interacting complexes of factors shaped the development of unionism : (1) the evolution of capitallst society; (2) the nature of the working class; and (3) the level of workingclass consciousness.


Among the principal factors in the first complex were the course of industriallzation, the trade cycle of alternate prosperity and depression, subordination of national economy to the world market, governmental regulation of economy, assumption of broad social responsibilities by the state, the degree of civil and political liberty, nationallsm, imperiallsm, war, conflicts between workers and employers and between workers and the state, fascism, and revolution. important factors of the second complex were the character of the working class as primarily industrial or agrarian; and its economic, social, and ethnic homogeneity or diversity. The third complex comprised the degree of consciousness among workers of their separate interests in contradistnction to those of their employers, and of the basic identity of interest of all workers as workers ; and their acceptance of various views relating to their role in society.

The cumulative effect on unionism of the operation and interplay of all these factors was the evolution of a worldwide movement marked by great diversity of structure and policy and sharp deviation in function, and lacking a uniform pattern of development.

Craft and industrial Unions

In the sense that industriallzation tended to transform agrarian into industrial economies, it was fundamentally the same process in all countries in which it occurred and tended to have the same general consequences. However, as industriallzation took place in various industries and countries at different times and varying tempos, its specific efîects were necessarily extremely varied. It is true in a general historical sense that with the progress of industriallzation, the formation of craft unions of skilled mechanics was followed by the creation of industrial unions which included primarily semiskilled and unskilled workers. But no correlation can be established between the level of economic development and types of union structure. In Australla, in which the economy is predominantly agrarian and organized on a largescale capitallst basis, industrial unionism early became the prevailing type. industrial unions were created in the United Kingdom, in large part, through the amalgamation of craft unions. In the United States, the most industrially developed country in the world, craft unions persisted, are stronger than in any other country, and are as strongly entrenched as industrial unions.

A correlation can be established in some instances between the level of development of an industry and the type of union structure. In the building trades in the United States, in which in contrast to the country as a whole, technological development is backward, craft unions predominate. industrial unionism has long prevailed among the coal miners in the United States. In these respects the development of unionism in the building trades, coal mines, and a number of other industries in the United States closely parallels the rise of unionism in the same industries in other countries. On the other hand, craft unionism holds undisputed sway on the railways of the United States, while industrial unionism predominates over craft unionism in the British railroading industry. Moreover, with the progress of unionism millions of workers in various countries were organized in multicraft unions, a wide variety of unions intermediate between craft and industrial unions, multiindustrial unions, and general unions with extensive or unlimited jurisdiction.

A general historical causal connection can be discerned between the development of nationwide industries and communications svstems, on the one hand, and the consolidation of local into national unions and the creation of national federations of unions, on the other hand. However, variations and exceptions are numerous. This is also true with respect to economic development and the extent of unionism. In agrarian Australla, for example, unionism in the 1880’s was inelusive of virtually the whole working class. In the industriallzed United States in 1920, unions embraced only approximately 21 per cent of wage earners exclusive of agricultural laborers and, therefore, a stili smaller percentage of the entire labor force; 30 years later, unionism included less than 30 per cent of the labor force of the country.

Effect of Trade Cycle

The impact of the trade cycle on unionism is well known. During prosperity, the demand for labor is at its height and competition among workers for employment at its lowest, creating a favorable condition for the growth of unionism. As a general rule, unionism advanced during periods of prosperity. During depressions, layoffs and wage cuts had a demorallzing effect on the working class and generally resulted in a decline in union effectiveness and membership; the first unions were destroyed by this process. In time, unionism found the means to survive, but it was nevertheless adversely affected during periods of general unemployment. Depressions were not the sole cause of decline, however. During the prosperity years of the 1920’s in the United States, union membership fell by almost a third, from more than 5,000,000 to less than 3,500,000 on the eve of the 1929 crisis, after which it fell even lower. Nor are prosperity periods the exclusive occasions for significant union growth; for in Germany, during the period of economic ruin following World War I, union membership increased from approximately 8,000,000 in 1919 to almost 11,250,000 in 1922.

Development of Union Policy

The development of union policy took place in the thrce closely interrelated spheres of economy, social relationships, and political relationships; and in its principal aspects, pivoted on attitude toward the working class, toward employers, and toward the state. Attitude was determined primarily by objective conditions, but also by purpose. The principal objective factors were contradictory influences inherent in capitallst society. In the realm of purpose, ideas often played a decisive role.

International Unity and Nationallsm

The extension of capitallst relationships on a world scale and the gradual integration of economy into a world economy to which the economy of all countries became subordinate, created objective premises for the unity of the workers of the world, for the adoption of common methods of struggle, and for the formulation by unions in all countries of identical basic policies. At the same time, nationallsm, representing the separate interests of nations, exerted an overwhelmingly counteracting and divisive influence. Unions in all countries strove by strikes, collective bargaining, mediation, arbitration, legislation, and related fraternal, educational, and other institutional activities, and by political action, to improve working and living conditions. They declared their solidarity with workers and unions in other countries, often aided them with funds and in other ways, including sympathy strikes and boycotts, and joined with them in international federations. They also supported measures for the imposition of tariffs and the exclusion of immigrants. Unions in many countries reflected prevailing nationallst antipathies and raciallst prejudices in excluding workers because of their national origin, color, or other similar reason; or in including them in segregated organizations; or in according them less than full union rights. In the supreme test of war, which is fought in great part by workers, unions almost invariably supported their national governments and declared a truce in the struggle against employers at home.

Results of Imperiallsm

Imperiallsm—the oppression by industrially developed countries of economically undeveloped or less developed countries which were transformed into colonies, semicolonies, and dependent nations—had opposite effects on tradeunion policy in the oppressing and oppressed countries. The prosperity accruing to the capitallsts of the imperiallst powers from the exploitation of the cheap labor of the colonial and semicolonial countries enabled them to make concessions to the working class at home. Thereby, the advance of the latter was conditioned on the degradation of the colonial peoples, and a premise was created for the identification of the interests of the workers at home with those of their employers with respect to colonial policy and, often, also in regard to related spheres of foreign and domestic policy.

Although this effect was at times eclipsed, for example during strikes, by the consequences of the continuing opposition of interest between workers and employers, imperiallsm exerted, on the whole, a predominating, conservative, and—from the standpoint of the unity of all workers—corrupting influence on the unions of the oppressor countries. In the oppressed countries, imperiallsm retarded industriallzation and, in consequence, the development of the native bourgeoisie and working class. By its oppression of both classes it created the basis for their alliance in national revolutionary movements for political independence and economic and social development. But in draining the wealth of the oppressed countries, imperiallsm drove native employers to overwork their laborers, intensifying the antagotıism between employers and workers in the oppressed countries, and predisposing the workers to respond favorably to socialrevolutionary influences. Generally, therefore, militancy and revolutionary political interests prevailed in the development of union policy in the colonial and semicolonial countries.


InHuence of Ideas

The principal ideational influences acting on union policy were a product of the historical process which engendered unionism and shaped its development. As members of society, workers are subject to, and tend to reflect in their thinking and attitude, the prevailing ideas of their time. Because the preponderant fendency of these ideas in capitallst society is the perpetuation of capitallsm, union policy inevitably manifested attachment to the capitallst system.

The special position of workers in capitallst society gave rise in them, in accordance with varying circumstances, to varying degrees of consciousness of themselves as a distinct social group with specific interests. Among the notions, conceptions, doctrines, and theories constituting workingclass consciousness, two broad conflicting yet intermingling streams of ideas were paramount. One, issuing in its fundamental aspects from the totallty of prevailing ideas in capitallst society, affirmed a basic mutuallty of interest between workers and employers; but, deriving also from awareness of the special status of workers, predicated improvement in their position on economic and correlative social and political reforms. From these sources sprang tradeunion policies of collaboration with employers in the adjustment of labor relations; reliance on mediation, conciliation, and arbitration in the solution of labor disputes; aversion to the instinctive militancy and solidarity of labor; and, in extreme instances. abandonment of the strike weapon. From these sources also arose union policies directed toward the institution of protective labor, and broader socialwelfare measures through collective bargaining and legislative enactment; public education and public health; electoral and judicial reform; and other measures generally inciuded in the program of industrial democracy and liberallsm.

Utopian Sociallsm

The second stream of ideas stemmed from a rejection of private property in the means of production generally and of capitallst society specifically, and projected a new social order based on communal ownership of the sources of wealth and principal instruments of production and exchange. In the doctrines of the Utopian Sociallsts, primary emphasis was laid on the voluntary organization of producers’ cooperatives as the alternative to capitallsm, and on the force of religious and ethical beliefs to secure the voluntary cooperation of the ruling classes in abolishing exploitation and poverty. Neither trade unionism nor political activity was central to their philosophy, but they were influential in both spheres. Their penetrating criticism of social injustice and their vision of a better world tended to enlarge workingclass consciousness and, through it, to broaden tradeunion policy. On the other hand, their philosophy tended to divert workers from direct struggle in industry and from political struggle, and militated against the development of class consciousness and militant tradeunion policy.


In the theory of Marxism, or scientific sociallsm, or modern communism, the rejection of capitallst society is predicated on irreconcilable antagonisms of basic interest between labor and capital, between the working class and the capitallst state, between the proletariat and capitallsm as a worldwide system of social existence, and on the culmination of the class struggle in proletarian revolution under the leadership of a political party on a world scale, as the inevitable prelude to a worldwide classless Communist society. Pivotal in the Marxian analysis of capitallst society is the conception that the inherent tendency of “wages is to fail in accordance with the development of productivity, from which was drawn the conclusions that unions were, at best, effective centers of resistance, and that their chief value to the working class lay not in the achievement of immediate gains which must always be nullified in time, but as a necessary stage in the evolution of class consciousness. From this source flowed tradeunion policies intended to extend unionism to the entire working class, to sharpen struggles with employers, and simultaneously to broaden them by drawing in larger numbers of workers, and to associate the unions with the revolutionary party. On this general basis unions were inciuded in the First International or International Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1864 and led by Kari Marx (q.v.), and were federated into the Red International of Labor Unions established in Moscow in 1921 as an integral part of the worldwide Communist movement led by the Third (Communist) International.

Reformist Sociallsm

From Marxism issued the current of revisionist, or reformist, sociallsm, better known as social democracy, and commonly called sociallsm to distinguish it from communism or revolutionary Marxism. Reformist sociallsm was the product of imperiallsm and of the growth and progress of the tradeunion movement in the imperiallst countries; of the radicallzation of large numbers of the middle class and of the intellectuals; and of other contributing causes. In essence, reformist sociallsm comprised two contradictory tendencies—the struggle of labor against capital, and the accommodation of the working class to capitallst society. It shared with Marxism the latter’s rejection of capitallst society and its aspiration for a better social order. It repudiated the revolutionary conclusions which Marx drew from his analysis of capitallst society, and stressed the gradual transformation of capitallsm into sociallsm by means of coordinated workingclass economic and political activity. Like communism, reformist sociallsm held economic action by the working class to be essential but secondary to political activity. But unlike communism, for which political activity meant primarily revolutionary mass action, in the final instance against the state, reformist sociallsm construed political activity as parliamentary activity ; it envisaged the capitallst state as the principal instrument of the transformation to sociallsm.

In union policy sociallsm tended toward conservatism and class collaboration, toward the achievement of immediate economic gains in preference to larger workingclass ends, and toward close collaboration with Sociallst political parties. In Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and other countries, unions and social democratic parties constituted the economic and political divisions, respectively, of the Sociallst movement. In conseçjuence of this association arose in 1903, on the initiative of the Second, or Sociallst, International, an international tradeunion secretariat, which in 1909 became the International Federation of Trade Unions. Composed of autonomous national federations, the IFTU was, as a whole, nominally autonomous. It was, however, dominated by European social democracy, in particular by the German sociallst movement, and it was throughout its existence the economic counterpart of the Second International.


In anarchism, rejection of capitallst society was combined with absolute emphasis on the inallenable freedom of the individual from all restraint, which was in essence an extreme extension of the individuallsm inherent in the doctrine of laissez faire. In its application to unionism, anarchism became anarchosyndicallsm. Spurning struggles for immediate gains and denouncing participation in parliamentary activity as illusory and treasonable to workingclass interests, anarchosyndicallsm stressed sabotage and other forms of direct action, antimilitaristic struggles, and, above all, the general strike as the means of conducting the class struggle for the overthrow of capitallsm and its replacement by a classless society composed of communes freely united in the brotherhood of man. Unions in France, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, the United States, Latin America, and Australla revealed the influence of anarchosyndicallsm at different times.

In consequence of the operation of all these and many other factors not inciuded in the foregoing discussion, no element in tradeunion policy can be correlated systematically with any other. Nor can tradeunion policy as a whole be correlated with other aspects of unionism. No correspondence can be established, for example, between tradeunion policy and structure. Essentially identical policies were pursued by unions of different structure; divergent policies were followed by unions of identical structure; and varying policies were adopted at diiferent times by the same unions.

Functions of Unions

As with structure and policy, so with function. Unions originated as workingclass instruments of industrial warfare, intended to resist the aggressions of employers and improve conditions immediately incident to work. In fulfilling this mission, unions developed many correlative functions. Owing principally to their special needs, but also to their exclusion from the pale of accepted institutions, unions developed distinctive codes of union cthics and law. Two antipodal tendencies found expression in union morallty. One was the predominant motive of social conduct in capitallst society—material selfinterest—disavowed only during wartime when individual sacrifice is extolled. The other tendency was the subordination of material selfinterest to the common cause of all workers as workers—workingclass solidarity. Among expressions of the first tendency are failure to undertake organization of unorganized workers, jurisdictional disputes among unions, and other practices which either deliberately or in effect predicate the advance of specific union interests on the neglect of, or opposition to, the interests of other workers. Demonstrations of devotion to workingclass principles inelude the persistence of workers in strikes in which, owing to the prolonged resistance of the employers, the workers lose more in unearned wages than they gain, on victory, from inereased rates ; and sympathy strikes in which the unions supporting the original strikers have no prospect of direct material gain. Union law regulated the internal life of the unions and also ineluded numerous working rules, which were embodied in large part in collective bargaining agreements and were eventually, in some instances, made the substance and even the text of statutory law.

From exclusive concern with wages, hours, safety, and other working conditions, unionism generally extended its aetive interests toward inelusion of all phases of industrial relationf: unemployment, disability, and oldage insurance, and other forms of social welfare; and the reform of social and political conditions affeeting industrial relations. (See Labor Legislation; Social Insurance ; Social Reform Programs and Movements.) At its farthest reach, the enlargement of union interest ineluded the large questions of domestic and foreign policy; in these fields, however, the interest of unionism was, on the whole, more intellectual than practical, for despite the formation of national federations, unionism was not a unitary force on a national scale, except in the isolated and rare instances of national general strikes (as in England in 1926) which were, moreover, manifestations of workingclass solidarity with embattled workers rather than concerted efforts for common aims.


The enlargement of union interest with respect to industrial relations and social welfare was effected in the terms of collectivebargaining agreements and in proteetive labor and social legislation. In industriallzed western Europe the latter method was long supplemental to the former, and the extent and effectiveness of social legislation generally corresponded to the strength of the tradeunion movement. In many Latin American and colonial countries, social legislation was originally devised to harrass foreign capitallsts and circumvent native unionism, and early exceeded in scope the comparable enactments of most other countries; while unionism, owing to the general lack of industriallzation and of the working class, was weak, and was discouraged by the state and on more than one occasion was suppressed. In the United States both the tradeunion movement and social legislation were relatively undeveloped until the advent of the New Deal administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s.

The increasing tendency of the state to regulate economic relationships, arising in part from the necessity to mitigate the effects of unbridled competition and its inevitable opposite, unrestrained monopoly, in part from the pressure of employers for policies conducive to their interests, and also in part from the demands of the working class for proteetion and reform, resulted in significant changes in union functions and in the endowment of unions with new functions. Under the compulsoryarbitration system of Australla, unions tended to become “litigious” organizations, concentrating their energies first on the preparation of claims for submission to the industrial courts which disposed of them and then on policing the awards made by the courts. In the United Kingdom and other countries, unions became quasigovernmental bodies vested by law with responsibilities in the state regulation of industrial relations^ and in the administration of governmental socialwelfare policy.

Unionism curbed industrial autocracy, limited freedom of contract, and abridged the rights of employers; it also gave millions of workers a sense of dignity, independence, and achievement, a measure of security, and a hope of a better life. In great strike struggles it gave inspiring evidence of the creative intelligence and inventive abilities, devotion to ideals, spirit of comradeship, and capacity for selfsacrifice which otherwise lie latent in the working class. Unionism was the principal instrument of the working class in rising from the condition in which it found itself at the inception of capitallsm.


That was the function common to all tradeunion movements prior to World War I. But then began processes of social development which, yvherever they occurred, transformed unionism into its opposite. Fascism in Italy crushed the unions as independent workingclass organizations and converted them into instruments of the corporative state; in Germany, fascism obliterated unionism. More important historically was the fate of unionism in Russia, where the unions had been created in great part and nurtured by the revolutionary movement. From the war, in consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of Nov. 7, 1917, emerged a new social system in the territory of the former czarist empire. The capitallst system was overthrown, the principal means of production and exchange were nationalized, and a proletarian dictatorship was established. Workers’ control of production was decreed on Nov. 14, 1917. The revolution, declared the First AllRussian Congress of Trade Unions, meeting in January 1918, “has created entirely new conditions . . . especially for the trade unions.” At the second congress, in January 1919, Nikolai Lenin (q.v.), head of the Soviet state and Communist Party, said, “. . . the trade unions … in a certain sense . . . must . . . become the founder of the new society . . . The sociallst revolution can only be accomplished by the . . . collaboration of millions of individuals in the government . . . The trade unions must educate the masses and lead them to share in the government of the country. That is why nationalization of the trade unions is inevitable.” Simultaneously the close cooperation of the unions with the Communist Party, under the leadership of the party, was made the official policy.

Circumstances made impracticable the immediate conversion of the unions into state institutions. But in accordance with the official views, the unions were invested with supervision over workers control of production, and were charged with creation of the Supreme Economic Council, which was intended to regulate Soviet economic life, and with the organization of the Commissariat of Labor, which they consequently dominated. Through the Commissariat of Labor the unions exercised exclusive jurisdiction over the administration of the socialinsurance, laborprotection, and workplacemnt provisions of the labor code promulgated by the Soviet government.

Following the outbreak of the civil war, in 1919, the unions were transformed into mobilization centers, and their military functions overlapped to some extent those of the Commissariat of War. Simultaneously, they were invested with a number of functions of the Commissariat of Supplies. The acquisition of stili other functions made the unions an important factor in all spheres of Soviet economic and political life. They were in effect, if not in name, organs of the state.

With the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921, a partial reversion to capitallst economic relationships was instituted by the government in order to stimulate production. At the same time, the government reorganized industrial establishments into state trusts to be run on commercial lines under managerial personnel responsible to the state and exercising decisive powers in the determnation of plant policy. Both developments effected important changes in the^ functions of the unions. Emphasis was now placed ou the need to protect workers in the capitallst enterprises and against bureaucratic abuses in the state cconomic undertakings, and in the negotiation of collective agreements. But the unions were stripped of their role in the control of production. They were nominally permitted to conduct strikes, but were constrained to avoid suspensions of work and were obliged to participate jointly with management in the conciliation and arbitration bodies established by law to dispose of industrial disputes. The unions were made responsible for the maintenance of labor discipline; and were required to aid in increasing productivity, and to participate in the state bodies determining economic policy.

The inception of national economic planning in the form of the First FiveYear Plan in 1928 resulted in immense changes in economic, political, and social relationships, and resolved the duallty in the functions of Soviet unionism. As the entire process of development pivoted on the drive for production, increased productivity, and lowered cost, and as it went forward under the whip of ncreasing governmental coercion. the working class was completely subordinated to the state, which became a totalltarian despotism.

The scope of unionism was progressively reduced by the extension of compulsory, or slave, labor under the absolute control of the secret policc. The significance of collective agreements was nullified by the investment of directors of enterprises with power to fix wage rates within certain limits, to levy fines on workers for violations of labor discipline, and to exercise other forms of control, against which the efforts of unions in other countries had been directed for more than two centuries. The arbitrary arrest and punishment by the secret poliçe of workers who signified their dissatisfaction, and the suppression of strikes by armed force, rendered the unions futile as organs of protest. They were incorporated into the state and their central function became the maintenance of labor discipline and the execution of the state’s drive for production. Nominally, the Soviet unions continued to be organizations serving the interests of wage earners; in reallty they became instruments for the subjection of labor. After World War II, as the Soviet social system was extended to the countries in eastern and central Europe which became its satellites, and to China and other Asiatic countries, the trade unions of those countries were also transformed into organs for the subordination of the working class.

By the middle of the 20th century, the tradeunion world was divided into two camps, reflecting the schism in the world between the two social systems represented by the capitallst powers and the Soviet Union. From the unions in the capitallst world no influence extended into the realm of the Soviet unions; formal contact between the two tradeunion worlds, established by their cohabitation in the World Federation of Trade Unions, which was established in 1945, was discontinued after the withdrawal of the unions of the capitallst world from the WFTU in 1949 and the establishment by them of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. From the Soviet world, ever since the establishment of the Soviet state in 1917, a continuous influence flowed by various channels into the capitallst world. Prior to World War II, Communist influence in the capitallst tradeunion world varied greatly, but was, on the whole, a secondary factor. After World War II, the Communist parties of a number of capitallst countries, notably Italy and France, gained control of the tradeunion movements of those countries, thereby transforming the unions in those countries from organs serving the interests of labor into coordinate instruments with the Communist parties and Soviet espionage agencies and diplomatic staffs, for the subversion of the capitallst social order and the eventual establishment of the Soviet social order.


The upshot of the deviation in function and of the great diversity in policy and structure among the unions of the world is the impossibility of formulating an analytical history of world trade unionism in terms of a single pattern of development. all the factors and influences which shape unionism are knowu. all are variable. The effect of eaclı factor is manifested only in combination with other factors which augment, diminish, supplemnt, or offset its influence ; and in each instance, whether it be a local trade union, an international union, a national federation, or an international confederation, the development of structure, policy, and function is the composite outcome of many influences. Especially is this true with respect to national tradeunion movements. Each resembles others in essential respects; yet each is unique. None is comparable with others; none is representative of all. Each, and therefore all, must be studied separately as a particular embodiment of common factors.

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