Are Trade Unions On The Whole Mischievous or Beneficial In Their Effect?
To understand the work of Trade Unions we must know something of why and how they were started. Trade Union-ism was a natural outcome of the Industrial Revolution in England, which itself was in part caused by the invention of the steam-engine and the introduction of steam driven machinery into factories and mills in the 19th Century. In consequence, large scale production became the rule. The big mill or factory took the place of the small workshop. As only rich men of capital could start big businesses, masters and workmen became two distinct classes. They represented
Capital and Labour, the rich Employers and their poor wage-earning Employees. In their hurry to get rich, the employers of labour took little care of the health and well-being of their “hands”. In the big, hastily-built mills, the workmen toiled under insanitary conditions, and lived in dirty, ugly slums in the rapidly growing manufacturing towns. The wages paid for laborious and endless labour (for working hours were very long), were very low. At the same time bread was very dear ; so low pay and dear food made the working-classes poor indeed.
The rate of wages, like the prices of goods, was fixed ac-cording to the law of supply and demand under a system of free competition. But the competition between master and workman, while it might be free, was by no means fair. If the workman did not like the low wage offered, he lost his job, for there were plenty to take his place. The workmen solved the problem on the principle of co-operation. Each single stick could be easily broken, but sticks tied into a bundle could not. While the single workman was helpless, a united body of workmen might be successful. So Trade Unions came into existence, and established the principle of “Collective bargaining”; that is, the employers in a certain trade had to deal with the united body of the workmen in that trade in matters of wages, hours and conditions of work.
The Trades Unions’ weapon was the “strike”. The members contributed out of their pay to a strike fund, so that they could live while the strike was on. When the masters refused to listen to requests for better wages, the workers “downed tools”, and left their work; or often the mere threat of a strike was enough.
Trade Unions have made their mistakes, sometimes caused unnecessary strikes, and sometimes acted tyrannically and unreasonably. But on the whole their work has been good, and has resulted in lifting the working classes to A higher level, and securing for them higher wages, shorter hours, better conditions of work, added to self-respect and a measure of independence.