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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Nineteenth Century: 9. The Scottish Trade Union Movement


The progress of industry led to the formation of associations or combinations of workmen for the protection of their interests. Hence the rise of Trade Unions, which became so characteristic a feature of the industrial life of the nineteenth century. The movement dates from the previous century and was thus contemporaneous with the rise of the capitalist manufacturing class and the factory system, which conjointly tended to transform the small craftsman in many industries, who previously worked on his own account, into a wage-earner pure and simple. "In all cases," remark Mr and Mrs Sidney Webb in their History of Trade Unionism, "in which Trade Unions arose, the great bulk of the workers had ceased to be independent producers, themselves controlling the processes and owning the material and the product of their labour, and had passed into the condition of lifelong wage-earners, possessing neither the instruments of production nor the commodity in its finished state." Under the old economic system laws had been made in the reigns of Elizabeth of England and James VI. of Scotland empowering the magistrates to fix the wages of all craftsmen and regulate the number of apprentices in each craft. Under the new system, by which the control of industry was more and more passing into the hands of the capitalist manufacturer and the workman was more and more becoming a pure wage-earner, the employers strove in their own interest to get rid of the old regulation of wages and labour and vindicate their claim to fix wages and employ labour irrespective of such statutory restrictions. They found in the teaching of Adam Smith a theoretic vindication of the principle of industrial liberty and were not slow to appeal to it in support of the policy of unrestricted wages and free labour. The effect of this policy was to cheapen labour, and it accordingly gave rise to a long series of industrial disputes and disturbances. The workmen naturally sought a remedy in combination to secure by means of the intervention of Parliament, or the Court of Session, or of strikes, better conditions of labour. Already, in 1782, the Scottish cotton weavers had combined in a union for this object. Cotton weaving and spinning required no lengthy training or particular skill on the part of the worker, and higher wages in this industry attracted a large number of agricultural labourers. The manufacturers combined to take advantage of the influx to reduce the "prices" or wage paid to the weavers for certain kinds of piece-work. The weavers in self defence combined to draw up a counter scale, and negotiations with the masters having failed, refused to work for the more obnoxious of them. They thus adopted the expedient of tine strike in order to enforce the acceptance of their terms and compelled those, who ultimately agreed to resume work at the masters' rates, to return or burn the cotton. Demonstrations in the streets of Glasgow led to a riot and a collision with the soldiers called out to maintain order, and several of the workmen were killed. A number of prosecutions ensued and the movement collapsed.

The growth of Trade Unionism among the textile workers of Yorkshire and Lancashire led to the passing of the Acts of 1799 & 1800, prohibiting combinations of both workmen and employers, and, in particular, rendering workmen who resorted to this expedient liable to three months' hard labour. These Acts did not, however, deprive the workmen of the right to use legal means for the protection of their interests. It was still open to them to combine for the purpose of presenting a case to the proper authority, which was empowered, in virtue of the old laws, to fix the scale of wages in industrial disputes. The Edinburgh compositors, for instance, are found adopting this expedient in 1804, when they presented a memorial to the Court of Session for an increase of wages in consequence of the rise of prices, and secured an "interlocutor" in 1805 fixing a scale for the printing trade of Edinburgh. Of this expedient the weavers made use some years later in the course of another dispute with the employers. In 1809 they joined those of Lancashire in an application to Parliament to limit the number of apprentices and fix a minimum wage. After investigation the Commons declined to interfere and a second application (this time by the Scottish weavers alone) was equally unsuccessful, the Select Committee adopting the manufacturers' view of the question of free agreement and declaring Parliamentary interference in such matters to be pernicious to the general interest. With wages at the scale of 8s. 6d. a week and the peck of meal at 3s., the weavers had, however, a strong case for such interference, and acting on the reminder of Lord President Hope that the magistrates possessed statutory powers to fix wages, they next appealed to the Provost and magistrates of the city. The municipal authorities also declined to interfere on the ground of an opinion of counsel that they had no such authority. Fortified by a counter opinion in favour of their contention, the weavers next appealed to the Justices of the Peace for Lanarkshire, who required the employers to ! take into consideration a scheme of wages submitted by the workmen, The employers in turn appealed to the Court of Session, which upheld the action of the Justices, and ultimately in November, 1812, after an exhaustive examination of witnesses, the Court decided to recommend a scale varying from 1 to 8s. per week. But, with a few exceptions, the employers, who had withdrawn from the case, paid no heed to a decision which it had cost the weavers a large sum to obtain.

Thereupon the weavers decided on a general strike, which ere I long involved 40,000 men all over the country. A strike was, I however, a risky expedient in view of the Combination Acts, and the Lord Advocate now intervened on the side of the employers i by arresting the leaders, in spite of the fact that the strikers in I this case refrained from violence. This rather biassed intervention led to the collapse of the strike after a couple of months, and the leaders were in March, 1813, convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. A month later Parliament repealed the "pernicious" law empowering Justices to fix wages, and in the following year the statute empowering them to limit the number of apprentices (Statute of Apprentices), thus placing the workmen at the mercy of the employers. There was doubtless force in the contention that these laws were no longer , in harmony with the principle of freedom of trade and labour which the manufacturers and their champions adduced in support of their abolition. But the impartial recognition of this principle would also have involved the recognition of the right of the workmen to combine to secure a reasonable remuneration for their labour out of the profits, to which labour as well as capital contributed. They were only too well justified in view of the poverty and privation induced by the long war with France, which hampered industry and raised prices, in demanding better conditions of labour. Unfortunately, the anti-democratic spirit of the governing classes throughout, and subsequent to the French Revolutionary period, was not disposed to give a fair consideration to the popular demands. Political prejudice, as well as class interest, rendered it difficult for the working class to obtain a sympathetic hearing in a Parliament in which it had no representation, or even in the Courts of Justice, which were by no means free from the dominant political and class influences. Neither Parliament, nor law court, whilst ready enough to repress popular combination, took any steps to put down combinations of masters against their employees. Lawlessness was apparently deemed a monopoly of the working class, and a bitter sense of grievance was the result.

This embittered spirit inevitably found expression in acts of violence. In this spirit the Glasgow cotton spinners carried on the agitation which the weavers had failed to render effective by legitimate methods. The spinners had combined in a union in 1806, and from 1816 onwards they sought to gain their ends by terroristic methods. They not only made lavish use of threatening letters to obnoxious masters; they did not shrink from attempts at assassination and incendiarism, and bound their members on oath to make such attempts in the common interest. Between the years 1816 and 1824 several objectionable masters and workmen (the latter being known as "nobs") were shot at. One woman was murdered and several persons were dreadfully injured by the vitriol thrown on them. The repressive policy which produced such outrages, the numerous prosecutions to which the combination laws gave rise, led Francis Place, a disciple of Bentham and James Mill, to begin an agitation for their repeal. He was joined by Joseph Hume and McCulloch, the editor of The-Scotsman, and at length in 1824 they secured the support of Peel and Huskisson in carrying a repeal bill through Parliament. The employers were taken by surprise by the clever parliamentary tactics of the promoters of the bill and made an attempt to undo it in the following year. The attempt was only partially successful, for the Government, whilst repealing the Act of the previous year and prohibiting all combination for the purpose of coercing masters or workmen, explicitly excepted from prosecution associations for the purpose of regulating wages or hours of labour. In spite of this limitation the Act of 1825 constituted a real advance in the industrial emancipation of the working class. "The right of collective bargaining, involving the power to withhold labour from the market by concerted action," remark the Messrs Webb, "was for the first time expressly established. And although many struggles remained to be fought before the legal freedom of Trade Unionism was fully secured, no overt attempt has since been made to render illegal this first condition of Trade Union action."

This legislation gave a great impulse to the spread of unionism among the various trades, which organised themselves in unions. According to the Glasgow Argiis towards the end of 1833, "scarcely a branch of trade exists in the West of Scotland that is not now in a state of union." Attempts were even made to organise all the trades of the United Kingdom in one vast association, and the organisation started by Robert Owen in 1834 was on a Socialist basis. These attempts proved abortive, and the activity of extremists like Owen tended to discredit the movement. It suffered a distinct set back in Scotland at least through the strike of the Glasgow spinners in 1837, which once more provoked the intervention of the authorities and led to the severe punishment of its leaders. The spinners had at intervals resorted to the violent tactics which had characterised their action before the repeal of the combination laws, and on this occasion they indulged in riotous excesses in protest against the resolution of the masters to reduce their wages. They attempted to set fire to mills and attacked workmen who agreed to work at the masters' rates. One man was shot with fatal effect. The crime was followed by the discovery and the arrest of the members of the Strike Committee and five of them were ultimately convicted on rather dubious evidence and sentenced to seven years' transportation.

For some years the movement for better conditions of labour took a political turn. The Reform Bill of 1832, which had done so much for the political emancipation of the middle class, had done nothing for that of the people in the larger sense. A dozen years before the passing of the Bill the workmen of Glasgow, Paisley, and the western district had not only combined and struck work for this purpose, but attempted in small bands to enforce the demand for universal suffrage. The result was a collision with the military at Bonnymuir, in which many of the insurgents were wounded and a number taken prisoner, three of whom—among them Andrew Hardie, a forbear of J. Iveir Hardie, —suffered the death penalty (August, 1820). The Reform Bill gave an impulse to the movement for the extension of the franchise to the people in order to enable them to remedy their grievances by legislative means. Popular reformers insisted with no little force that the improvement of the condition of the working class depended on the possession of political power and embodied their views in the People's Charter, which demanded manhood suffrage, vote by ballot, annual Parliaments, etc. These demands were far in advance of the time, and the resort to violence in support of them, in addition to their visionary character, deprived the movement of any practical effect. Though the Charter did not receive the official recognition of the Trade Unions, it aroused much enthusiasm among the people. A great demonstration in its support was held at Glasgow in May, 1838, and other Scottish towns testified in its favour, whilst refraining from the popular disturbances which it excited at Birmingham and other English centres. In December, 1839, a conference of Scottish Chartists, held at Edinburgh, emphatically expressed its preference for constitutional methods and denounced the resort to physical force. The Trade Unions also preferred the saner method of agitating on constitutional, not revolutionary, lines for the redress of their grievances. "Laying aside all projects of social revolution," remark Mr and Mrs Webb, " they set themselves resolutely to resist the worst of the legal and industrial oppressions from which they suffered, and slowly built up for this purpose organisations which have become integral parts of the structure of a modern industrial state. This success we attribute mainly to the spread of education among the rank and file, and the more practical counsels which began, after 1842, to influence the Trade Union world."

The growing sense of the importance of intelligent, informed action in the decision of industrial questions is apparent in the establishment of classes for mutual improvement and of trade journals for the diffusion of technical knowledge. Such a class was, for instance, started by the Glasgow Branch of the Scottish United Operative Masons in 1845. Whilst the organised strike appears as the oft recurring expedient for securing the increase or resisting the reduction of wages, or bringing about a diminution of the hours of labour—especially during years of trade depression—there is also discernible a tendency to make trial of conciliation and arbitration in industrial disputes. In the case of the lock-out of the Clyde shipwrights, for instance, who demanded an increase of wages in April, 1877, and agreed to submit to the arbitration of Lord Moncrieff, who decided in favour of the employers. As a rule, however, the employers showed little disposition to encourage this pacific policy. They usually met proposals of this kind by resolute resistance to any interference with the right to regulate the hours and terms of labour and make their own agreements with their employees. The expedient of the strike was, therefore, not always the fruit of the unreasonable discontent of the workers in times of depression. Nor had the employers always the best of the dispute. In 1871-72 the English engineering operatives of the north-eastern district struck for a nine hours' day, and after a long struggle compelled this concession. The workers in the Clyde shipbuilding yards went one better, and without a strike secured a 51 hours' working week, though the hours were again raised during the disastrous years 1878-79, when the failure of the City of Glasgow Bank intensified the prevailing depression and ruined all but half-a-dozen of the Scottish Unions.

The two men who from about the middle of the century did most to organise Scottish labour were Alexander Campbell and Alexander MacDonald. Campbell had been a disciple of Robert Owen and secretary of the Glasgow Carpenters' Union in the days of the Owenite agitation. He became editor of the Glasgow Sentinel and one of the leaders of the movement to give the local unions a corporate existence in the form of Trades Councils, which resulted in the formation of these Councils in the large industrial centres of the United Kingdom between 1858 and 1867. These were a sort of workmen's Parliaments for the discussion and advocacy of matters bearing on the industrial and social interests of the organised workers. Those of Glasgow and Edinburgh were among the first to be established. Campbell's friend and fellow organiser, Alexander MacDonald, who was born in 1821, began to work in a Lanarkshire pit at the age of 8. In 184G he became a student at Glasgow University and maintained himself during the winter sessions by working as a miner in the summer. In 1850 he became a teacher and seven years later devoted himself wholly to agitation in the miners' interest. He unsuccessfully stood for Kilmarnock Burghs in 1868, but was elected for an English constituency in 1874. He was chosen president of the Miners' National Union, whose foundation in 1863 was largely due to his exertions, and retained this post till his death in 1881.

These Councils lent a powerful support to the policy of seeking to secure, by means of Parliamentary action, the social and industrial improvement of the working class, which the leaders of Trade Unions adopted from about 1860 onwards. Under Campbell's leadership the Glasgow Councils, along with those of other towns, took an active part in helping to carry the Reform Bill of 1867-68, which enfranchised the artisan in the towns. Glasgow was again in the forefront of the agitation for the reform of the Master and Servant Act, which favoured the master at the expense of the servant, breach of contract on the part of the latter being, under this Act, a crime punishable by imprisonment, whilst the former could only be sued for damages for the same offence. Moreover, the law allowed the master, but not the servant, to bear witness on his own behalf. Campbell and MacDonald brought the question before the Glasgow Council, and as the result of the combined action of those of Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, and the English provincial towns, seconded by the Trade Unions throughout the United Kingdom, the law was amended in 1867. This amendment constituted " the first positive success of the Trade Unions in the legislative field." They also co-operated effectively in the passing of the Act of 1871 entitling Trade Unions to register as legal associations and thus securing legal protection for their funds. The keen resentment over the failure to prevent the passing of another Act restricting strike action on their part intensified the determination to secure direct labour representation in the House of Commons. MacDonald had in 1868 become a candidate for the Kilmarnock Burghs, but had retired before the election. At the General

Election of 1874 he and Thomas Burt, another leading official of the Miners' National Union, were returned for Stafford and Morpeth respectively—the first two Labour members to enter Parliament. The result was the repeal of the Act restricting strike action and the substitution for the Master and Servant Act of the Employers and Workmen Act, which put employers and employees on an equal footing before the law and fully recognised the right of collective bargaining after fifty years of organised effort. There was ample reason in this legislation for the enthusiasm with which Mr G. Howell, at the Trade Union Congress at Glasgow in 1875, eulogised Mr Cross, the Conservative Home Secretary, who had been the sympathetic instrument of placing on the Statute Book "the greatest boon ever given to the sons of toil."

So far Trade Unionism had been confined to the skilled workman. Towards the end of the "eighties" a movement was begun by John Burns, Tom Mann, Keir Hardie, and others, to organise the unskilled workers. Connected with this movement was the recrudescence of Socialist theories, which aimed at eliminating capitalism and private profit from industry and nationalising production for the benefit of the workers and the community. The continuance of trade depression, the recurring unemployment, poverty, and misery of large sections of the working class as the result of alternating over-production and commercial stagnation, social evils like bad housing and sweating gave an impulse to the propaganda of the Social Democratic Federation. Trade Unionism had effected much for the industrial and political emancipation of the artisan class. But it had failed to assure it a steady and adequate livelihood, and the Socialist reformers sought the remedy in a complete transformation of the industrial system. To these reformers Unionism was at best but a partial remedy for the evils of this system. Whilst professing the new Socialist doctrine, men like Burns and Mann were content to agitate for reform on Unionist lines, such as an eight hours' day as a cure for unemployment, pending the transformation to be attained by the nationalisation of industry. By their energy and their enthusiasm they succeeded in infusing a more aggressive spirit into the Trade Union movement, which gained a large accession of members as the result not only of the organisation of unskilled labour, but of the swelling of the ranks of the old Unions. A more doctrinaire section, led by Hyndman, was, however, not content to infuse a new spirit into the old methods. This section dreamed of an international social revolution by the concerted action of the workers on behalf of the new teaching. They contemplated nothing less than the overthrow of the dominant industrial system and Hyndman looked to the centenary year of the French Revolution in 1889 to inaugurate it. For such day dreams the mass of English and Scottish workers had no taste. Burns and Mann left the Social Democratic Federation, and though the Socialist propaganda continued to make progress in the next quarter of a century, the revolutionary method failed to secure the adhesion of responsible English and Scottish Socialist leaders, and formed no part of practical Trade Union politics.

The Unions preferred instead to concentrate their energy on the policy of extending Labour representation in Parliament and organising a Labour party to further the interests of the working class independently of the Liberal party, though they continued to co-operate with this party in supporting Liberal measures to this end. The first practical step in the organisation of an Independent Labour Party was made by a group of Scottish Socialists, including Keir Hardie, Cunninghame Graham, and Robert Smillie, shortly after Hardie's unsuccessful attempt to contest Mid-Lanark in the Labour interest in opposition to both Liberals and Conservatives in 1888. It adopted an extensive reform programme and issued a manifesto emphasising the necessity for the working class to organise itself in order to secure by its voting power the realisation of these reforms. The Scottish movement was extended to England, and resulted four years later in the formation of the Independent Labour Party at a meeting at Bradford in 1892. Besides Keir Hardie, two other Scotsmen, Ramsay MacDonald and Bruce Glasier, became prominent among its leaders. Its programme was Socialist, but it has co-operated with the Trade Unions, which form the Labour Party in the more general sense, in supporting legislation in the interest of the working class. Under the leadership of men like Hardie, Bruce Glasier, Ramsay MacDonnald, J. P. Clynes, Arthur Henderson, it has opposed reform by way of revolution. Trade Unionism has to a certain extent been penetrated by Socialist principles and tendencies, as in the case of the Miners' Federation, which now champions, for instance, the nationalisation of the mines. But in its advocacy of reforms such as the eight hours and later the six hours' day for miners, and shorter hours for all classes of workmen, the Workmen's Compensation Act, the Workmen's Insurance Act, Old Age Pensions, etc., it has remained steadfast to the policy of constitutional action, in spite of extremist clamour for direct action to secure political and social reform. The growth of the Labour Party in and outside Parliament has placed at its disposal the means of promoting such legislation without recourse to the revolutionary methods which, favoured by the great war, have produced such startling effects in some Continental countries.

The growth of the Trade Union movement during the last quarter of a century in the United Kingdom has been phenomenal. In 1892 the number of Trade Unionists in the United Kingdom was estimated at over millions, of whom about 150,000 were credited to Scotland. Of the Scottish trades represented, by far the larger number belonged to the engineering and metal industries with over 45,000 members. The building trades came next with about 25,000, the miners next with over 21,000, the labourers and transport workers next with about the same total, by far the larger proportion being confined to the great industrial centre between the Clyde and the Forth. Twenty-five years later the membership of the various unions in the United Kingdom had swelled to between five and six millions, and the movement had spread to the remoter area previously untouched by it. It has, moreover, brought within its range classes of workers, such as teachers, chemists, clerks, farm servants, nurses, who had previously stood outside or been little affected by it. Another feature is the endeavour to obliterate the distinction between skilled and unskilled workers in the same industry and to organise all workmen in one industry in a single union. Some of the Scottish Unions, such as the miners and railwaymen, are amalgamated with those of England; but in a large number of cases they have a separate national organisation and have not even agreements with kindred English Societies.

In spite of much criticism and opposition, the movement has been of great service to the workers. It was the inevitable outcome of the evils incident to the accentuated individualist commercial and industrial system of the nineteenth century. During a large part of this century the working class in Scotland suffered from periodic trade depression, and the consequent fall in wages and unemployment. In the intervals of trade revival employment and wages, indeed, improved, and destitution was correspondingly reduced. But it was always there, more or less, and terrible enough, in the annals of the century, was the misery accruing from it, in spite of the all too meagre attempts at relief by way of charity or the artificial provision of employment. Fluctuations of trade, over which employers had no control, doubtless operated in producing this state of things. But it can hardly be doubted that the industrial and commercial system was itself largely responsible. This system proceeded too much on the policy of increasing profits as much as possible as the first essential of business, without an adequate and general realisation of the obligation to care for the interest of the workers equally with those of the employer or the shareholders. Otherwise the conditions of labour in factories, workshops, and mines would not have been suffered to remain so long so deplorably lacking as was the case till far into the century. What can only be described as sweated labour was far too general in many industries, in which large incomes and dividends were made at the expense of the well-being of the workers.


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