The Victorian Labour Movement
ONLY small minorities of workers were able to build relatively stable organisations and to impose recognised procedures of collective bargaining in the third quarter of the nineteenth century; and this remained largely true down to the end of the century and beyond, despite waves of unionisation among less skilled groups. The unionised minority was concentrated, as one might expect, among skilled men or others with a measure of job control which they could translate into bargaining-power, often through formal or informal restrictions on recruitment. Apart from the apprenticed skilled trades in building, engineering and urban crafts, these included hewers in the better-organised coalfields, and spinners in cotton. It is important to bear in mind here that groups described as ‘strong’ were so relative to the extreme weakness of other groups, just as economic ‘prosperity’ was relative to the abysmal poverty of most workers. Destruction of union organisation by systematic victimisation and lock-out, leaving many firms ‘closed’ to unionists for years afterwards, could easily occur even in the best-organised trades; such experiences were central to the class consciousness of skilled labour.
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