The Rise of Unions


The industrial revolution in Great Britain completely changed the urban landscape during the 19th century.  As new industries grew, so did a distinct urban working class.  These workers often faced difficult working and living conditions and had very little individual power to improve their positions.  Workers responded to the challenges they faced in different ways, but many turned to unionization to influence their environments.

The trade unions grew out of trade societies that had been created to provide workers with benefits like pensions, sick pay and funeral coverage (Prothero 49-51).  However, the formal and informal trade unions of the mid and late 19th century went beyond creating a social safety net.  Unions spanned the spectrum of political ideologies and action, and some became feared for inspiring radicalism.

Trade unions formed the foundation of worker organization and power.  By consolidating a majority of a factory or industry’s workforce into a single body, workers gained power and influence.  Through organization and cooperation, union leaders had the power to negotiate with employers for fair treatment, wage increases and improved conditions. The strike became the trade union’s most powerful bargaining chip and was the ultimate fear for employers.


While it is fair to say that strikes did frequently take place in nearly every industry, it would be overly simplistic to label unions as strike organizations.  As Arnold Toynbee stated in his book “The Industrial Revolution”:

Trades-Unions, again, have done much to avert social and industrial disorder, and have taught workmen, by organization and self-help, to rely upon themselves. . . . The mischief and wastefulness of strikes is generally enough insisted on, but it is not as often remembered that the largest Unions have sanctioned the fewest strikes; the Amalgamated Engineers, who have 46,000 members, and branches in Canada and India, expended only six per cent. of their income on strikes from 1867 to 1877.  The leaders of such a great Union are skilful, well informed men, who know it to be in their interest to avoid strike (Toynbee 118).

Toynbee’s statement shows that unions were savvy political and social organizations.  Their motivations went beyond wage increases and strike planning.  Union leaders understood that during a strike both sides lost.  Successful trade unions brought workers together to negotiate with employers and only struck when it was strategically beneficial.  Over the course of the 19th century unions became the vehicle for driving change in the new industrial British society.

- Adam Bischoff