Celebrating the contribution of workers, Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was made a federal holiday in 1894. Many other countries have special days to honor their working people. Let’s go back in history to study the evolution of the worker’s movement.
Earliest man lived in groups, clans and family tribes where, presumably, all contributed in some way for the survival of the group. It wasn’t until these groups and tribes came together to form settlements, of sorts, that duties became more specialized. Also, at this time, there came to be another source for labor, slavery.
So from early times there were always peoples who had been captured in tribal wars, the intellectually challenged and the dissidents who became enslaved to work the fields and perform the laborious (and onerous) tasks others preferred not to take on. As man evolved and civilizations gradually created large, central cities the need for this enforced labor pool became an economic necessity. All the “great” civilizations relied upon this labor source.
Now we come to the end of those “great” civilizations where the cities outgrew the ability of the authorities to provide the goods and services necessary to sustain them, and man left the urban life for the rural, agricultural way of life of the past. However, there was a great difference between the very earliest settlements and those of the Middle Ages. In Europe, by 900 CE there were more than 200 great families of the aristocracy (called the higher nobility) and these families owned more than 80% of the arable land. The social hierarchy of those days was :
#1 the Church with the Pope as the ultimate authority. His power exceeded the kings and emperors of the European countries.
#2 the Middle Class, consisting of knights, gentry and yeomen
( freeholders who worked their own land)
#3 and virtually everyone else
Thus was born the feudal system, the manorial economic system in which the landholder used the social classes below him for his support. The knights pledged their allegiance to fight for their manor lord, often having to supply their own horses and weaponry.
But the basis for this social system rested with the serfs, the lowest of group #3. Now the serfs were not, strictly speaking, slaves. They were workers bound to the land but were allowed property for their own use after having tended the property of the landowner. Some serfs were workers in simple manufactory, craft and agricultural-related fields. For their work they were granted the protection of the landlord. Serfs were permitted to marry whomever they chose but could not leave the land of their lord. They, themselves, were not the property of the landowner, but their forced labor was.
By the late middle ages the feudal system was gradually replaced by strong royalty-based states in England and Europe. Trade was of major importance and guilds gradually were introduced into the social structure. Some refer to guilds as the forerunners of the workers unions. However, there were many differences in the organization of guilds and their later counterparts, unions. A guild had to be chartered by the king (or equivalent in whatever country) and was managed on a local level under the authority of the town or city. But the primary purpose of the guild, unlike a union was not the protection of the members but protection of their product. In large centers nearly every occupation was under the representation of a guild. The guilds wielded a fair amount of power. The rules for membership in a guild were strict and members were divided into apprentices, journeymen and masters. Each guild laid down rules concerning the quality of its product, methods of manufacture and the price. This system of monopoly could potentially lead to abuse and it was up to the royal government to oversee the guilds, but where there were small, self-governing towns the system was often not controlled.
Textile guilds such as spinners, weavers, dyers and fullers as well as silk-making were among the earliest guilds. London’s first chartered guild was the weaver’s guild.
Generally, women were excluded from guild membership, some allowed women to join but not in full participation.
Although there were obvious advantages in the guild system, one of the main disadvantages lay in the fact that the guild controlled all methods of manufacturey. This prevented innovation and if a group decided to use newer methods they were forced to leave the guilds. One such example was the fullers of the wool industry. They turned to water-power and were then locating their mills in rural areas to avoid the guilds.
As other innovations were developed the power of the guilds was diminished.
The system of trade unionism, many years later was an important influence on the textile industry and , perhaps, I will leave that discussion for next week.