Work And Class Notes
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Work And Class Revision
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History of the British Isles VI (1815-1914) Work and Class To what extent were the working lives of the working classes transformed in the Victorian period?
Divisions of Labour: R. Harrison et al
- Many skilled labourers struggled to adapt to the decline of traditional industries and secure themselves within new roles post- the advent of coal, oil, iron and steel. In industries where technological innovation was less dramatic the skilled were more able to maintain their status over the course of the 19th century.
- Technological innovation did not automatically diminish the bargaining power of skilled workers1, and on occasion enhanced it.
- In some cases the concentration of industry within factories or geographical districts enhanced the ability of workers to unionise and exercise collective bargaining.
- Craftsmen often displayed indifference to the working conditions of the less skilled, women, and children.
- Case study - Technology, labour, and unions in the shipbuilding industry:
- The shipbuilding industry was home to among the most skilled and well-remunerated workers in 19th century Britain.
- The Boilermakers Society is held as an example of moderate trade unionism during the period, but was one of over twenty unions operating within the industry2.
- Whilst well paid, skilled workers in the industry were at the mercy of cyclical variations in demand for their skills, which depressed average wages.
- Between 1840 and 1880 there was a transition from wooden to iron hulls, which saw shipwrights displaced by boilermakers. The Boilermakers managed to organise 95% of their skilled and semiskilled members by the 1890s3.
- The many small shipyards that existed at the beginning of the Victorian period, with an average size of around twenty men and very little fixed capital, were rapidly consolidated by the demands of technological change. At the end of the 19th century there were c20 yards in Britain, each employing in excess of 2000 men and with tens of thousands of pounds worth of equipment.
- However, there was no significant move towards factory-style mechanisations, and highly-skilled workers continued to underpin manufacture.
- Because of the cyclical nature of demand for ships, employers were happy to maintain high labour to capital ratios, which meant that in a downturn the weight of cost-cutting would be borne by the workforce.
- At the end of the 19th century steel replaced iron and foreign competition began to increase. Unions in Britain were strong enough to resist much of their employers' pressure to mechanise the industry.
- The changeover from iron to steel did not presage the significant changes to the industry that the evolution from wooden hulls had done.
- The re-organisation of working practices and the strengthening of trade unions were closely interrelated; yet, increased unionisation did not necessarily mean increased co-operation amongst different shades of skilled worker.
- Even among the most highly skilled, few of the working-class had real security of employment.
- Real wage growth over the period?
Why Was There No Marxism In Great Britain? EHR 1984: R. McKibbin 1 Divisions of Labour: R. Harrison et al 2 Divisions of Labour: R. Harrison et al 3 Divisions of Labour: R. Harrison et al
- In 1901 c85% of the working population was employed by others, and about 75% were manual workers.
- 12% of the male population remained in agricultural employment, although this number continued to fall.
- Britain was a working class nation, and should have been fertile ground on which to build a socialist Party.
- However, only around 15% of the working population were union members, and collectivist ties were weak, even among those within unions. By 1914 this had risen to c25%, but the growing female workforce remained almost entirely un-unionised4.
- Many unions chose not to affiliate to the Labour Party pre-1918 because they found its 'socialism' objectionable.
- Skilled workers in particular were mobile, easily fragmented, self-interested, and vulnerable to cyclical downturns; thus, difficult to mobilise on a national scale.
- At the end of the century the average British workshop employed c29 male employees. However, in heavy manufacturing they numbered c68, rising to c240 in ship-building5.
- Consolidation in industry changed the behaviour and opportunities of workers. By the end of Victoria's reign Britain's largest 100 companies employed 5% of the workforce, and there were a significant number with more than 10,000 employees. So?
- Religious organisations and clubs helped to mingle the working and middle-classes outside of the work place, undermining the political agitation that was so prevalent on the Continent.
- The working-classes saw legitimacy in existing institutions, even those which serve to their detriment, and this undermined revolutionary thought. Bagehot saw deference as the cornerstone of class stability, coupled with a sense of fairness that was, in truth, an illusion.
- Technological change and divisive pride between skilled and un-skilled unions undermined the political solidarity of the working-class.
- 'There was thus no overwhelming grievance which could have united the working class against civil society. The leaders of the working class found themselves as restrained as employers: the workforce was no more willing to have its market rights infringed by the leaders of the Labour Party than it was by anyone else'6.
- Two of the prime assumptions of any Marxist party - a rejection by much of the working class of existing social institutions and a belief in the unity of 'economies' and 'politics' - simply did not hold. Masters, Unions, and Men: R. Price
- Trade unions and collective bargaining only came to be accepted because the growing strength and organisation of labour forced employers to acknowledge their legitimacy7.
- There was a high degree of similarity between the structures of industrial relations across different industries. These structures included sliding pay scales, collective bargaining, and union leadership organisation.
- Incidences of strike action are partially explained by the vagaries of the business cycle, and the emergence of unionisation as an attempt to ameliorate its impact.
- Why else?
4 Why Was There No Marxism In Great Britain? EHR 1984: R. McKibbin 5 Why Was There No Marxism In Great Britain? EHR 1984: R. McKibbin 6 Why Was There No Marxism In Great Britain? EHR 1984: R. McKibbin 7 Masters, Unions, and Men: R. Price
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