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English Labor Movements

With the advent of industrialization in England in the late 18th century, society was soon faced with many changes as it slowly began its transformation from an agrarian to an urban one. Key among these changes was the development of the working class of typically lower paid workers who carried out the new tasks necessitated by industrialization. These workers were often left with little choice but to band together to resist the exploitation of wealthy upper classes which saw them as tools for personal profit.

In England the labor movements in favor of worker’s rights brought together people from various social and ethnic backgrounds, unifying them against an oppressive force for inequality, necessitating that they cooperate in order to exercise a collective influence; a cooperation which began to fluctuate even as its goals were increasingly accomplished in the second half of the 20th century, illustrating the fact that it was an alliance of necessity became one of convenience.

Origins

The origins of the English labor movement lie in the goal of unifying workers under a common ideal – a goal quite necessary when considering the initial state of workers. With Industrial Revolution that began in England in the late 18th century, an increasing number of citizens left behind traditional lives in order to take up residence and employment in the cities, where the manufacturing jobs that epitomize the early Industrial era were common. In this new environment wherein unskilled laborers could easily be manipulated by their upper class managers, a culture of worker exploitation and oppression flourished, with profit taking precedence over the well being of the manual laborers who were so necessary and seemingly expendable. Though unions had existed for decades in England, the 1880’s initiated a new wave of membership in unions of unskilled laborers.

These new unions provided much-needed leverage to this new working class and appeared to be united. With the formation and proliferation of these unions, it became possible for unskilled and formerly underrepresented workers to attain concessions in ways never before possible, as illustrated by the formation of the British Labour Party around 1900 – a party largely comprised of and in support of the rights of unskilled workers in England. This increasing representation of English workers in their society and their new ability to work towards civil equality represented the unification of the working class under a common ideal, and began the English labor movement on a rather idealistic note – a note on which it could not long remain.

Labor Movements in the 1950's

By the middle of the 20th century the English labor movement had accomplished many of its goals, bringing greater stability and prosperity to its members, yet this accomplishment illustrated that the idealism that began the movement was not all-encompassing; that despite its promises of cooperation the movements proponents still often allowed self-interest to reign over original collective ideals. Initially the labor movement was radical in its composition, with socialists and other Marxists making up the bulk of its more effective forces. This radicalism entered a decline indicative of changes within the working class when, by the 1950’s their unions moved towards a conservative mindset.

This movement towards the more conservative right was indicative of a growing idea among even the unskilled laborers that upward social mobility was at last feasible due to changes in manufacturing and the workplace that had dramatically increased prosperity after the world wars, placing the working class in a position of upward social mobility. This change is essential in viewing a truth of the English labor movement – the fact that, despite its initial goals of unification under similar ideals for collective benefit, the movement was able to rapidly alter its stances on major issues in the way that would most benefit individuals seeking further upward social mobility. In a way the labor movement, though it continued to strengthen, was no longer the same movement it had once been, with its radical ideals exchanged for more conservative and self-interested ones; the alliance created out of necessity remained more as one of convenience.

Conclusions

With the Industrial Revolution’s introduction of massive demographic changes to society, including the augmenting numbers of lower working class citizens, it came as no surprise that a labor movement based on unifying such workers soon arose. More interesting, however, is the fact that as the goals of this primary English labor movement were accomplished towards the middle of the 20th century, bringing greater prosperity to countless unskilled laborers, the very political orientation of the movement changed, abandoning founding radical ideals for more conservative ones to suit the changes in social status and new desires for greater upward social mobility. This change represents the fact that the English Labor movement changed from an initial necessity fighting for worker’s rights to a convenient alliance which was able to alter its platform significantly in order to benefit itself, no matter how opposed its new ideals were to its original ones.

References

  • 1. Roediger, D.R., The wages of whiteness: Race and the making of the American working class. 1999: Verso.
  • 2. Hattam, V.C., Labor visions and state power: The origins of business unionism in the United States. 2014: Princeton University Press.
  • 3. Clawson, D. and M.A. Clawson, What has happened to the US labor movement? Union decline and renewal. Annual Review of Sociology, 1999: p. 95-119.
  • 4. Steinberg, M.W., The Talk and Back Talk of Collective Action: A Dialogic Analysis of Repertoires of Discourse among Nineteenth-Century English Cotton Spinners 1. American Journal of Sociology, 1999. 105(3): p. 736-780.
  • 5. Somers, M.R., Narrativity, narrative identity, and social action: Rethinking English working-class formation. Social Science History, 1992: p. 591-630.
  • 6. Steinfeld, R.J., The invention of free labor: the employment relation in English and American law and culture, 1350-1870. 2002: UNC Press Books.
  • 7. Hyslop, J., The imperial working class makes itself ‘white’: white labourism in Britain, Australia, and South Africa before the First World War. Journal of Historical Sociology, 1999. 12(4): p. 398-421.
  • 8. Lehmann, W., Becoming middle class: How working-class university students draw and transgress moral class boundaries. Sociology, 2009. 43(4): p. 631-647.
  • 9. LIN, Y. and A. MEI, Lively children trapped in an island of disadvantage: Verbal play of Cantonese working-class schoolboys in Hong Kong. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2000. 143(1): p. 63-84.
  • 10. España-Maram, L., Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles's Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture in the United States. 2013: Columbia University Press.
  • 11. Rueschemeyer, D., E.H. Stephens, and J.D. Stephens, Capitalist development and democracy. Cambridge, UK, 1992.
  • 12. Stratton, J., The young ones: working-class culture, consumption and the category of youth. 1992.

History | Essays | United Kingdom


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