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New Worlds: Workers Unite

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Unions — generally called “labor unions” in the U.S., “trade unions” in the U.K. — are the modern cousin of the guild (though bear in mind that guilds aren’t gone today). The key difference between them is that unions arose around wage labor: situations where, instead of selling a product, the worker sells their time and effort. Said time and effort might be spent on making a product, which can blur the distinction for the layperson (and I include myself among that number), but it does matter.

Because of that distinction, unions are a more recent development, with the earliest examples coming from the late eighteenth century and the whole concept really gathering steam in the nineteenth. Pun very much intended, because this is absolutely intertwined with the way the Industrial Revolution changed how we think about labor. In particular, while guilds especially thrived in an environment of skilled, specialized workers who needed extensive training to master their craft, factories employed large amounts of unskilled labor performing tasks a person could master in a very short span of time. And the whole kit and caboodle, the factory and its equipment and everything it produces, is owned not by an experienced individual who came up through the same trade, but by a businessman who generally would never dream of sullying his own hands with such work.

In an environment like that, the whole dynamic changes quite radically. Quality is now a function of the machines as much as, or sometimes more than, the people operating them. Workers are easily replaced. And the people involved in that trade have essentially no power against the person in charge . . . unless they band together.

The people in charge did not want them banding together. The collectivization of workers was flat-out illegal for quite some time, being prosecuted under laws concerning conspiracy or restraint of trade. Nor were the owners’ efforts against unionization confined to the field of law: business magnates often had no compunctions about sending men to break up meetings and strikes with violence. (More on strikes next week.)

Despite this opposition, workers persevered, because the alternative was worse. Much early collective action was directed at improving safety conditions in factories, where laborers could lose limbs to machinery or be exposed to toxic chemicals — if you have a strong stomach, search for images of “phossy jaw” to see what the phosphorus in matches could do. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 people in large part because the owners of the business, seeking to prevent their workers from taking unauthorized breaks or pilfering any items, had locked them inside the building. The history of such diseases and disasters is a long and bloody one, and unfortunately, it’s still gaining new entries today, especially in places where wealthy countries have outsourced production to poorer, less regulated parts of the world.

Then and now, unions have also advocated for various improvements to their working conditions, above and beyond the obvious basics of safety. The forty-hour work week now seen as standard was brought about partly through union action; before, it wasn’t uncommon for employers, especially in factories, to require a twelve- or sixteen-hour day, six or even seven days a week. Other goals might include better lighting and ventilation, or the right to take breaks for meals and even the use of the bathroom — because yes, companies have tried to restrict those in the past, or have docked workers’ pay for every minute they step away from the job.

And, of course — as we’re seeing right now, with the Writers’ Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes — unions seek to protect the wages and employment of their members. A single worker often has very little power to demand better pay, or to insist on being paid extra for overtime. If they complain about problems, at best they might mysteriously fail to gain the promotion their seniority has earned them; at worst, they might find themself precipitously out of a job. But with a union to defend their interests, they may have more protection.

Some of how this plays out depends on the type of union in question. Broadly speaking, you can arrange them into three or four types: craft unions, which bring together workers in a specific trade (e.g. bricklayers or airline pilots); industry unions, for workers performing different jobs in the same industry (e.g. construction); company unions, organized among the employees of a specific business (e.g. the attempts by Amazon’s workers to unionize, in the face of the corporation’s strident opposition); and general unions, which aim to be universal. The priorities and tactics of these various groups can vary, with the larger ones potentially exerting more clout, but less efficiently. And of course alliances can form between them, as we’re seeing with the WG and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

There is, as I said before, some overlap with the way guilds operate. In areas and industries where unions have enough power to demand that only union workers can be employed, it’s a bit like guilds controlling who can practice a trade — though generally far less restrictive, as union membership is more likely to be open to anyone who can pay their dues. (More likely, not guaranteed, as women and minorities of various sorts can attest.) Both types of group help protect the financial interests of their members, too. But the circumstances around who owns the business and its equipment, and what exactly the workers are being paid for, do make it something of a different arrangement.

Meanwhile, other forms of professional organization are different yet again. I won’t go into a great deal of detail on these, but as many of you may know from your own fields of employment, there’s a host of groups which gather together members of certain professions, without exerting quite the same kind of influence as unions or guilds. Some of them frankly only exist to organize conferences and maybe hand out an annual award, but others have a regulatory function, albeit a more voluntary one: for example, the Association of American Literary Agents requires all its members to abide by its Canon of Ethics. Nothing requires an agent to join that group, a perfectly reputable agent might not be a member, and a given member might not be all that competent . . . but affiliation at least promises an author that certain norms will be respected, and if they’re not, someone will help address that problem. They also recently established a mentorship program for historically underrepresented groups, demonstrating another function such organizations can serve.

Altogether, it makes for a complex field of labor relations. But it’s one that very much shapes our world today, and were all its protections removed, virtually all of us would suffer for it. And in the struggle to establish such groups and achieve their aims, there is a great deal of opportunity for conflict, for heroism and villainy.

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6 thoughts on “New Worlds: Workers Unite”

  1. A big difference between guilds and unions is that in the former the Master (and generally on a guild master could open their own shop and employ others) worked alongside of the journeymen and apprentices who worked under them. In the latter, the boss didn’t need to know how to sole a shoe or bind a book or make a sheet of paper–he (virtually always he in the West) employed folks who did the actual work (this is not to say that some business owners didn’t rise up through the ranks and know how to do stuff… but especially in terms of class mobility, the goal was often to move away from trade and become an “owner”.

    My favorite transitional union story is the bookbinders tea strike of … 1804, I think? Generally, the work day started at 6 and ended after dark, so it could be about 13 hours a day. You got a mid-day break for lunch, and then, perhaps, a break for dinner if the day went that long. Female workers (who did the sheet folding and much of the actual sewing) also got a half-hour break for tea around about 5pm. Finally the men struck for the right to share that half hour with their female companions. Even 50 years later Union members sang songs praising the valor of their earlier tea-drinking colleagues.

      1. I suspect it was because the women were considered to be frailer and less able to get by without the sustaining powers of a cuppa.

        Rowan M: if you were asking about the Tea Strike–yes, it was London.

  2. The volume of commentary expressed by recognizing the only union (at least here in the USA) that no one is allowed to protest is that of the police. The very same union members who go out to bust heads of everyone else demonstrating in favor of their labor being unionized. Look how demonized the teachers unions are in such regions as Chicago, yet the cops, not a word.

    Also the determination that nurses are not to be allowed to unionize, for instance . . . .

    1. That miiiiiiiiight be part of why I was interested in posting these essays now, rather than later — I think the WG and SAG-AFTRA strikes are drawing more attention to this topic than we’ve had in a long time, plus there are efforts by Amazon employees to unionize, etc., and I think I’m seeing the zeitgeist shifting a bit. There’s a lot of discontent out there right now, and while we’re not in as horrific a situation as a lot of nineteenth-century laborers, lots of people are realizing they’d like to have more power against their corporate bosses. It would be nice if this is the start of a new surge in labor activism.

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