Pick up any governmental speech, or article in the newspapers, on the subject of strikes and it is an even chance that a dividing line will be drawn between the “bad old days” when strikes were legitimate and the present time when strikes are said to be unnecessary, useless, dangerous and immoral. Nowadays, they will say, the workers are well off and don’t need to strike; and what is more, “the country” is in such a precarious state that strikes will lose markets for British goods and cause suffering all-round, to the strikers among others.
It is a seductive line but not at all persuasive when you realise that the same arguments were being advanced back in “the bad old days” of a century ago, as may be seen in the Quarterly Review, which in 1860 published an unsigned article on strikes, with particular reference to Papers on strikes read to the British Association in 1838 and 1854.
It started off with some splendid blarney about what a fine worker the Englishman was and how French peasants at Rouen, seeing English railway builders for the first time, gaped in wonder and admiration at the energy, the dexterity and the vast output, (It is possible, of course, that the translator was at fault and that the bench peasants were really saying “did you ever see such clots? ”).
The next thought of the writer in the Quarterly was that it was only right that such magnificent workers should be “liberally remunerated” and receive “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.” He was not, however leading up to the theme that workers ought to be paid more but that they were already being paid enough:
At no previous period has so large a number of skilled workmen received higher wages, and in no country are they able to live more comfortably upon the proceeds of their toil, if we except only those new colonies in which land is unusually abundant. There never was a time when skill and diligence received more general encouragement, or in which there was a greater disposition to do honour to the lot of the labour.
Not only were workers well off, but look at the chances they had of becoming really wealthy: “It is notorious that many of our most successful employers, and some of our largest capitalists have sprung directly from the working class . . .”
There never had been such working class affluence, indeed, the writer clearly thought it had been a bit overdone. ’’Will it be believed that the annual earnings of many families engaged in the cotton manufacture amount to more than the average incomes of the clergy of England?”
And London engineering workers were getting more than “the whole body of dissenting Ministers”: iron workers being paid as much as an army captain with ten years’ service: and other workers with a larger income “than falls to the lot of most professional men.” The figures given for these Staffordshire “ball-furnace men” were £300 to £400 a year (“when trade is brisk”). At current prices this would be equivalent to between £1,500 and £2,000: “Yet the houses of these favoured labourers are scenes of disgusting untidiness and squalor.”
But in 1860, as now, all was not well. The affluent workers did not always appreciate their good fortune, or understand how easily it could be destroyed. Some of them formed unions and came out on strike, whereas if well advised they would have been abstemious, saved money and joined the ranks of the capitalists.
If these workers came out on strike they were, said the writer, flying in the face of all experience because, as he sought to show with lots of examples, all strikes are either defeated or else they gain only temporary victory or they drive trade into the hands of foreign rivals. (He omitted to explain how the French could capture English markets in view of his quoted evidence that one Englishman did as much work as eight Frenchmen).
He summed up his arguments about the futility of strikes with the declaration: “Indeed there is not an instance of any extensive strike, no matter how well organised and supported, having ended otherwise then in suffering and defeat to the workmen.”
But he was not at all confident that workers would be convinced by what he thought he had proved. He feared that though you might prove “by political economy” that strikes were useless, some workers just would not be convinced. He quoted the case of a trade unionist who “boldly declared in Hyde Park”—”If political economy is against us, then we are against political economy! ”
There were other workers trying to resist machinery—he noted in passing that the workers were often encouraged to do this by rival employers.
It was all there, just like today, and not forgetting the final gentle admonishment to the employers:
At the same time, employers ought not to stand too strongly upon their rights, nor entrench themselves too exclusively within the circle of their own order. Frankness and cordiality will win working men’s hearts, and a ready explanation will often remove misgivings and dissatisfaction. Were there more trust and greater sympathy between classes, there would be less disposition to turn out on the part of men and a more accommodating spirit on the part of masters.