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Mainstream, VOL LII No 19; May 3, 2014

A Brief History of Workers’ / TU Movement, Red Flag and May Day

Monday 5 May 2014, by Anil Rajimwale


The following article is being published on the occasion of May Day.

The modern working class is the product of the industrial revolution beginning with mid-18th century. But we can find workers’ activities and organisations even in the pre-industrial phases, when this class was still in the formative period.

Records of workers’ associations, guilds and unions are to be found in the 14th to 18th centuries. In 1345 a wool comber tried to organise a union of wage labourers in Florence (Italy), for which he was condemned to death. Several workers’ uprisings took place in the 14th century Italian principalities. A remarkable struggle for wage rise and political rights took place in Ciompi (Florence) from 1378 onwards.

Some other notable struggles and organi-sations were as follows: Lyons (France) printers in 1501; first long lasting strike in the same city in 1539 for five months (demanding wage increase, better meals, shorter work hours, etc); Lyons (1540-41) and Paris (1570-72); 17th century strikes of workers in England; strikes of clothing and shipyard workers in the Netherlands in 1718-19; strikes, riots and organizations in England in 17th-18th centuries; struggles elsewhere in Europe.

Beginnings of Workers’ Organisations

By 1721 the journeymen tailors of London built a powerful union of a permanent nature. In early 18th century the Nottingham hosiery industry workers had associations which destroyed stocking machines. Wool weavers of Norwich, England, demanded wage rise in 1754 and led a six-week struggle. Some strong unions are recorded from 1791 onwards in England, among them the mining workers’ associations, the National Association for the Protection of Workers and Grand General Union of Workers of UK

In 1758 the box stewards of 18 unions assembled during the strike of Manchester weavers. The London hatters assembled several times in 18th century in London, and several workers’ clubs were formed in Glasgow in those times, as, for example, in 1780. In 1771 an Association of Hatters was formed to unite clubs of about ten cities. The workers of Lancashire and West Riding showed growing organisational and TU activities.

The workers of different trades began to come together, forming ‘trades unions’ which later evolved into trade unions proper. In the US they were generally known as the labour unions.

A General Union of Spinners was founded in 1810 in Lancashire. Similar associations (unions) were formed by tanners, wool-carders, calico-printers, iron founders, paper makers, each of them getting united at the national scale. By 1824-25 the TU movement and organisations began to get consolidated: Steam Engine Makers’ Society, General Union of Carpenters and Joiners (1827) being some of the examples.

National Association of United Trades (1845-50) and Amalgamated Society of Engineers or ASE (beginning with 1851) were historic TUs in England.

Similarly, clubs and unions were formed early in France, Australia, Belgium and other countries.

In the US, the first labour unions were formed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Among them were the unions of hired shoe-makers in 1792, tailors, printers, New York furniture mak-ers in 1796, New York shipwrights in 1803, etc.

According to a report, the black chimney cleaners of Charleston (USA) formed a combination in 1763 to press for their demands. One of the earliest unions was a Draymen’s Union in New York in 1763. Some others were: a Coopers’ Union in New York in 1770, Journeymen’s Union in New York in 1773, and others.

The American TU movement spread rapidly in 1833-37. Their membership grew from 33,000 to 300,000. About 150 unions were established. Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia came into existence in 1827 as also General Trade Union of New York (1833). They included a large number of local unions.

By the mid-1860s there emerged a strong trade union (labour) movement in the US. By that period some 207 societies in 53 industries had been organised. By the beginning of the 1870s there were 32 national unions. Among the powerful was the International Ironmoulders’ Union of the USA and Canada.

The first National Workers’ Congress of US opened on August 20, 1866, which founded the National Labour Union. It recognised the First International in 1867.

Besides, the powerful Knights of Labour or KL and American Federation of Labour or the AFL emerged in the USA, which played a historic role in the May Day strike of 1886.

The industrial revolution increasingly under-mined the position of the artisan industries. Consequently, the journeymen’s unions assumed greater significance and played an important role in the rise of the trade union movement. Such unions existed among tanners, joiners, nail-makers, knife-makers, brick-layers, stone-masons and such other workers and artisans. They worked according to craft and trades.

There also emerged corresponding societies in England and elsewhere during this period.

Important Movements

The rise of labour, TU and working class movements was marked by some historical movements which have left their deep imprints on history. Among them were the Levellers’, Diggers’, Poachers’, and the Luddites’ movements. It is not possible to go into details here for lack of space. Most of these movements were a reaction to the new machineries on way to the industrial revolution. For lack of clear scientific consciousness, the workers looked upon the machines as their enemies and destroyed them, as happened in the Levellers’ and Luddites’ movements. They took place in the 17th to 19th centuries.

The Peterloo Massacre of workers in England took place on August 16, 1819. The famous Chartist movement began in England in 1838.

Chartist Movement 

Though this movement began roughly around 1831-32, it really took shape with the formation of London Workingmen’s Association in 1836. The Chartist movement lasted till about 1847, its high point was 1842.

Chartism was the first sustained political movement of the English working class. It advanced, among others, two basic political demands: universal suffrage and 10-hour workday. The political demands around the voting rights contained six important points. The demands and the movement were highly appreciated by Marx and Engels as the political awakening and consolidation of the working class. They underlined the significance of the struggle for voting rights for the workers.

The years of the Chartist movement were marked by great strikes, giant processions, petitions signed by more than a million workers of England, peaceful rebellions and resistance etc. The nationwide forums of the Chartists were the Universal Convention of Industrial Classes and National Charter Association.

The second Charter of 1842 contained more than three million signatures and was partici-pated in by hundreds of thousands of workers. It was the first time in history that a political form was given to workers’ demands, and thus it was a prototype of a workers’ party. There took place a nationwide workers’ general strike in August 1842.

Chartism helped the development of Marxism in many respects.

Origins of Red Flag

There is a common misconception that the Red Flag was born during the May Day events in 1886 in Chicago. In reality the history of the Red Flag goes much earlier. The Red Flag was in use before the French Revolution (1789) to mark danger or to alert. Hence the colour red. After the French Revolution the people declared that they were using Red Flags to warn the former rulers of the royal family. An instance is mentioned in history of workers having hoisted the Red Flag in Lyons on Hotel de Ville in 1789. Not much is known. A French General is reported to have hoisted a Red Flag over a prominent building in Paris to warn the people.

The working people of Paris already considered the Red Flag as their own since June 1832, when in a workers’ uprising the Red Flag was hoisted over the barricades in the city. (See Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Volume 1, Note No. 104; also mentioned by Marx in Class Struggles in France) Thereafter the Red Flag became quite common in France and several other countries of Europe.

The Chartist movement in England also had Red Flag as their banner 1838 onwards. The issue of national flag of France became a contentious issue in the course of the European revolutions of 1848-49. While the represen-tatives of the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie wanted the Tricolour as the Republic’s flag, the workers’ represen-tatives wanted the Red Flag as the flag of France. An appeal to recognise the red banner as the national flag circulated for 36 hours in the areas around the Town Hall. August Blanqui, the leader of the revolutio-nary proletarians, supported the demand most actively.

The issue was settled by accepting the Tricolour as the national flag with a red rosette attached to it.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany was established in 1863. Its flag was the red banner with a handshake imprinted on it.

The flag of the First International or the International Workingmen’s Association was also red, as also that of the Second International (1889). The Red Flag was hoisted over Hotel de Ville during the Paris Commune of 1871.

Hammer and sickle was put on the Red Flag during the Russian Revolution of 1905 as the symbol of worker-peasant unity.

Thus the Red Flag originated and spread much before 1886. In fact, in the USA itself the red banners, arm-bands and flags were quite common in the 1860s and 1870s, that is, much before the Chicago May Day events.

Sources of May Day

The origins of May Day are related with mainly two events.

One is the American Revolution of 1776. It is interesting to note that the workers, indentured labour, negroes and other working people played a crucial role in the Revolution which led to the emergence of the ‘United States’, the first of 13 States. The declaration of independence adopted by the USA was considerably influenced by the workers’ conventions held before the Revol-ution. And Thomas Jefferson, prominent leader and American President, prepared the draft of the declaration in the house of a brick-layer. Jefferson was very close to the workers, who in turn considered him their hero.

This declaration of independence was to play a crucial role later on. In fact, many of its points about the independence of the humans were taken from various workers’ conventions and meetings. This idea evolved further into the 19th century American labour movement as one of the basic planks. The point was remembered during the preparations for May Day and its events.

The declaration of independence was a great source for the emergence of workers’ festivals during the 19th century. A tradition emerged in which every first Monday of September was celebrated as the day of workers’ holiday all over America.

The other event is the struggle of the American working class for eight-hour workday. It was preceded by widespread struggles for 10-hour workday at the begin-ning of 19th century. By mid-century the demand was accepted and even implemented in many parts of the USA. In the second half of the century the US trade union movement was able to put forward the demand of eight hours as the workday, with other 16 hours kept aside for rest and recreation. Economic, technological and political changes played a crucial role in the demand for reduction of work hours.

Powerful American trade unions, such as the Knights of Labour, American Federation of Labour and other national industrial centres, played a central effective organisa-tional role.

 The movement gradually picked up from 1884, and by 1885-86 it was decided to merge the Labour Day with May Day. A countrywide struggle took place in May 1885, followed by a one-day industrial strike and general movement on May 1, 1886. The Hay Market events in Chicago gave rise to the observance of May Day every year. The Second International decided to observe May Day worldwide every year 1890 onwards.

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