Trade Unions: Definition and Brief History (1306 Words)

Read this article to learn about the definitions and brief history of Trade Unions!

Towards a Definition:

Trade unions are a product of the Industrial Revolution. They bear no connection with any earlier organisation.

They were a healthy outcome of the needs of the workers and, as Allan Flanders (1970) noted, they arose out of the need to protect workers. Theory did not play a role in its formation.

Unions have emerged as an important factor in production and distribution systems the world over. At present, they are looked at with suspicion by the middle class and by sections of the media precisely because they are so powerful in representing the interests of the working class. We must realise that trade unions are not homogeneous bodies in the sense that there are differences in the approaches of different trade unions.


This is to a large extent governed by the ideology of the trade union. There are some political ideologies that believe that the interests of labour and capital are the same and there are others that believe that they are opposed to each other and there can be nothing in common between the two.

Sidney Webb with his wife Beatrice Webb is regarded as the doyen of trade union history. They were academics who were actively involved in the trade union movement in Britain. Their definition of trade unions was regarded as ideal at the turn of the 1900s. In their book, A History of Trade Unionism, they defined a trade union as ‘a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining the conditions of their working lives.’


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Another academic, also highly regarded for his study of trade unions, G. D. H. Cole, wrote in his book, Introduction to Trade Unions, that a trade union is ‘a continuing organisation of employees established for the purpose of protecting or improving, through collective action, the economic and social status of its members.’


Though both definitions seem quite satisfactory, there are some problems. First of all, why is there a need for trade unions to improve the conditions of workers? In the traditional sense, this should be the responsibility of the employer. Hence it can be deduced from both definitions given above those employers on their own do not initiate improvement in the living and working conditions of their workers.

The definitions should have included the role of employers too. Employers are to a large extent responsible for the conditions of their workers but not solely for there is another powerful institution that influences the lives of all citizens—the state. Both workers and employers have to function within the regulations of the state.

The legal framework provided by the state forms the guidelines for relations between employers and workers. Hence we can say that the most powerful factor in guiding industrial relations is the state. Neither definition takes these two factors into account.

This may be because the three writers (the Webbs and Cole) were ideologically syndicalists who believed that labour and capital were partners in development. Hence employers were never considered as an opposing force. We can attempt a more comprehensive definition.


According to this, trade unions are organisations of workers that attempt to protect their interests against the power of the employers and the state and its institutions. In a general sense, the objective of a union is to secure better living and working conditions for workers. In order to achieve this, trade unions must secure the rights of the workers.

These rights could comprise seeking fair wages to better working conditions and perhaps facilities relating to work and retirement. Besides securing these rights, it is also necessary to protect them. Trade unions need to ensure that these rights are not depleted or eroded by other forces. In this way, trade unions try to lessen the burden of exploitation.

In his study, Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844, Friedrich Engels tried to trace the origins of trade unions in England.

He noted that in the early nineteenth century, the labour market was unorganised and had little or no interventions from the state to protect workers. Factory production had replaced the artisans in the villages. Craftspeople such as weavers, ironsmiths, potters, etc., became redundant.

These people flocked to the industrial cities to seek employment. In the cities, the number of job-seekers outnumbered by far the jobs available. Hence, there was a sharp competition for jobs. In such a situation, if some workers felt that the nature of the work and the wages offered were lower than their expectations, they knew that, if they refused, there would be at least double the number of workers willing to work at wages lower than those offered.

According to Engels, workers realised that their wages were depressed because of competition with each other, and that instead of competing with each other they should unify and oppose the tactics of the management. They could not do this at the early stages because initiating any form of collective action was deemed illegal and punishable with imprisonment.

Their activities had to be carried out under strict secrecy. This meant that these organisations could not disclose their identity. This restricted their growth. Secrecy impeded their spread as they could not be mass-based. The state would have suppressed them with brutality as collective action against employers would not be countenanced.

Finally the state realised that these sporadic and secret actions were harming production. It reluctantly allowed the formation of associations of workers by passing the Freedom of Association Act in 1824. After this, trade unions spread rapidly across the industrial ‘townships of Britain.

A brief history:

The period from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution till the Freedom of Association Act of 1824 was rough and arduous for the working class. Any forms of association of workers were regarded as a conspiracy against the state and were dealt with harshly. This was true not only for Britain but also for other industrialising countries such as France, Germany and USA in the nineteenth century.

The British parliament had passed two laws in 1799 and 1800 known as the Combination Acts which laid down that any combination of workmen was illegal and needed to be put down. The state used brutal methods for breaking these movements. These combinations were defined as associations of ungrateful employees who were bent on causing harm to their employers. It was difficult for workers, who were made to work in gloomy and unhygienic surroundings in the factories, to protest against their employers.

Despite obstacles, associations continued to grow clandestinely. These associations had some inherent shortcomings. Since they functioned underground, they could not cover a large number of workers, and those who were involved had to have strong ties among them as this would ensure their secrecy of functioning. In most cases, members were from the same community and could be bound together by strong ties.

In USA, the most famous of these underground combinations were the Molly Maguires who were mine workers of Irish origin. They used violence against supervisors who were harsh on workers. These clandestine organisations were not democratic in their functioning. Since they could not openly protest they showed their anger by destroying machines, or beating up managers or supervisors in dark alleys where they could not be identified easily.

These moves were effective in the sense that the state realised that it could not continue to subdue workers’ protests by suppressing them. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the British Government started tolerating them, or at least it did not put down these moves with brutal force. There was a general acceptance that the Combinations Acts had to be repealed and they were replaced by the Freedom of Association Act.

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