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Relations Among Workers

Carolina Mayorga

    Relations among workers varied during the nineteenth century. Through mutual aid societies, compagnonnage systems and brotherhoods, syndicalist movements and strikes, the workers of the nineteenth century worked together, fighting hard to find different ways to gain respect from their masters, looking for better working and living conditions, and therefore gaining power as a working class. However, there was also competition among them because of high unemployment rates and the difficulties of surviving.

    From the early years of their working life, workers got used to stopping in cabarets while touring through France. The cabarets were rooms where the working class got together to strengthen their ties of friendship and forget their exhaustion. The cabarets offered wine, shelter, and sometimes food for the workers. After long hours of working, many workers spent their breaks in those rooms, sharing some good memories and laughing, singing, and drinking wine. Friendship among the workers was genuine since they could all identify with each other. They were going through the same struggles and problems with their masters, often missing their families, and many times having a hard time trying to survive. Many times, workers found in other workers inseparable and true friendships. A good example of the different relationships among workers is described in Agricol Perdiguier’s book "Memoirs of a compagnon". Compagnonnages were pre-revolutionary journeyman’s leagues that were formed by the workers in order to create a supporting system between them. In this autobiography, he refers to his fellow workers by a name given within the compagnonnage. These nicknames combined references to the towns or regions where they were born with epithets that evoked some personal traits or qualities. These names took on a very special meaning among workers as a sign of togetherness and being there for each other. They called each other "brother" instead of mister. The brothers of these unions were accountable for each other in case of sickness, or necessity. They gathered whenever there was a new worker trying to join their group or whenever one of their brothers decided to leave the compagnonnage. During feast days, they got together to celebrate, have a big banquet and have a good time. As Perdiguier states, "there was nothing as beautiful, as sweet, as fraternal as these compagnons’ celebrations!"(Traugott, 137). They would sing in chorus and sing together in friendship. He states that they developed such friendships that they were ready to die for each other.

    On the other hand, there was some rivalry between workers of different regions. For example, Martin Nadaud, in his book, "Memoirs of Léonard, a Former Mason’s Assistant," points out that among the workers who were from Creuse there were little clans. Workers coming from the regions of La Souterraine, and Le Grand-Bourg were called "brulas", and those coming from the neighborhood of Vallière, Saint-Sulpice-les-Champs and Saint-Georges were called "bigaros". They were not supposed to work in the same construction site and if by chance they happened to work together they could end up in a battle, although later they would end up having a drink together in some cabaret. Once they were finished and had to go back to work, they were no longer "bigaro" and "brula"; they were friends and peace had been made. However, these accounts are by educated, skilled workers whose memoirs stress workers’ positive qualities.

    Workers who lived under more harsh conditions such as the unskilled Norbert Truquin or Suzanne Voilquin experienced the marginality and instability of those without a circle of friends and without the support of a family. The support system created by the working class was not as perfect as the one described by Nadaud or Perdiguier. Not all of these rivalries ended up with a friendly reunion at a cabaret with wine. There were some very competitive workers due to the lack of jobs and the difficulty of surviving.

    In conclusion, relations among workers of the nineteenth century varied depending on the circumstances each worker lived under. Nevertheless, the relations among workers were mostly focused on friendship and the desire to persevere through difficult times together. Together, they organized many strikes in order to be heard by their masters and gain some power within society. Most of them had the same ideals: freedom for the workers, better standards of living and working conditions.

 

 

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All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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