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Workers' Organizations

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Workers’ Organizations

Clay Wilkey

    The world as we know it today in the first years of the twenty-first century is much different than the society in existence more than one hundred fifty years ago. In addition to the obvious differences, such as central air conditioning and personal computers, are the more subtle changes that affect people's lives just as drastically. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a comparison of working conditions endured in the mid-nineteenth century with the conditions that workers enjoy today. Minimum wages, child labor laws, and a standardized work week are all relatively new concepts to the working world. Another innovation that time has brought about is the development of worker's unions, designed to protect the wages and rights of the working class. "The French Worker: Autobiographies From the Early Industrial Era" is a collection of workers’ autobiographies compiled by Mark Traugott that allow the reader to see how far unions have progressed from the early 1800's to the present. While there are several important differences between today's unions and associations established in the past, it is the similarities between the two, primarily protecting workers rights, that stand out.

    In Agricol Perdiguier's "Memoirs of a Compagnon", the author outlines his life as a skilled worker, specifically a joiner (one who assembles wooden furniture and windows), in the first half of the nineteenth century. Early in his working life, Perdiguier joins a compagnonnage during his Tour of France to give him companionship and job stability as he moves from town to town mastering his woodworking skills. These compagnonnages were nationwide organizations of working class men with a structure somewhat like fraternities on today's college campuses. Brotherhood, trust, honesty, and having a good time while in each other's company were all integral parts of the compagnonnage system.

    While the structure of compagnonnages were very similar to today's Greek organizations, the actions they performed more closely resemble a union in today's work force. The compagnonnage would find work for a newly arrived compagnon and through the strength of the organization make sure each competent member stayed employed. Just as today when many companies members are totally unionized while others are not, compagnnonages of old would be strong in some towns while nonexistant in others. A main reason for this was the intense hatred between rival compagnnonages which caused the organizations to protect their jobs the way gangs protect their neighborhood. "To kill your peer, as long as he was not a member of your own little brotherhood, was not a crime but an act of courage "(Perdiguier, 138).

    Members paid dues to the organization just as today's workers sacrifice a portion of each paycheck to keep the union running. Additionally, compagnonnages would protect workers who went on strike just as unions do today. After several workers were imprisoned in 1827 for striking, which was illegal then, Perdiguier writes that members "had to come to their aid, just as we had done for our brothers in Blois, by collecting money in each city" (Perdiguier, 173).

    A second account of early unions comes to us from Martin Nadaud's "Memoirs of Leonard, a Former Mason's Assistant". Nadaud in his account speaks of the harsh laws directed against the forming of working class labor organizations and also of the importance of having such organizations. He mentions briefly a strike organized by construction workers in Paris in 1840. While the strike ultimately failed to bring workers higher wages, the subsequent founding of the Society of Construction Workers is a development worth noting. This forerunner to the union "has existed ever since and today, even as it pays out annual pensions to its elderly and faithful members" (Nadaud, 246). This loyalty to workers, even after they had grown too old to work, is representative of one of the functions of unions as we know them today.

    While labor organizations were outlawed and strict penal codes of the times allowed "the government to impose two years of prison on any worker who went on strike" (Nadaud, 244), the spirit of the union was very much alive in nineteenth century France. Then, as is the case now, labor organizations were usually painted in negative light by factory owners and their peers in government, as people out to cause trouble or start social revolution. Despite this negative image, unions from their origins were simply organizations of the working man for the working man, whether he be French or American.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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