1860s and 1870s: wage cuts in Victorian Britain & how we responded
It would be unfair to say that the British Trades Union Congress is unaware of labour and trade union history. Aside from the annual Tolpuddle Festival and the Durham Miners Gala it also has a library at London Met University and from time to time marks significant labour movement related historical events.
Even so labour history is not something that features that often in the day to day utterances of union leaders.
Full marks then to the research that has been done ahead of the Britain Needs A Pay Rise demonstration in London on October 18th looking at the history of capitalist crisis and falls in wage levels since Victorian times
The conclusion is that the current period of recession and reductions in wage levels is the deepest since the early capitalist crisis of 1865-67 which lasted only two years and the longest since that of 1874-8 which lasted 3 years less than the current fall in real wage levels.
As Eric Hobsbawm’s timeline in Age of Capital underlines, the first great depression started from 1873, when he begins his Age of Empire volume and went on into the 1890s. The deepest impact was in the first few years.
The point of the crisis from the early 1870s was not only that it was a worldwide crisis but that it shook the confidence of the ruling class that their system was built to last.
What is presented in the TUC research however is economic history and there is more to history than economics.
The context of the 1865-7 crisis is an interesting one.
It was immediately before the foundation of the TUC itself, and it started just after the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 which successfully raised the horizon of some English trade union leaders beyond a largely parochial level.
Karl Marx who had been drafted in to write the opening address of the International, in 1865 published a pamphlet, Wages, Prices and Profit.
If you haven’t read it, it remains freely available on the interweb and contains important arguments which relate directly to the TUC march on October 18th.
Marx had taken issue with a socialist follower of Robert Owen on the International, Weston, who had argued that trade unions could not have any impact on the level of wages and that even an attempt to do so was harmful. Weston had little support for his points but even so Marx took them and showed the importance of trade union agitation.
Weston thought, like Jeremy Hunt on the current NHS wages bill, that the amount of wages available in society was a fixed amount. Marx demonstrated that this was not so. Hence pay rises in real terms were a perfectly achievable aim within the existing system.
The pamphlet was no doubt a distraction from what Marx was meant to be doing in 1865 which was finishing Capital Volume One. This eventually appeared in 1867 and demonstrated, amongst other things, that the crisis of 1865-7 was not a one off event but something that was endemic to the structure of capitalism itself.
The crisis had a political impact too. Trade union organisation and agitation had revived in the years before 1865-7 and the wage falls of that period provided a focus on the need to change the world as it was. The First International was part of that as was the Reform League, a campaigning body of trade unionists and middle class radicals pushing for an extension of the vote and Parliamentary representation.
That led to the 1867 Reform Act which did indeed extend the Suffrage- a bit- but extended labour representation in Parliament hardly at all.
Despite the depression of the 1870s the growth of trade union organisation continued- though it was no doubt often a very hard slog indeed the impetus to organise was there and the pressure of that was felt. A new Factory Act in 1878 consolidated previous measures and restrictions on child labour in particular.
The wider context of the 1865-7 crisis, the 1874-8 depression and the fall in wages that accompanied them is perhaps something worth discussing over a beverage after the TUC demonstration on October 18th.
Historically wage cuts have been tough for those in employment but they have sparked both political responses and increased union organisation. Maybe 18th October will do the same.