Labor Relations During the Industrial Revolution in Europe

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Labor Relations

The Industrial Revolution changed the manner of production. It did away with the model that had existed in Europe for centuries and replaced it with a new one. Workers learned that their place in the scheme of industry was quite different from what it had been before.

In the past, work had been done at a slow pace and largely by hand, with tools that were not mechanized; for example, people had woven cloth on looms for centuries, but the weaving was done by hand. Items were produced one at a time, in much smaller quantities. The pressure to turn goods out ever-faster and make ever-higher profits was not there. Workers considered themselves artisans because of their level of individual effort and the unique qualities of their products.

With the arrival of the factories, all of this changed. The process of manufacturing changed so that dozens of workers labored together in the process. Goods were made as cheaply as possible. Taking time to make something perfect was discouraged because it was not cost-effective. The important thing was to produce great quantities of goods as quickly as possible.

Artisans rightly saw the Industrial Revolution as the end of their own era. At the same time, industrial workers felt that they were caught in a trap. The owners and managers were concerned mainly with the company’s profits. They had no incentive to establish safety regulations or to treat workers well, since this would cost time and money. Britain’s large working-class population meant that factory and mill hands could easily be replaced if they were injured or if they quit. Therefore, owners spent as little as possible on their workers and demanded as much as they could get away with. The modern concept of the weekend did not exist; the workweek lasted six days, with Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, being the only day of rest. A workday generally lasted from 6:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night, with perhaps twenty minutes for lunch. Women and children were hired in great numbers because they earned less than men, and since wages for all were kept at starvation levels, all members of the family had to contribute. Parents put their children out to work at age five or six.

Machinery was dangerous to operate at the best of times, and the long hours made for tired workers who were sometimes too exhausted to move as quickly and carefully as was necessary for safety. Many workers were severely injured by the machines they operated—in such cases, compensation depended entirely on the generosity of the owner. Workers were also exposed to dangerous levels of industrial pollution, constantly inhaling chemicals, smoke, and lint. Mine workers faced the worst danger of all, that of being buried alive if the under- ground tunnels collapsed.

Realizing that factory conditions were neither reasonably safe nor humane, and that an entire social underclass was being created, the government began to pay attention. Liberals provided undeniable evidence that the owners would not pay their workers fairly or provide decent working conditions unless they were forced. Government regulation of industry seemed to be the only way to guarantee that workers would be treated fairly.

Many politicians were influenced by the writings of two social and political thinkers: social reformer Jeremy Bentham and economic theorist John Stuart Mill. Both men argued that if one person’s situation was bad, the entire community was that much weaker; if one person’s situation improved, the entire community was that much stronger. Therefore, what was bad for one individual was automatically bad for everyone; conversely, the good of the individual would inevitably lead to the good of the community. According to Bentham and Mill, it was in everyone’s economic interest to treat others fairly and ethnically. This way of thinking suggested that owners and workers had a mutual interest in maintaining cordial relations: that a factory in which workers and owners were both content with their situation would be more profitable.

Eventually, workers realized that while one individual worker had no bar- gaining power, 150 workers together could shut down a factory simply by going on strike—walking off the job so that the factory would sit idle. Since workers were the means of production, the profits of the factory depended entirely on their labor. Once workers realized that together they were strong, trade unions began to arise. This did not happen until the last half of the nineteenth century.

Owners were bitterly opposed to trade unions. First, they believed that no one had any right to tell them how to run their own businesses. Second, they were well aware of the bargaining strength of united workers, and they were afraid of it. Owners usually argued that workers’ demands were too high. They painted a picture of union workers as lazy people who wanted a luxurious standard of living without effort. History shows that this picture is grossly distorted. Workers have always argued for reasonable hours, reasonable safety conditions, and wages that would allow them to support their families in reasonable com- fort. Of course, owners were prone to consider any decrease in their profits “unreasonable”—and higher wages, shorter hours, and improvements to lighting and safety came out of the profits.

Trade unions became legal in Britain in 1871, in France in 1884, and in Germany after 1890. They were generally organized by the type of skilled worker. With the coming of the twentieth century, unskilled workers began to form unions as well.

The Industrial Revolution changed the European economy. As the nations industrialized, their per capita income rose. In northern Europe, the average person quadrupled his or her income between 1830 and 1910; even in the Balkans, the least industrialized region of Europe, individual income more than doubled.

The Industrial Revolution also spurred a rise in international trade. The nineteenth century was a major period of expansion for several European nations, as they colonized Africa and built empires see Chapter 14. Imperialism had a twofold effect on the rise of industry. First, it created new markets for goods manufactured in Europe. Second, it provided industrial nations with new repositories of the natural resources that were necessary to keep their factories running.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Industrial Revolution in Europe Practice Test
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