Bans on Labor Unions Lifted

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Bans on Labor Unions Lifted

Germany 1861-1869


Between 1861 and 1869 legislation banning trade unions was revised in parts of the German Federation. This process of reform culminated in the 1869 Gewerbeordnung, or industrial code, of the North German Federation, which made trade unions legal throughout most of the German states. This occurred as part of a wave of liberal measures in the German region during the 1860s that granted a variety of political and economic freedoms. Progressive liberals supported the workers' right to organize as part of this wider program of liberal economic reform. They also wished to gain the support of the workers for the liberal cause. However, this aim was not successful, as workers moved away from liberal workers' associations to form independent, working-class political parties. From the mid-1860s unions were formed in many different trades, as workers grasped the opportunity to press their collective demands for better wages and working conditions.


  • 1851: Britain's Amalgamated Society of Engineers applies innovative organizational concepts, including large contributions from, and benefits to, members, as well as vigorous use of direct action and collective bargaining.
  • 1856: Gustave Flaubert publishes Madame Bovary.
  • 1861: Emancipation of the serfs occurs in Russia.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1863: U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate territories, on 1 January. Thus begins a year that sees the turning point of the American Civil War, with decisive Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Thereafter, the Confederacy is almost perpetually on the defensive, fighting not to win, but to avoid losing.
  • 1865: British surgeon Joseph Lister pioneers the use of antiseptic methods in surgery.
  • 1866: Austrian monk Gregor Mendel presents his theories on the laws of heredity. Though his ideas will be forgotten for a time, they are destined to exert enormous influence on biological study in the twentieth century.
  • 1866: Prussia defeats Austria in the Seven Weeks' War. In the next year, the dual monarchy is established in Austria-Hungary.
  • 1867: Meiji Restoration in Japan ends 675 years of rule by the shoguns.
  • 1870: The Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1871: Franco-Prussian War ends with France's surrender of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, which proclaims itself an empire under Prussian king Wilhelm, crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I.
  • 1873: The gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and eventually taken on by all major nations, spreads to Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. Though the United States does not officially base the value of its currency on gold until 1900, an unofficial gold standard dates from this period, even as a debate over "bimetallism" creates sharp divisions in American politics.

Event and Its Context

Organization and Repression

In the first half of the nineteenth century, authoritarian governments repressed workers' organizations. In 1794, 1798, and 1816, legislation was passed banning workers from organizing in pursuit of their collective economic interest. The Prussian Gewerbeordnung of 1845 prohibited organization among employers or employees and prevented workers from discussing, threatening, or engaging in strike activity. With the 1848 revolution, workers' organizations were briefly tolerated, but from 1849 workers were again being arrested under antiunion laws. In addition to specific antiunion legislation, general laws limited freedom of assembly, organization, and expression. In 1850 the Prussian government passed laws placing tight restrictions on any organizations concerned with public affairs. These could only be established after receiving approval from local police or higher authorities.

Despite these restrictive measures, workers' organizations did exist in the first half of the nineteenth century. Journeymen's brotherhoods, which had traditionally provided traveling journeymen with work and support and had organized strikes, survived into the nineteenth century, although in restricted forms. These provided the basis for the first mass movement of German workers, the Workers' Brotherhood, founded by the journeyman Stefan Born during the 1848 revolution. The first national trade unions were also formed in 1848—the National Printers Association in June and the Association of German Cigar Workers in September. However, with the period of reaction that set in after the defeat of the revolution, independent workers' organizations in the 1850s were repressed, and the trade unions were dissolved. Nevertheless, some forms of labor organization did continue. Cooperative schemes were popular among artisans, and journeymen's organizations existed in many crafts, mainly to provide insurance benefits and other services.

The "New Era"

In the late 1850s a change occurred in the political climate of the region. In most of the German states, the liberal movement underwent a resurgence in response to a relaxation of repression. In Prussia the appointment of Prince Wilhelm as regent in 1858 seemed to offer the promise of progress on issues of political and economic reform, and the revival of political activity across the whole region inaugurated the beginning of a "New Era." The liberal movement was mainly concerned with national unification and the establishment of political and economic freedoms. The workers' right to organize was a part of this process of economic liberalization. While many were opposed to the idea of workers' trade unions, some left-leaning liberals argued in favor of workers' organizations for a variety of reasons. The progressive liberal Hermann Schulze-Delitzch was a strong advocate of workers' cooperatives, and he supported their right to form trade unions. While he did not believe that trade unions could provide any positive economic benefits to workers, he recognized the right of workers to form unions. Schulze-Delitzch believed that the success of liberalism lay in attracting the support of the workers. He was willing to support worker demands to form trade unions in order to win them to the liberal cause. Other liberals argued that trade unions were compatible with a free-market economy and saw them as a way to integrate workers into the existing social and economic system. With this aim in mind, a group of trade unions modeled upon the English example was set up under the patronage of the liberal Progress Party. The Hirsch-Dunck unions, named after their liberal founders, even took part in strikes in 1869-1870.

The Social Democrats

The support of some liberals for trade unions was in contrast to the attitude of the founder of the first independent workers' political party in Germany. The resurgence in political activity had led to the establishment of liberal-led workers' educational associations. However, many workers were dissatisfied with their treatment within these liberal organizations. They found the middle-class sponsors to be condescending, patronizing, and divorced from the concerns of the workers. Most liberals appeared to have no interest in tackling the social problems caused by Germany's rapid industrialization in the 1850s and 1860s. One who rejected alliance with the liberals was Ferdinand Lassalle, who established the General Association of German Working Men (ADAV) in 1863. Lassalle subscribed to the "iron law of wages," which held that the laws of supply and demand prevented workers' wages from ever rising above subsistence levels. The only way to improve the material condition of the workers was through state-initiated, cooperative associations. Therefore, the state had to be captured by the workers through democratic reform and political activity. Lassalle believed trade union activity was completely ineffectual in improving the workers' lot. However, due to the workers' interest in forming trade unions, Lassalle's successor, Johann Baptist von Schweitzer, was more willing to accept them, as long as the ADAV could control them and use them as an opportunity to recruit new members.

In contrast to Lassalle, other strands of socialist thought attached more significance to trade unions. In several of his writings, Karl Marx argued that the trade unions had an important role to play in political revolution. They contributed to the creation of class consciousness among the workers and helped their preparation for the final confrontation with the capitalist system. The International Workingmen's Association, established in London in 1865, regarded trade unions as the basis of the Socialist Party's organization. However, it was clear that trade union activity should be a means to an end—the eventual overthrow of capitalism—rather than an end in itself. The Social Democratic Workers Party was set up by August Bebel and Karl Liebknecht in 1869, in opposition to the ADAV. It allowed the fledgling trade union movement a great deal more autonomy than the ADAV. However, tension between trade unions and socialist political parties was inevitable, given that the unions focused on reform within the existing system, whereas socialism had revolution as its ultimate goal.

Legislative Reform

Against this background of liberal activity and the emergence of a working-class political movement, bans on trade unions were lifted in some German states as part of a raft of liberal economic reforms. Saxony removed the ban on coalitions in 1861, as part of a broader legislative package concerned with economic freedoms. Weimar followed with its own reforms in 1863. The process culminated with the Gewerbeordnung of the North German Confederation in 1869. Article 152 of the trade regulations lifted "all prohibitions and penal sanctions against tradesmen, trainees, journeymen and factory hands for concluding agreements or forming associations for the purpose of obtaining improved wages or working conditions." However, the right to form trade unions was not given without strict limits. Article 153 added that "anyone who by the use of physical force, threats, insults or slander compels or seeks to compel others to subscribe to such agreements, shall be liable to three months imprisonment." The wide interpretation of this article made recruiting or picketing very difficult for the unions. In addition, the general laws restricting freedom of association remained unchanged and served as the basis for continued harassment of trade unions after the 1869 reform. In particular, laws prohibiting unions from becoming involved in politics made the relationship between the trade unions and the socialist political parties very sensitive.

The Birth of the Trade Union Movement

As a result of what one historian has termed a legislative revolution from above, workers now had the right to organize to pursue their collective economic interests. In the atmosphere of liberalization, laws against coalitions of workers were applied less stringently, and trade unions were organized even before the bans were lifted. The first to be formed were the General German Cigar Workers Association in 1865 and the German Printers Union in 1866, the same occupational groups who had organized in the 1848 revolution, indicating a degree of continuity between the two periods. As in 1848, the first workers to become unionized in the 1860s tended to be journeymen artisans and skilled workers, rather than unskilled factory workers. This suggests that the craft-based traditions of labor unrest and resistance were important in the development of the modern trade union movement. However, much was new about the labor movement of the 1860s. The confrontation between employers and workers was much more antagonistic in this era than had been the case earlier. Cooperation across skill and craft lines had increased, and industrial action focused upon pay rates and working conditions, rather than the defense of traditional craft customs or rights.

The major result of the lifting of bans on workers' unions was an increase in strike activity. Germany experienced a strike wave in the late 1860s and early 1870s, as the relaxation of laws and favorable economic conditions offered workers a chance to gain concessions from employers. Strikes and trade unions had a symbiotic relationship. Strikes often followed the formation of a trade union within a particular occupation. However, trade unions could also be formed when the experience of a strike encouraged the development of more permanent forms of organization. For example, the 1865 Threepenny Strike in Leipzig over piece-rates led to the formation of the Printers Union. This rise in industrial militancy alienated many liberals, and after the 1860s, a liberal-labor alliance in Germany was impossible, given the deep mistrust and suspicion on both sides.

Key Players

Lassalle, Ferdinand (1825-1864): One of the founders of the German labor movement, Lassalle was opposed to a liberal-labor alliance, due to his mistrust of the middle class, and founded the first workers' political party in Germany. Lassalle was also opposed to trade unionism, as he believed trade unions could not improve conditions for the workers, due to the "iron law of wages." This helped to complicate the relationship between the emerging trade unions and the socialist political parties in Germany.

Schulze-Delitzsch, Hermann (1808-1883): Prussian liberal parliamentarian and social reformer, Schulze-Delitzsch was committed to the alliance of liberalism and labor in Germany in the 1860s. With this aim in mind, he was a key proponent of the right of workers to form trade unions.

Wilhelm I (1797-1888): King of Prussia and later, Emperor of Germany, Wilhelm was appointed as Regent in 1858, due to the mental illness of his brother, Friederich Wilhelm IV, an event that excited liberal hopes of political and economic reform. The resulting resurgence in political activity in the late 1850s and 1860s was the impetus for the lifting of the ban on trade unions in many of the German states.

See also: First International; Revolutions in Europe.



Berger, Stefan. Social Democracy and the Working Class in Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Germany. New York: Longman, 1999.

Breuilly, John. Labour and Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Essays in Comparative History. New York: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Kocka, Jurgen. "Craft Traditions and the Labour Movement in Nineteenth Century Germany." In The Power of the Past: Essays for Eric Hobshawm. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Moses, John A. Trade Unionism in Germany from Bismarck to Hitler 1869-1933. Vol. 1: 1869-1918. London: George Prior Publishers, 1982.

Schneider, Michael. A Brief History of the German Trade Unions. Bonn, Germany: J.H.W. Dietz, 1991.

Sheehan, James J. German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Additional Resources


Grebing, Helga. History of the German Labour Movement. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire: Berg Publishers, 1985.

Miller, Susanne, and Heinrich Potthoff. A History of German Social Democracy from 1848 to the Present. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire: Berg Publishers, 1986.

Sheehan, James J. German History, 1770-1866. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989.

—Katrina Ford