European Strike Wave

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European Strike Wave

Europe 1865


The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the late 1700s, spread eastward across the European continent and into Russia by the late 1800s. Throughout the nineteenth century, almost every European country industrialized to some degree, and new and old industries passed through various stages of mass production. Products such as clothing, commodities, and food were being mass produced, and urban areas experienced large population gains. According to the census of 1851, for the first time in any large country, one-half of the people in England lived in cities.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, workers across Europe felt themselves ceding control of wages and working conditions to employers. In addition, semiskilled and unskilled workers who produced goods quickly were rapidly replacing the traditional craftsmen who, before the nineteenth century, had slowly and skillfully turned out individual articles. The working class was being redefined as industrialism increased its size. To combat the new power of industrial employers, employees turned to unions to engage in collective bargaining or, if that failed, to coordinate strikes and even violent protests. The Revolutions of 1848, which occurred throughout the European continent, voiced worker demands for political representation and freedom. The revolutions helped to consolidate support for the labor movement. Such was the situation when the high point of massive strikes hit Europe in 1865.


  • 1844: Samuel Laing, in a prize-winning essay on Britain's "National Distress," describes conditions in a nation convulsed by the early Industrial Revolution. A third of the population, according to Laing, "hover[s] on the verge of actual starvation"; another third is forced to labor in "crowded factories"; and only the top third "earn[s] high wages, amply sufficient to support them in respectability and comfort."
  • 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.
  • 1854: In the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act calls for decisions on the legality of slavery to be made through local votes. Instead of reducing divisions, this measure will result in widespread rioting and bloodshed and will only further hasten the looming conflict over slavery and states' rights.
  • 1857: Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company, begins. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1860: Louis Pasteur pioneers his method of "pasteurizing" milk by heating it to high temperatures in order to kill harmful microbes.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1864: International Red Cross in Geneva is established.
  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 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.
  • 1870: Franco-Prussian War begins. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 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

Although it is difficult to date the beginning of the European Industrial Revolution, historians generally agree that it originated in England in the late eighteenth century as a result of a number of technological and social reasons. One key reason was the increase in efficiency of food production that resulted from a series of laws that permitted lands once held by tenant farmers to be transferred to large, private farms worked by a smaller labor force. This action increased urban populations as peasants searched for new jobs. Another reason for industrialization was the control of the English Parliament by the merchants and capitalists and the resulting legislation that favored their interests. A third reason was the invention of the modern steam engine by James Watt, which for the first time made the factory system profitable.

Industrialization spread from Britain to western Europe, especially France, Germany, and Belgium, from the late eighteenth century into the first decades of the nineteenth century. The explosion of the factory-based, machine-driven manufacturers moved through the rest of Europe after 1830. These new industries transformed Europe's old class system into a new class order.

Class Order

Upper-middle class capitalists grew in strength as their wealth and the size of their manufacturing facilities increased. The middle-middle class grew in variety as new professionals, such as scientists and engineers, joined established professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. The lower-middle class also grew as the need increased for such workers as clerks and schoolteachers. The working class experienced the greatest growth, primarily in the numbers of factory workers but also of dock, municipal, and transportation workers. With rural peasants moving to urban areas, the soon-to-be-powerful working class eventually constituted more than 50 percent of the population.

Workers were affected at different times and places as mass production started in the English textile industry and spread to other industries and into eastern Europe. New industrial centers sprang up in such places as Lille, France; Wels, Austria; Barmen, Germany; and Lodz, Poland. The population of Lille, for example, grew from 59,000 in 1804 to 131,800 in 1860.

Industrial Labor and Working Conditions

In the first half of the nineteenth century, two types of workers dominated industrial labor: skilled artisans and craftsmen, and semiskilled and unskilled workers. The metallurgy, shipbuilding, and printing industries, to name a few, employed large numbers of skilled workers, whereas the textile, mining, and railway industries, as examples, employed mostly unskilled workers. However, innovations in many industries reduced the need for skilled workers, replacing then with semiskilled or unskilled workers, resulting in a reduction of the average wage paid per worker.

Whether skilled or unskilled, all workers had to contend with adverse working conditions. The workday was often as many as 16 to 18 hours and averaged 12 to 14 in the factories. The intensity of the work was another factor. The machine determined the pace of work, and even if the worker was not tied to a machine, the work was extremely monotonous and dangerous compared to preindustrial work.

Employers developed complex systems of penalties for dealing with employee discipline problems. Unlike the rural environments from which these workers had only recently come, work hours in the factories and industrial centers were fixed and controlled, independent of the weather, season, and time of day. Industrial discipline often came at the end of a pay period rather than when the infraction had allegedly occurred. Rules were often not published, giving the employer greater leeway when it came to deciding what was punishable. Being more than five minutes late could mean the loss of the entire day's wages. Fines could be levied even for speaking or singing. Any type of protest often led to immediate discharge.

Legislation of the period discriminated against laborers throughout Europe. British law favored employers over workers. For instance, the British Master and Servant Act made the servant (employee) liable to punishment under "criminal" law for breach of contract, whereas the master (employer) was liable only under "civil" law. Under the law, worker strikes were considered a breach of contract, and criminal law could be applied to the protester. In France and Belgium, civil law stated that in a labor dispute, the master was always believed over the employee. Employers often tied workers to the jobs with a livret (French for "booklet"). The livret was a little notebook in which the employer recorded employee financial obligations. Workers were obligated to continue employment until all obligations were met.

Early Worker Action

Industrialization created new, often bitter, disagreements in the workplace. The larger industrial setting made it apparent that ordinary workingmen no longer had the opportunity to become independent masters and had little chance to improve conditions. New forms of protest, particularly strikes and various political actions, developed as tools of the labor union. Skilled artisans were especially violent throughout this period, as their wages often did not keep pace with steeply rising prices. When machines began to replace human labor, workers reacted by destroying them. The British Parliament passed a law that allowed execution of anyone found guilty of destroying factories or machines. The violent mass action led to the execution of 18 workers from York, England, in 1813. The wave of violence spread to the mainland as uprisings occurred among Lyon, France, silk workers in 1831 and Silesian weavers in 1844. Eventually, protesters learned that it was more effective to attack capitalists with strikes rather than it was to destroy property.

The European transition to industrialism left individuals little recourse against employers. Unable to change repressive work conditions on an individual basis, workers formed labor organizations so as to stand together as a collective force against their powerful employers. Skilled craftsmen were the first to form unions and did so in reaction to rapid wage declines. The favorite tactic of early unions was collective bargaining enforced by strikes or the threat of strikes.

The early labor unions in Europe encountered resistance from employers and governments. In France, for example, the Chapelier Law of 1791 prohibited coalitions aimed at changes in labor conditions. In England, the British Anti-Combination Acts of 1799-1800 illegalized any organization that attempted to change labor conditions. For instance, groups of workers formed to improve wages or hours were considered unlawful conspiracies in restraint of trade. Similar restrictive labor laws were passed in other European countries, and by 1815 most labor organizations in western Europe had lost their legal right to exist.

When confronted with labor problems, employees could change jobs (some immigrated to the United States), petition the employer, or use violence. Such actions were rarely effective. If all else failed, employees occasionally tried to revive traditional workmen's organizations to regulate trade practices. This sometimes included organizing strikes. However, such actions were outlawed as a danger to authority. Suppression by officials sometimes resulted in local revolts. At the end of the eighteenth century (and for many years thereafter), workers had little recourse against employers.

By the end of the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815, between France and a number of European nations), a wave of labor unrest resulted in the repeal of the Combination Acts in Britain. As early as the 1820s, there were several attempts to unite trade associations. The first truly national craft organization was the Grand Union of Operative Spinners, founded in Britain in 1829 by John Doherty. In 1830 this group became the National Association for the Protection of Labor, which was the first such group to involve different trades. At its peak it possessed 100,000 members from among spinners, construction workers, and engineers. It lasted only a short time. Robert Owen, a self-made cotton mill owner, started the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which consisted of London craftsmen such as tailors and shoemakers. The organization was weakened by the actions of government officials and eventually dissolved into only a social body. Although these early labor organizations did not survive long, the ill feelings of employees toward employers persisted. These early attempts at labor organizations were short-lived, and employee dissatisfaction continued.

Unions on the European continent were even more repressed. Belgium enforced a ban on all unions and arrested nearly 1,600 workers between 1830 and 1860 and jailed more than half of them. Workers publicized their plight by whatever means they could. A wave of strike activity began in the early nineteenth century. After the worst of the postwar conditions were over, strikes hit England in 1818 and again in 1824 after the repeal of the Combination Acts. The working-class theories of Robert Owen and William King, founder of The Cooperator, helped stabilize the labor movement. In 1824 and 1825 some unions were legalized, but it remained illegal for them to act in any way to improve worker conditions. The British government responded to strikes by arresting strike leaders and reinstituting stronger anticoalition laws in 1834. Even so, local unions continued to organize into larger national unions, much under the direction of Doherty and Owen.

In the early 1830s European workers followed suit with strikes similar to those in Britain. By this time economic conditions in Europe were better, giving workers confidence that they could strike. However, unions did not gain a stronghold in Europe until the latter half of the nineteenth century, and only after unskilled workers joined skilled workers en masse within labor unions. Although generally peaceful during this period of time, strikes sometimes became violent.

In 1831 and 1834 the silk workers of Lyon, France held strikes that turned into uprisings. The local government had approved an illegal tariff list (a list of fees that a government would impose on goods) from the silk workers. Employers went to the national government to protest the action and had the list declared invalid. The workers responded with a strike that paralyzed the city for more than a week. Finally, the government called in 20,000 soldiers to restore order. Three years later, in response to a similar tariff list, workers struck again, creating a "battlefield" within the city with more than 200 casualties on both sides. The government's response was to enact strict anticoalition legislation. Workers continued to struggle for their rights, modeling their labor philosophy on such philosophers as François Noël Babeuf (insisting on the common ownership of land and total economic and political equality among citizens) and Louis Blanc (advocating associations of workers funded by the state and controlled by the workers).

Labor's struggle for recognition was fought as much with legislative measures as it was with strikes and revolts. The Mining Act of 1842, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the Ten Hour Bill in 1847 helped strengthen unions by providing a more democratic governing body within England. Despite limited advancements in labor legislation, English workers proved that the working class could force capitalists to grant concessions in wages and working conditions. The process was slow and cumbersome, especially given the fragmented nature of the labor movement, which usually performed its (illegal) duties in secrecy.

During this time, workers often protested with food riots, sabotaging of machines, and strikes, often all at once. Sabotage resulted from the fear that machines would eliminate jobs and corresponding job skills. Such sabotage became known as Luddism, after Ned Ludd, the leader of rural workers' actions in England. Workers destroyed thousands of power looms in Manchester in the 1820s for that reason. On the mainland, Belgian coal potters destroyed a railway line in 1829 in the Grand Hornu mine, and Parisian printers destroyed mechanical presses in 1830. Thousands of people sabotaged equipment in cities across the European continent.

Gradual Social Reform

In the 1830s and 1840s social reformers argued for laws to relieve the negative impact of industrialization on workers. Official investigations and private surveys investigated workers' health, housing, and labor conditions. England passed a law requiring government factory inspectors in 1833. France enacted a child-labor law in 1841 that prohibited night work for children and factory work for children under the age of eight years, and Austria followed with a similar law the next year. The birth of a "social consciousness" began in Europe at this time. Governments slowly lifted barriers to unions. Resistance from employers, however, made many early labor laws and unions ineffective and ultimately fueled revolutionary movements in Europe. German political philosopher Karl Marx, for example, argued that the exploitation of labor would eventually lead the working classes to overthrow their governments and set up a classless society of shared resources.

One of the largest labor movements in the late 1830s and 1840s was Chartism, which aimed at general suffrage. It began as a "charter" consisting of numerous demands relating to suffrage rights, such as the secret ballot and payments to members of Parliament. By 1839 two million people had signed a petition for enactment of its demands. Rejection of the petition resulted in strikes and riots. Although the Chartist movement failed, the idea that working people had certain fundamental rights was beginning to be broadly accepted in society.

Revolutions of 1848

Legal attempts at economic and political change were defeated during the economic crisis of 1847. The reaction was the European Revolutions of 1848, a series of violent and generally illegal uprisings throughout the continent. Workers and peasants who revolted against developing capitalist practices (which often resulted in greater poverty) began the labor revolutions. Almost all workers, except those from England and Russia, participated in the revolutions, which demanded self-determination from the political and business organizations that dominated them. In France, the revolutions resulted in the abolition of the Chapelier Law, and the French government incorporated labor representatives within its legislative body, created national workshops for the unemployed, and established the Commission du Luxembourg, an agency for social affairs. New trade associations possessed the ability to bargain collectively, hold mass demonstrations, and set labor tariffs.

After a few months, however, the government reversed these labor measures, which immediately caused a protest involving more than 100,000 Parisian workers. The French army eventually restored order, but only after 1,500 casualties and more than 3,500 people were deported to Algeria. Other such revolutions occurred in large cities throughout Europe, such as Berlin and Vienna. Little advancement in labor reform resulted from such actions. The revolutions did, however, frighten the people in power about the growing dangers of the working class, which suffered after many of its leaders were executed, imprisoned, or exiled. Only in England were trade unions allowed to continue to organize. In continental Europe labor reform was effectively eliminated for the time being. However, the revolutions influenced the future course of European government by popularizing liberalism and socialism and rejecting the concept of absolute monarchy.

Economic Advancements During the 1850s and 1860s

Compared to the first half of the century, the 1850s and 1860s were relatively prosperous throughout Europe. Factories increased in size, especially within the metal industries, as railways spread across the continent. As technology advanced, the demand for more semiskilled and unskilled laborers increased. New unions formed in response to the larger, more sophisticated management structures.

The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was one of the first of the new unions based on a strong internal organization, elected and paid administrators, and the use of the strike as a means of last resort. It was formed in 1851 from a group of older local unions and, with 12,000 members, soon became England's largest union. As new English unions formed, employers also started to organize to bargain more effectively with the unions or to fight them when bargaining failed. One important strike was the London Building Workers' strike of 1859, in which employers reacted with lockouts and the suspension of the right to combine on their premises. The strike ended nine months later when a newly passed law guaranteed the right of workers to combine.

The new British unions and the 1848 revolutions influenced labor across the European continent. After loosening traditional ties with the Catholic Church, the French adopted new forms of socialist thought. Two of the more important French movements were the Proudhonism movement—led by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who supported voluntary cooperatives—and the Blanquism movement—named after Louis-Auguste Blanqui, who supported revolutionary-type worker actions. In 1857 and 1858 a wave of strikes were held to protest wage cuts. Strike frequency increased even more after 1864 as mutual aid societies vigorously pursued union goals. They were called Chambres Syndicales (or trade union rooms), after existing local employers' clubs.

In Germany the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (or General German Worker Association) was organized for the purpose of universal and equal suffrage; the Hirsch-Duncker unions (named after Max Hirsch and Franz Duncker) promoted peaceful cooperation of labor and capital; and the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (or Social-Democratic Labor Party) advocated for universal and equal voting rights. Each group supported the large number of strikes that occurred particularly during 1864-1865.

In other European countries, worker organizations took the form of mutual aid societies, cooperatives, educational societies, and a few trade unions. Most of the organizations, unlike their older counterparts such as guilds and journeymen's organizations, had a liberal outlook and sought out many different types of workers. By 1862 Great Britain had legalized unions so as to encourage peaceful labor relations. By the middle of the 1860s, many regions in Europe were proceeding toward legalizing unions. National unions were founded in Switzerland in 1858, Holland in 1866, and Belgium in 1867, after having organized construction workers, cigar makers, hatters and others.

Miners were relatively slow to organize. They realized the importance of unions and beginning in 1869 held a number of strikes and revolts that affected mining centers and industrial towns in France, Germany, Italy, and the Czech and Austrian parts of the Austrian Empire. A miners' strike, for instance, near Saint-Etienne, France, over control of worker insurance funds resulted in much violence. Thirteen people were killed in what came to be known as the "massacre de La Ricamarie." In Waldenburg, Germany, fighting broke out over the recognition of the Hirsch-Duncker miners' unions; in Belgium heavy fighting between the police and rioting Charleroi miners (who were protesting wage reductions) caused six casualties in 1868.

International Workers Association

In September 1864 an organizing group met in St. Martin's Hall in London, England. The meeting helped to increase international contacts between union leaders and revolutionaries. The International Workers Association was founded as a consulting congress based on the agenda established at the 1862 London Exhibition. At the 1862 meeting, French and British workers met with Karl Marx, who called for international worker unity as stated in his Communist Manifesto (1848): "Working Men of all Countries, Unite!" As a result, member organizations of the International Workers Association actively initiated strikes throughout the continent. In addition, the International helped to increase international labor contacts, resulting in the spread of a united working-class struggle. Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin led protest movements, especially in Spain and Italy, as groups such as the construction workers and cigar makers fought for worker rights during these positive economic times.

High Point in 1865

This period of union activity, strikes, and uprisings, which peaked in 1865, provided high hopes and great expectations for the future of unions in Europe. The mid-1860s became a formative time for the working class. Unskilled and semiskilled workers began to see that they could be better off working in factories, but they quickly realized that in order to substantially raise their standard of living they needed the unions to represent their interests. Changes in work habits and corresponding changes in home life and religious practices brought about by industrialization were gradually accepted. The time surrounding 1865 also demonstrated the overall weakness of unionism on the continent and the failure of its political activities. This contrasted with the relative strength of unions in England, which used labor campaigns to influence Parliament. British unions had been officially recognized, had campaigned successfully against inequality in legislation and for some social reforms, and had secured a strong national organization. None of these accomplishments had yet to be realized on the European continent. However, inspired by British labor successes, continental unionism continued the successful, although sometimes slow, route to labor recognition by governments and capitalists alike.

By about 1870 the character of industrial society began to noticeably change in western and central Europe (change in eastern Europe was still a long way off). Workers could afford better housing and food. They generally benefited from the ability to obtain more and better material goods. Legislation began to improve the safety and health conditions within factories for the benefit of workers. In fact, the early 1870s in Europe could be likened to the condition of the United States in the early years of the 1800s. Workers continued to demand better working conditions, especially at times of rising or stagnant wages. Although strikes continued (now under a much more educated and knowledgeable workforce), the union-led strike waves of the preceding 40 years had established a new working class in Europe and forever changed the face of working conditions on the European continent.

Key Players

Doherty, John (1797-1854): Doherty moved to Manchester in1816 and found work as a cotton worker. He led a successful strike of the cotton spinners in 1829. In 1830 Doherty helped found the National Association for the Protection of Labor. He was the editor of the organization's journal, The Voice of the People.

Owen, Robert (1771-1858): Owen was a Welsh industrialist and utopian social reformer. Owen has been called the "Father of English Socialism." He formed a model cotton factory community at New Lanark, Scotland, and pioneered cooperative societies. He later made unsuccessful attempts to establish similar settlements at New Harmony, Indiana (1825), and Harmony Hall, Hampshire, in England (1844). He published books including the New View of Society(1813). Owens helped to develop early factory legislation, the cooperative movement, and the establishment of infant schools.

See also: Amalgamated Society of Engineers; Chartist Movement; Combination Acts; June Days Rebellion; Luddites Destroy Woolen Machines; Owen Model Communities; Repeal of Combination Acts; Revolutions in Europe; Silk Workers' Revolts; Weavers' Revolts.



Anderson, Eugene, and Pauline R. Anderson. Political Institutions and Social Change in Continental Europe in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Fay, Charles R. Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century.Cambridge, UK: The University Press, 1947.

Hoerder, Dirk, ed. Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies: The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization.Contributions in Labor History, No. 16. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Sheehan, James J., ed. Industrialization and Industrial Labor in Nineteenth-century Europe. Major Issues in History. New York: Wiley, 1973.

Stearns, Peter N. European Society in Upheaval. London:Macmillan, 1967.

—William Arthur Atkins

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