Strikes of Journeymen and Workers

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Strikes of Journeymen and Workers

France 1840


During the summer of 1840, strike waves brought industry in Paris to a standstill. Tens of thousands of workers from across the trades were involved at the height of the strikes in late August and early September. The strikers demanded higher wages and better working conditions. Profound changes had occurred in the way work was organized, adversely affecting the Parisian artisans. In response, the journeymen of Paris organized to protect their livelihood. In terms of what concessions the workers gained from employers, the strikes were a failure. Strikes were illegal under laws against coalitions of workers, and the army was brought in. The government did not deal with the strikers' grievances. However, the strikes did have some far-reaching consequences. The harsh repression further alienated the workers from a regime that seemed more interested in the protection of capital than the rights of labor. The strikes also encouraged workers from different trades to recognize their common grievances. The failure of the strike led people to seek alternative ways to address the problems of wages and working conditions. This was the beginning of a decade of labor organization and activity leading up to the 1848 revolution.


  • 1815: Napoleon returns from Elba, and his supporters attempt to restore him as French ruler, but just three months later, forces led by the Duke of Wellington defeat his armies at Waterloo. Napoleon spends the remainder of his days as a prisoner on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic.
  • 1824: French engineer Sadi Carnot describes a perfect engine: one in which all energy input is converted to energy output. The ideas in his Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire will influence the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which shows that such a perfect engine is an impossibility.
  • 1826: French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce makes the first photographic image in history.
  • 1830: French troops invade Algeria, and at home, a revolution forces the abdication of Charles V in favor of Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King."
  • 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.
  • 1837: Coronation of Queen Victoria in England.
  • 1838: As crops fail, spawning famine in Ireland, Britain imposes the Poor Law. Designed to discourage the indigent from seeking public assistance, the law makes labor in the workhouse worse than any work to be found on the outside, and thus has the effect of stimulating emigration.
  • 1839: Invention of the bicycle in Scotland.
  • 1843: First known reference to cigarettes, in a list of products controlled by a French monopoly.
  • 1844: Exiled to Paris, Karl Marx meets Friedrich Engels.
  • 1845: From Ireland to Russia, famine plagues Europe, killing some 2.5 million people.
  • 1852: France's Second Republic ends when Louis Napoleon declares himself Napoleon III, initiating the Second Empire.

Event and Its Context

The Problems of Labor

Several decades of economic and political change lay behind the 1840 strikes. The majority of workers in France for most of the nineteenth century did not work in large factories but in small workshops, usually with only a few employees. However, processes associated with industrialization and modernization still adversely affected these workers. Prior to the nineteenth century, trade corporations or guilds had controlled each trade with regulations about production. Conflict between journeymen and the masters who employed them was not unusual, but there was a sense that everyone had the interests of the trade as a whole in mind. Work took place within the context of a trade community, rather than as separate individuals in a free labor market.

However, one of the most important effects of the French Revolution was the abolition of the corporate organizations. The corporations no longer had any legal basis for the control of the trades, and anyone could practice whatever trade they liked, with no restraint on how they organized their work. Most artisans continued to practice their trade much as they had before. Nevertheless, gradual transformations did occur. These changes were particularly significant in the tailoring trades. Some entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to increase production by making changes to the way work was organized. By cutting the process of making a garment into a series of separate simple tasks, they were able to decrease the level of skills required. This division of labor meant that they could employ more unskilled workers, often women and children, and pay them much less than a skilled journeyman tailor. Other innovations in the organization of work, such as subcontracting, putting-out work, and piecework all became more common and drove down the cost of labor. The main impetus behind these changes was the development of confection, or ready-to-wear clothing. Previously, most tailoring was bespoke, or made-to-order. However, ready-to-wear clothing boomed in the early nineteenth century, until by 1848 it accounted for 40 percent of the clothing market in Paris. Aimed at the lower-middle-class market, the emphasis was upon quantity rather than quality, which encouraged an increased division of labor and standardized production.

Inevitably, these changes had an impact across the whole trade. Large numbers of low-skilled, poorly paid workers caused wages to fall. Master tailors dropped their prices to compete with the larger operations and therefore pushed their labor costs as low as possible. Inevitably, this caused conflict with the journeymen they employed. More work was required to maintain standards of living, and the working day lengthened. Work became more irregular and uncertain as merchants got rid of workers or stopped ordering from subcontractors during the slow months. Overall, the picture in the tailoring trade was one of declining work standards, declining standards of living, and declining control. Many journeymen and masters lost the battle to survive as independent artisans and were forced into the ranks of the unskilled workers. Most found that the skills on which their identity and dignity rested had declining value in a free labor market. These changes were mirrored in many other trades, as artisans struggled to maintain their status as skilled, independent craftsmen.

With the July Revolution in 1830, many workers hoped that their grievances would be addressed by the new regime. However, it quickly became apparent that the new regime was not sympathetic to their problems. The government made it clear that in matters of industrial disputes, it was not going to intervene to introduce regulations in support of the artisans' demands. In response to strike waves and labor unrest in the early 1830s, repressive laws were passed in 1834, which made any gathering exceeding 20 people potentially illegal. This buttressed existing laws that declared strikes and most kinds of workers organizations illegal. However, workers' organizations did exist, and in fact multiplied during the 1830s and 1840s. Secret journeymen societies, known as compagnonnoges, survived from the eighteenth century. Mutual aid societies for workers also developed in this period. Ostensibly, these were for the arrangement of workers' insurance against sickness and death. However, they also organized strikes and collected funds for the support of strikers and their families. In defiance of the state, workers organized in an attempt to defend themselves against what they perceived as unjust work practices.

The 1840 Strikes

Since the strike waves of the early 1830s, there had been relative calm. However, a number of factors conspired to cause upheaval in 1840. The political situation was particularly unstable at this time, with the government in the throes of an extended ministerial crisis. France also came dangerously close to war with England in 1840, owing to disputes over foreign policy issues in the Middle East. Taking advantage of this uncertainty, the republican movement began a campaign of banquets during the summer of 1840, organizing meetings where speakers called for universal suffrage and the organization of labor. Along with this political uncertainty and activity, economic factors were also crucial. The period 1837-1839 was characterized by an economic downturn, which had resulted in high unemployment and high food prices in Paris. However, a good harvest in the spring of 1840 had eased the economic situation, and a slight recovery occurred. Since workers had more bargaining power with employers during periods of recovery, the strike wave began at this point.

The strikes began in March, when journeymen tailors placed an interdict on several masters. This was a traditional tactic designed to control pay rates by threatening to cut off a master's supply of skilled workers. They were led by the journeyman tailor Andre Troncin, who had connections to the republican movement. In response to the journeymen's demands, the masters went to the Parisian authorities and gained permission to impose the livret upon the journeymen tailors. The was a notebook each worker had to carry that listed his work history, including any record of striking or other labor agitation. It effectively blacklisted any worker involved in strikes. Traditionally, the livret had not been used in the tailoring trade, and by imposing it on the journeymen, the masters were attempting to prevent their protest. Starting from 1 July 1840, all journeymen tailors were to carry the livret or risk arrest.

Workingmen of all trades had a common grievance against the livret, and this issue was crucial in spreading the strike movement to other trades. A "communist" banquet, held on 1 July 1840, was significant in bringing together workers from various trades and contributing to the growth of a broad strike movement. Throughout July the strike wave continued to spread across the trades. Martin Nadaud, a building mason involved in organizing the strike in the building trade, described the builder's program as simple: to increase daily wages, eliminate overtime, and abolish supplementary tasks that might be forced upon workers by their employers. The strike wave reached its peak at the beginning of September. Estimates of the numbers of workers involved range from 30,000 to 100,000, but there is no doubt that most of the Parisian trades were affected, and industry in the city was brought to a halt. The strikers organized street demonstrations and mass meetings, and there were reports of intimidation and violence against strikebreakers. Workingmen's groups, supported by donations from workers outside Paris, organized kitchens to feed the strikers and their families.

At this point the state stepped in to restore order. The strikers' demands were focused on economic grievances. However, the government feared that the republican movement would exploit the situation to further its own political agenda. Therefore, the army was brought in to repress the strikes. Hundreds of arrests were made, and there were violent street clashes. By 10 September 1840 the strikes were effectively over. The government blamed the strikes on foreign agents, provocateurs, republicans, and Bonapartists and ignored the legitimate grievances that workers had regarding conditions in the trades. Several of the leaders received prison terms; Andre Troncin was sentenced to five years in prison for his part in leading the tailors' strikes. The strikes were a failure in that the workers did not gain any concessions from their employers or recognition from the state.


However, the experience of the strikes certainly had an influence on the attitudes of the workers. The government's actions in using troops to repress the strikes further alienated the workers from the regime. In his account of the aftermath of the repression, Martin Nadaud comments on the bitterness felt by many working people and their antipathy towards the government for its insensitivity towards their grievances. The experience sharpened the workers' sense of the role that the state played in supporting and encouraging the industrial changes that were adversely affecting them. Because of these events and realizations, many workers understood that merely striking for better wages and conditions would be futile. The masters who directly employed them were often victims of the same processes of change and could do little to improve what they offered their workers. What was required was a reorganization of production to protect the livelihood of the workers. From 1840 forward, a variety of socialist ideas about producers' associations, the joint ownership of the means of production, and the reorganization of work became more widely discussed among Parisian workers. The strikes also contributed to a burgeoning sense of class consciousness, because they encouraged workers to see beyond narrow trade concerns and recognize their common experience of exploitation. Therefore, the failure of the strikes contributed to a general radicalization of French workers during the 1840s leading up to the 1848 revolution.

Key Players

Nadaud, Martin (1815-1898): Parisian building mason involved in organizing the strikes in the building trade in Paris in 1840. Nadaud's memoirs outline the working conditions for members of the building trade in the 1830s and 1840s and indicate the bitterness caused by the government's harsh repression of the strikes.

Troncin, Andre (1802-1846): Parisian journeyman tailor.Troncin had been involved in the strike movement of the early 1830s and was connected to the republican movement. He was one of the leaders of the tailoring strikes in 1840, which sparked the strike wave. Troncin was imprisoned for five years for his role in the strikes and died soon after his release from prison.

See also: June Days Rebellion; Revolutions in Europe.



Aguet, Jean Pierre. Les Grè ves Sous La Monarchie de Juillet1830-1847. Geneva, Switzerland: Librarie E. Doz, 1954.

Johnson, Christopher H. "Economic Change and Artisan Discontent: The Tailors' History 1800-1848." In Revolution and Reaction: 1848 and the Second French Republic, edited by Roger Price. London, England: Croom Helm, 1975.

Magraw, Roger. A History of the French Working Class. Vol. 2, The Age of Artisan Revolution, 1815-1871. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Sewell, William Hamilton. Work and Revolution in France:The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Shorter, Edward, and Charles Tilly. Strikes in France,1830-1968. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Mark Traugott, ed. The French Worker. Autobiographies from the Early Industrial Era. Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1993.

Additional Resources

Berenson, Edward. Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France 1830-1852. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Judt, Tony. Marxism and the French Left: Studies in Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Magraw, Roger. France, 1815-1914: The Bourgeois Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Moss, Bernard H. "Parisian Producers' Associations (1830-1851): The Socialism of Skilled Workers." In Revolution and Reaction: 1848 and the Second French Republic, edited by Roger Price. London, England: Croom Helm, 1975.

—Katrina Ford