Labor History: Strikes and Unions

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Michael P. Hanagan

Labor history studies the history of class relationships in societies where wage labor predominates. It is inevitably bound up with strikes, the major forms of wage-labor protest, and trade unions, the major organizations for mobilizing wage laborers. One scholar noted, "Strikes and unions appear to be the only universal characteristics of industrial societies" (Roberto Franzosi, unpublished paper, 1992).


Labor history has flourished in countries with some perceived anomaly in labor movement development requiring explanation. For a long time most scholars viewed labor movement growth as following a necessary path of development from the foundation of the first local trade unions to the organization of national unions, culminating in socialist parties composed of class-conscious workers. Expectations about the "necessary path" of labor development were powerfully shaped by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels portrayed economic concentration and mechanization as promoting a movement from dissatisfaction with local conditions on the part of workers within specific trades, to a generalized class consciousness. For early generations of labor historians a glance around the Continent seemed to warrant such a generalization. By 1914 national trade unions and socialist parties had formed in almost every continental European state and were making rapid electoral progress wherever workers possessed the suffrage. France and Germany, where class-conscious labor movements began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, did not see the first growth of serious labor history. Instead, labor history developed in England, where the moderate Trades Union Congress gradually rallied to a Labour Party that adhered, very tentatively, to socialism in 1918. For some time the most important questions in labor history were implicitly comparative. Why did the labor movement in an individual country not follow a path pursued by labor in other countries?

British labor history. Among the first classics of labor history were the study of British trade unions by Sidney and Beatrice Webb published in 1894 and the series of studies of laborers and skilled workers between 1780 and 1840 by John and Barbara Hammond, the first of which appeared in 1911. The Webbs' trade union history emphasizes the democratic character of trade unionism and its commitment to bargaining at a time when the enfranchisement of a substantial section of the male working class worried many middle-class Britons. In Russia the newlywed Vladimir Ilich Lenin and his young wife, Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, celebrated their honeymoon by translating the Webbs' history. The Hammonds' much-reprinted portraits of the industrial revolution as a catastrophic visitation on the proletarianized laborers shocked many Britons, who gloried in their pioneering industrial role. The Hammonds portrayed Chartism as a native English variety of radicalism. They set off a controversy about the standard of living in the industrial revolution that endured into the twenty-first century and lastingly concentrated the attention of British labor historians on this period of the nation's history.

The Hammonds and the Webbs produced an analytical labor history based on archival research that dealt with broad social conditions of the population and the effects of industrial change on their daily lives as well as with trade unions as institutions possessing unique organizational characteristics and capacities. They brought social history concerns into labor history from the outset. Although neither the Hammonds nor the Webbs were traditional academics, their arguments developed according to academic standards and almost immediately stimulated academic debate. They were extremely fortunate that their successors in the interwar years included historians as remarkable as G. D. H. Cole and R. H. Tawney.

In the 1950s and 1960s British scholarship in labor history was brilliantly advanced by historians of the caliber of Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and E. P. Thompson. Like their predecessors these historians did not occupy prestigious academic positions but still exerted major influence within academia. Surely the Hammonds and the Webbs would have been surprised to discover that their successors apprenticed in the Communist Party Historians Group between 1946 and 1956. They would also have been surprised by the transformations in labor history these scholars wrought. Hobsbawm and Thompson particularly expanded the Hammonds' focus on the changes in the daily life of workers caused by the industrial revolution and stressed the influence of violent protests against capitalism in the formation of broader reform movements instead of democratic integrationism. Hobsbawm advanced some basic ideas that labor historians debated in the 1960s and 1970s. His elaboration of the role of the "labor aristocracy" in labor movements, debated by Lenin and other socialists at the turn of the century, and his conception of the "rules of the game" as a set of standards, mutually understood by workers and employers and subject to change over time, were widely influential.

Still more important was Thompson's emphasis on the role of popular culture and political conflict in the development of a worker identity. In his classic account The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Thompson acknowledged the marxist argument that economic forces created a new industrial proletariat but insisted on the importance of popular culture and social conflict in the development of class consciousness. Unlike earlier labor historians, Thompson portrayed class consciousness and class conflict as more than reflections cast by economic structures. He insisted on their independent roles in class formation. In particular Thompson challenged the view that British class formation in the early nineteenth century was incomplete because it did not achieve the kind of socialist consciousness found in France. Thompson denied that consciousness could be ranked and insisted on its variety and complexity.

Thompson's work provoked a great deal of controversy among British labor historians, but even those who challenged him betrayed his influence. Scholars such as Gareth Stedman Jones increasingly focused on the role of cultural and ideological factors in the molding of popular identity, stressing that class was only one possible construction of popular experience and arguing for the independent role of ideology and culture in identity formation. Only a minority of historians pursued Thompson's emphasis on the role of conflict in shaping identity formation.

French labor history. The contrast between the timing of the evolution of labor history in Britain and in France is remarkable. In 1913 the scholar Maxime Leroy published a pioneering work, La coutume ouvrière, dealing with labor's influence in the regulation of nineteenth-century French industry. It found no echo in academia or in the labor movement. Never reprinted, Leroy's book survives in only a handful of libraries around the world. Pre-1914 France produced popular narratives recounting the history of the labor movement from the point of view of particular socialist factions or by concerned middle-class outsiders. These histories were seldom based on extensive research, simply reinterpreted familiar events, and never paid attention to the condition of the great mass of French workers or the transformations in the labor force under way as the country industrialized in the late nineteenth century.

As a field of academic study, French labor history began at least a generation later than English labor history. Founding figures like Maurice Dommanget, Georges Duveau, and Jean Maitron moved easily between socialist movements and historical research projects. Dommanget possessed a prodigious knowledge of the history of the French Socialist movement, Duveau's studies of working-class life and educational theories under the Second Empire prefigured the later turn toward social history, and Maitron was personally familiar with many labor activists. French labor history tended less toward comparison, either explicit or implicit, than did English or German labor history. France's revolutionary heritage and early embrace of socialism often was taken for granted, as if that country followed a predestined path of development. French historians perhaps remained unaware of the unique features of their country's evolution.

As in England the growth of labor history in the French academy resulted from a need to explain unexpected developments within the labor movement during World War I. Despite the denunciation of war by the Socialist Party and the revolutionary pretensions of the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labor), the main French trade union, both party and union entered into the war effort with hardly a demurrer. Why did French leftists follow one course of action and Russian leftists another course? After World War I the movement split into communist and socialist factions, and as the split hardened historians sought to understand the basis of this profound division within the working classes. Why did French intraclass political divisions prove so irreconcilable? Responding to these questions was an important problem facing French labor history. To understand why revolutionary political rhetoric had concealed nationalist sentiments, French labor historians examined the social conditions of trade unions and political parties. In the 1960s and 1970s France produced a brilliant constellation of academically trained labor historians to address these questions, including Claude Willard, Annie Kriegel, Michelle Perrot, Rolande Trempé, and Yves Lequin.

German labor history. In Germany the advent of dictatorships delayed or interrupted the growth of labor history scholarship until the post–World War II period. In the 1950s and 1960s German historians, preoccupied with the rise of fascism, explored Germany's "special path," the particular mixture of traditional institutions and rapid industrialization that produced both mass socialism and fascism. German historians were particularly interested in comparative history, focusing in particular on comparing German development with that of England. Like French historians German historians were interested in why self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists had embraced the war so eagerly. Of course, marxist East Germany was especially concerned with labor history. East German labor historians typically concentrated on the history of socialism and trade union organization, but innovative historians drew on Western labor history, which was interested in broader social and cultural aspects of workers' experiences. Perhaps the best-known labor historian of the immediate post–World War II period was Gerhard Ritter, who produced an important study of the labor movement in Wilhelmine Germany. In the 1960s and 1970s a large number of talented German historians emerged, including Werner Berg, Dieter Groh, Jürgen Kocka, Klaus Tenfelde, and Hartmut Zwahr.


The 1960s and 1970s were a period of rapid growth in labor history throughout Europe. In these years, the growth of politically independent radical youth movements and spontaneous explosions of worker protest led to a reappraisal of labor movement history by many militant young historians. In general these young historians sought new approaches to answer old questions. Addressing the classic question of why the London working classes became quiescent in the late nineteenth century, historians abandoned their focus on the character of marxist leaders and studied the deindustrialization of the London urban economy in the second half of the nineteenth century. To answer why French trade unionists supported the war effort in World War I, historians rejected the old emphasis on traitorous leaders and looked at the undermining of artisanal militancy by waves of industrialization. To explain the German socialists' participation in the war, historians explored the cultural isolation of socialist workers and the wholesale acceptance of mainstream cultural assumptions by German socialist organizations. Young scholars began to label themselves "labor historians" and, though established historians remained doubtful, to explore the social and political bases of class formation. Almost every European country produced serious works of labor history, and some academic traditions, such as those of the Netherlands and Sweden, yielded their own distinctive historical approaches to the field. Americans, too, contributed significantly to European labor history, but they often were as much influenced by American labor historiography, an interesting subject in its own right. They are not discussed in this essay.

Increasingly, current events mocked attempts to claim "exceptional" status for a national labor movement or to argue that any nation had followed a "special path." The dominant questions in labor history lost their significance as the sense of labor as an international movement declined. Everywhere in Europe labor movements adapted to the national political environment. Although this accommodation began during the interwar and war years, its reality became clear after World War II, as European labor movements developed different patterns of strike militancy and varied relationships with states. Strikes diminished in some countries, while worker militancy continued in others. Some trade unions participated in industrial planning alongside employers, while other national unions balked. Some trade unions gave socialist parties considerable leeway to negotiate labor demands, while others refused or kept party leaders on a tight leash. In the 1970s labor union membership declined in many European countries, and the bargaining positions of trade unions almost everywhere deteriorated. Many labor historians shared Hobsbawm's sense of The Forward March of Labour Halted? (1979). Few any longer saw labor as an international movement with a common strategy and an incontestable claim on the future. The marxist paradigm that privileged workers as the "world-historical" class seemed less convincing.

Faced with the dissolution of old assumptions, the decline of labor movements, and labor's varied efforts to adapt to national politics, labor history reconfigured itself. Some historians argued for a more institutional labor history that would place labor organizations more precisely within national political structures. Most labor historians chose to cast their nets more broadly, looking at class and the ways in which class interacted with culture, gender, and race—a vital contact with social history generally. No longer preoccupied with manifestations of class consciousness, historians stressed how class interpenetrated, shaped, and was shaped by other social and cultural contexts. Other labor historians, focusing on discourse and the ways language constructs meaning, sought to look at how class was discursively constructed and deconstructed. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an explosion of exciting labor history and a dramatic expansion of research agendas. Scholars such as Anna Clark, Patrick Joyce, Alf Lüdtke, Hans Medick, Gérard Noiriel, and Pascal Ory indicated the continuing richness of this research tradition. However, it became increasingly difficult to locate them within a unified field of study because labor history entered a postparadigm fluidity.

As labor history gave up its concern with "exceptionalism" or "special paths," it also abandoned its concern with internationalism. But in an age when trade unions confront globalization and states come under pressure from both the European Union and international organizations, it may be necessary to consider international issues again without the teleological blinkers of common paths and shared strategies.


One of the oldest concerns of labor history has been the study of strikes. More than any other, this area has produced interdisciplinary exchanges between historians and social scientists, but these exchanges have not been as complete as they might. A look at studies of strike propensity by sociologists and economists may bear more on debates among historians than is generally realized.

While the origins of the strike can be traced to far antiquity, strikes did not become a routine form of protest until the nineteenth century. The rise of the strike form of protest is roughly correlated with the growth of the wage labor force that became the focus of labor historians. In all European countries the collective cessation of work became the universal weapon of labor protest. Whether demanding higher wages, the eight-hour day, the suffrage, or the end of colonialism, workers struck.

While labor historians have studied strikes extensively, most research on the rhythms of strike activity is by sociologists or economists. Unlike many other aspects of labor history, strikes are susceptible to precise measurement in terms of participation, duration, and length, and many scholars have detected a tendency for strikes to occur in waves. Systematic records of strikes maintained by national governments or culled from other sources have been subjected to quantitative analysis. While willing to consider the findings of social scientists, labor historians have, with only a few exceptions, generally proven reluctant to undertake anything but the most elementary quantitative analyses.

Theories of strike causation abound. Some scholars stress the role of supply and demand for labor, others see strikes as dependent on the interactions of workers and employers, and still others emphasize the need to place strikes within a political context. Early social scientific explanations of strike activity sought a single universal cause, either searching for a single general principle that explained all strike activity or positioning labor movements within a comprehensive stage theory of development. While some once-prominent theories of strike causation have been seriously challenged, a sophisticated theory of strikes probably depends less on accepting or rejecting competing theories than on combining various theories and specifying the circumstances in which different explanations apply or refining them to take into account additional factors.

Strikes and business cycles. One of the most commonly employed explanations of strike activity is an economic model that links strikes to business cycles. In good times, when labor markets are tight, workers are likely to strike for higher wages, while in bad times, when unemployment makes it easy to replace workers, they are less likely to strike. Such explanations depend on a highly instrumental interpretation of labor relations, but strike waves are loosely correlated with economic cycles. More intriguing is the relationship of strikes to longer Kondratieff waves, cycles of approximately fifty years' duration. James Cronin has argued their importance in understanding large-scale changes in the structure of the British labor movement.

While most scholars agree that business cycles play a role in strike activity, much remains that economic conditions cannot explain. Most notably they cannot explain international variations in strike propensity, and these differentials have become more important with time. The variations in strike propensities among leading European countries increased significantly during the twentieth century. Because strikes vary along national lines, the development of different regimes of industrial relations or political factors are liable to be of more importance.

Strikes and unions. The presence of trade unions is another factor associated with strike activity. By providing workers with collective resources and experienced organizers, trade unions increase the likelihood of strikes. Undoubtedly trade unions contribute to strike propensity, but on some occasions unionization increases after strike activity rather than before it as trade union theories of strikes would suggest. Trade unions are sometimes the products of strikes rather than their causes.

While unions may facilitate strikes, they also play an important role in shaping them. Michelle Perrot's study of strike activity in France explores the era of spontaneous strikes. Between 1870 and 1890 most strikes occurred without prior notice. Frequently the notification of a paycut resulted in an unannounced strike. Upon reading the posted notifications, a band of workers might roam the shop floor, singing revolutionary songs and calling their fellows out on strike. Next a committee of workers would be elected to represent workers' grievances to their employers and to report their employers' responses to general assemblies of workers. These workers' assemblies made all the basic decisions, often unanimously. Gradually, Perrot argued, trade unions took over the strike, requiring workers to propose concrete demands and organizing them in disciplined demonstrations. In the process, Perrot suggested, strikes often lost touch with the sentiments of the rank and file.

While most students of strike activity agree that business cycles and trade unions encourage strike activity, stage theories of trade union development that once enjoyed considerable support generally have been abandoned. In the 1950s and 1960s a well-known American study by Clark Kerr, John T. Dunlop, Frederick Harbison, and Charles A. Myers emphasized the existence of a variety of forms of evolution beginning with societies controlled by dynastic elites. They contended that under special circumstances revolutionary intellectual elites used worker militancy to take power. But revolutionary elites were only temporary custodians of power. In the long run only middle-class elite regimes proved really stable and compatible with the requirements of modern industrialization. Middle-class elites were willing to bargain collectively with workers if necessary to accomplish their economic goals. For Kerr and his collaborators, 1960s America was a model of advanced industrial relations, while European unions with their communist and socialist affiliations were only hindrances to the development of genuine industrial relations. Supporters of this view may take comfort from the collapse of the USSR but only cold comfort, since American collective bargaining collapsed almost as completely. Most European trade union movements remained more vital than those in the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

Strikes and industrial relations. Other interpretations relying on industrial relations stress international variations in factors such as employer organization, repression, or the organization of labor. The component factors of industrial relations may differ in degree across Europe and are better candidates for explaining the manifest variations in the character of strikes. Although labor history is based on the study of class relationships, workers have been studied far better than employers. Only in the late twentieth century did historians begin to analyze employers' roles in labor conflicts. Much can be learned. For example, the mysterious short-term cycle of Italian strike activity that had puzzled some scholars is explained by the three-year contracts that prevailed in large-scale Italian industries. Over time the ability of employers to organize and collectively oppose strikes has varied greatly. Peter Stearns demonstrated that French strike activity declined in the years before World War I, as employers successfully organized to resist militant unionists. Roberto Franzosi showed that the anticommunism of immediate post–World War II Italy allowed the state and employers to carry out repressive actions against communist activists.

Franzosi offered the most daring argument of all and presented well-documented evidence about the ways class conflict influences the formation of the working class and industrial organization. He posited that labor militancy in large factories resulted in the transformation in the character of Italian heavy industry. Responding to the waves of strikes that swept Italian industry in 1969, industrialists reconfigured their industrial sites, abandoning the strike-prone, large, continuous-process plants operating under intense time discipline. They trimmed the workforces at large factories and subcontracted to more flexible, smaller plants that were also less likely to unionize. Franzosi argued strongly that labor militancy influenced the choice of technology and plant selection at the highest level.

Strikes and the political context. Another series of powerful arguments contributing to the understanding of strikes and strike waves stresses the political context of labor relations. In this literature political parties are seen as shaping strike militancy and thus as influencing the character of class conflict. Among the best-known arguments in this vein are those that contrast countries like Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, where strikes have been infrequent, with countries like Belgium, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, where strikes have been common. According to this interpretation, countries with large Social Democratic Parties that have close relations with trade unions incorporate trade unions' demands into political bargaining and, by exerting pressure at the national political level, avoid strikes. In contrast, countries such as the United Kingdom, where trade unions and the Labour Party are not intimate, or France, with multiple trade unions and politically marginal left-wing parties, have been unable or unwilling to diminish strikes.

A more sophisticated political interpretation of the origin of strikes is that of Edward Shorter and Charles Tilly. Like Franzosi they maintain that industrial conflict produces unique repertoires of protest and that such repertoires can have enduring influence on class antagonisms and their expression. A "repertoire" of protest is a cultural creation that describes how people act together in pursuit of shared goals. Shorter and Tilly described how a particular type of political strike became a part of French workers' repertoire. They suggested that the precarious political position of the Third Republic led republicans to intervene to protect workers, who were generally republicans, from large employers, who were often antirepublican. Eventually republican intervention shaped French industrial relations. Instead of gathering resources for long strike struggles, French workers engaged in temporary but massive strikes to win the attention of politicians. They were most likely to strike when prolabor administrations took power. The massive strikes of June 1936 that followed the election of the Popular Front can be seen as the climax of this tendency.

Strike outcomes. While theories about the causes of strikes proliferate, much less work has evaluated the primary concern of strikers and employers, that is, the outcomes of strikes. The most important work in this area is that of Samuel Cohn. Looking at French strikes between 1890 and 1935, Cohn found that unions engaged in frequent strikes produced higher wages, even when strikes failed. In addition strikes over working conditions and political issues won more in the long run than strikes over wages. Short strikes yielded greater gains than long strikes, and bureaucratized, centralized unions produced smaller gains than decentralized unions. But strikes only yielded these results when unions competed against one another, as they frequently did in pre-1914 France, to establish their militancy. Once a trade union established its identity as reformist and decidedly moderate, trade union competition discouraged militancy. Employers channeled benefits to the moderate trade unions to reward them and to punish radicals. In such circumstances radicals could be made scapegoats and punished when strikes occurred.

The analysis of strike conflicts has produced a rich and diverse literature concerned primarily with the causes of strikes. Much of this debate was conducted by social scientists using quantitative methods to analyze strike behavior. The full weight of their findings has not yet been integrated into mainstream labor history. Certainly, social scientists have been more willing than labor historians to suggest that labor conflict plays an important role in shaping industrial organization and protest repertoires. More fully than many labor historians realize, the work of social scientists suggests that industrial conflict is an important determinant of class formation and identity.


In every European industrial country workers organized into trade unions, which played an important role in generating strikes. Trade unions are legal institutions regulated by governments, economic institutions that claim jurisdiction to represent different sections of the labor force, and political organizations that often have formalized relations with national political parties and sometimes with organized industrialists. Trade unions are one of the characteristics that distinguish labor movements from other social movements seeking to influence government for social reforms. They have a base in ongoing organizations that represent workers in their everyday work life. Because they usually have a professional staff, organize at the national level, and control substantial resources, trade unions provide the sustained support to working-class social movements that enables them to endure the inevitable ebb and flow of popular support characteristic of many social movements.

Trade unions vary considerably according to

  1. the type of workers they seek to organize,
  2. their power to establish an organizational monopoly in an occupation or an industry,
  3. state regulation, and
  4. their ability to develop a centralized national structure.

Although students of industrial relations recognize the importance of different forms of labor organization in collective bargaining, the full range of causes of international differences in the structures of trade union organizations has been studied little.

Origins of trade unions. The earliest trade unions organized highly skilled workers, and some historians have argued that early trade unions were shaped by the ideological perspectives of the failing guilds or corporations. Both organizations sought to regulate trade, and early trade unions often provided death benefits and sometimes pension plans reminiscent of the services that guilds provided for their members. William Sewell Jr. suggested that in France early mutual aid societies inherited guild traditions and transmitted them to the nascent trade union movement. Sewell's view has been challenged by French historians who found little relationship between the first mutual aid societies and collapsing guilds, and not much evidence indicates that elsewhere in Europe mutual aid societies perpetuated guild outlooks. In any case the democratic character of western European mutual aid societies in contrast with typical guild practices should raise doubts about the continuity of their views. In Germany, where guilds retained a legal or semilegal basis into the mid-nineteenth century, the influence of guild spirit may have shaped attitudes. Scholars have suggested that the provision for elected workers' representatives to supervise the insurance funds that Otto von Bismarck incorporated into his insurance laws was a response to the older practice of guilds controlling and supervising their members' funds.

While they may not have inherited the practice from guilds, highly skilled urban artisanal trades, invariably the earliest centers of craft trade unionism, were everywhere dominated by males. The strength of trade unionism has always depended on informal solidarity among workers created and maintained in the social world outside the workplace. The first unions were invariably unions of highly skilled workers based on male recreational networks formed in cafés, bars, and taverns and shared residence in working-class neighborhoods. Mary Anne Clawson described these informal male ties as constituting a "fraternalism" that, while underwriting worker solidarity, also preserved gender discrimination within the working class. Gender discrimination in early craft trade unions also reflected a desire to preserve skilled craft jobs, especially in the textile industry, from "de-skilling," a frequent synonym for feminization.

Industrial unions. Although the industrial revolution threatened the positions of many craft unions, the sense of shared interests that produced industrial unionism took much longer to develop, in contrast to Marx's original expectations. The industrial revolution influenced artisans by bringing many of them into large factories, but even behind factory walls these workers maintained their characteristic independence. In many instances they remained a self-conscious elite, separate and independent from the majority of factory workers. The industrial revolution also increased the numbers of coal miners, who represented a new group of workers, the semiskilled workers. Unlike artisans, most miners acquired their skills by assisting or working alongside older, more experienced workers. But like artisanal labor, underground coal mining depended on the spirit of teamwork and off-the-job recreation. Such images of camaraderie aboveground and belowground could only be accepted in a gendered form, usually as masculine characteristics.

Eventually the second industrial revolution, with its large-scale capital accumulation and new disciplinary techniques, brought new opportunities for women. But progress was hardly immediate. At first the great power accumulating in the hands of employers enabled them to remake the labor force, and by and large they made it in their own image, masculine. A new family economy arose around the fledgling industries of the second industrial revolution. This family economy was based on increased earnings of male workers in heavy industry and decreased opportunities for female employment, as homework declined and unskilled factory work grew more slowly than semiskilled. Working-class males increasingly found stable, long-term employment, while their wives performed domestic labor at home but not commodity production.

As the militancy of workers crested during the 1920s, a result of the vast expansion in metalworking during World War I, trade unionists attempted to embed the assumptions of this new family economy within the bargaining process by demanding a "family wage" sufficient for adult males to adequately support a family. The significance of the demand for a family wage differed from nation to nation and from occupational group to occupational group. In some nations, such as Great Britain, many male skilled workers actually attempted to maintain nonworking wives even though budgetary constraints often foredoomed their goals. In France male coal miners demanded a family wage on the assumptions that women's work was unsteady and subject to more fluctuations than men's work and that family maintenance depended on the preservation of a stable, high male wage. In both cases male workers based wage demands on assumptions about males' predominant responsibility for wage earning, but such assumptions did not always require married women's absence from the workforce, even as an ideal. The family wage model justified a dual wage structure for men and women whether or not women were in fact supplemental earners.

The vision of the male proletarian breadwinner did not prove prophetic. Partly as a result of war work during both world wars but also because of recurrent labor shortages, employers were forced to accept a growing number of female workers in heavy industry. Many of these organized women rejected the assumptions behind the family wage and its implications for trade union action. As the twentieth century wore on the division of labor once more changed. By the late nineteenth century white-collar unions formed in some European countries, and their expansion was general in the post–World War II period. White-collar work always had a larger proportion of women than artisanal or semiskilled labor. At first a rough equality prevailed among male and female clericals. As the number of clerical workers grew, most women were tracked into gender specific pools of female secretaries, while male workers occupied better-paid positions with chances for promotion. In the twentieth century the gendered division of labor within many areas of white-collar work and the associated unions began to break down. When schoolteachers, engineers, designers, or bank clerks organized, women were as likely to organize as men. Fraternalism was least likely to dominate in the expanding white-collar unions, although a gendered division of labor remained characteristic of many trade unions in most industrial countries.

Competing union movements. The preceding discussion of unions as bargaining agents presumes that unions successfully established their claims to represent workers. In many European nations rival unions competed for workers' allegiances. In some cases employers or repressive states tacitly supported the creation of company unions to prevent the growth of independent trade unions or as vehicles to enhance surveillance of workers. Paternalistic unions sometimes offered financial inducements for membership. After the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Catholics organized their own trade unions, and in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy these unions became minorities to reckon with. Originally many of these religious unions adopted paternalistic principles and sought to conciliate employers, but over the long haul they became more militant and independent of employers. As they did so Catholic units also tended to become more secular and sometimes provided militant competition for established socialist or communist trade unions. In addition Catholic unions often successfully organized women workers. The church's original insistence that men and women workers meet separately sometimes fostered the growth of Catholic female trade union activists more successfully than did secular socialist unions, with a few exceptions, like those associated with the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German Social Democratic Party) when socialist women also organized separately. In France in the 1960s and 1970s the formerly Catholic Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) often criticized the communist CGT from the left.

While leftists denounced the division of the trade union movement between religious and secular unions, in the end the most serious divisions in the European labor movement were produced by leftist factions. Before 1919 socialist unions were the majority unions in almost all European countries. Exceptions included France and Spain, where revolutionary syndicalists or anarchists were dominant, and England, where after 1906 the Labour Party, not at that time socialist, was the official party of most trade unions. Although trade unionists publicly expressed opposition to war, the enthusiastic participation of the majority of trade union organizations in the World War I war effort and divergent responses to the Russian Revolution of 1917 split the trade union movement in many countries right down the middle. Communists won the majority of the trade union movement, at least temporarily, in France and Italy and possessed a substantial minority in German and Austrian trade unionism. Until 1989 communists retained a powerful hold over the major unions in France and Italy, and opposition between socialist and communist trade unionists proved divisive in national trade union movements. In one of the most dramatic examples, the socialist-communist divisions in Germany in the 1930s contributed to the Nazi Party's rise to power.

Unions, parties, and the state. The spread of radical ideas into the trade union movement or in some cases the ideological resistance to radicalism has attracted much attention. Trade unions as institutions regulated by the state have received less attention. Strikes in Europe became legal but also subject to greater regulation. The same laws that recognize some strikes prohibit unauthorized, sit-down, and wildcat strikes. The modern strike is powerfully influenced by legal regulations. Long after trade unions were recognized legally in Great Britain, judges found it difficult to distinguish between unions and criminal conspiracies and awarded civil damages to employers that would have resulted in a prohibition on strikes. Laws passed in 1859, 1871, and 1875 to legalize peaceful strikes were invalidated by court decisions declaring strikes breaches of contract and, as such, conspiracies against employers. These decisions forced trade unionists to intervene politically to protect their organizations. The Taff-Vale decision of 1901, which held that trade unions were conspiracies of civil law, was the breaking point that stimulated British trade unionists to form the Labour Party to obtain relief. The French law of 1884 that seriously restricted the right of unions to own property and forbade unions to have relations with political parties encouraged the growth of a revolutionary syndicalist movement stressing militancy rather than building strike funds or performing social insurance functions.

The relationship between trade unions and socialist parties also powerfully influenced the bargaining strategies pursued by trade unions. Countries where trade unions developed early, in advance of or separate from socialist parties, often found it difficult to construct industrial unions. The United Kingdom and Denmark had early trade union movements, and craft unionism retained significant strength. When socialist parties played an important role in the construction of trade unions, they almost always built industrial unions and favored centralized trade union organizations. Socialists preferred centralized industrial unions because they facilitated relationships with national socialist political parties.

In the 1960s and 1970s the presence of such organizations was practically a precondition for labor's participation in "neocorporatism." "Neocorporatism" refers to the extraparliamentary cooperation between the state and private interests by which the state confers legal authority to private groups in return for their self-regulation. According to Colin Crouch, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and West Germany were among the leading neocorporatist states. While the study of the neocorporatist phenomenon was a favorite research topic of the 1970s, interest subsequently slackened because of the phenomenon's decline in the face of global competition.

Just as important for the evolution of industrial relations was the trade unions' formal relationships with socialist parties. Perhaps the most striking position on their relationship is that first taken by Seymour Martin Lipset. He argued that in countries like Great Britain and the United States, where suffrage expanded before the growth of socialist parties, craft unions developed ties to liberal parties, inhibiting the growth of socialist parties and ties between trade unions and socialist parties. In contrast, in countries like Germany and Scandinavia, where mass socialist parties developed in advance of national trade unions, socialist parties dominated the trade union movement, encouraged industrial unionism, and coordinated economic policies with trade unions.

In a work comparing Britain and Sweden, James Fulcher stressed the importance of the relationship between trade unions and socialist parties. Fulcher argued that in countries like Sweden, where socialist parties dominate trade unions, it is much easier to develop an active labor market policy. In countries like Britain, where relations between trade unions and socialist parties require negotiation and bargaining, it is politically difficult to impose an active labor market policy and possible only to secure pledges of support for wage-price guidelines. Because active labor market policy is a flexible and efficient economic tool, it tends to win public support and to sustain cooperation between party and union. In contrast, because wage-price guidelines tend to incite union hostility, these policies maintain the tense relationship between party and union characteristic of Britain. Thus the party-union relationship in both countries has a self-sustaining character, but the equilibrium status is more favorable to workers in Sweden than in Britain.

Unions in national and international perspective. In the late twentieth century the focus among students of labor history shifted from a preoccupation with explaining national peculiarities or "exceptional" behavior to a concentration on the adaptation of labor movements to national environments. Scholars began to recognize that differences in political contexts and the relationships between industrialization and democratization exerted long-standing influences on trade unions and class formation. Much work has stressed the open-ended character of the interaction between politics, industrialization, and trade union organization. At any given point in time militant workers must chart their course within a context of labor movement structures, party and labor relations, and political alignments inherited from the past and not easily changed. To understand this interaction, it is necessary to examine historical processes.

Considerable evidence points toward another shift within labor movements that poses important questions for labor history. The collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 revealed that the Eastern European working class had abandoned its long-standing socialist commitments. That tradition produced revolution in Russia and greatly facilitated the Soviet takeover of Eastern European governments in the post–World War II period. Although the USSR is gone, socialists and communists have remained split, and relatively little has been done to overcome the internal division of the international labor movement.

The persistence of this division when it seems to lack all justification has been particularly puzzling given the widespread recognition of the new importance of an international organization. Increasingly labor movements are concerned about global economic trends and the effects of European Union policies on their members. Such concerns are ironic. In the nineteenth century the labor movement was the most international of movements. Labor leaders were among the first concerned with establishing international ties to prevent the importation of strikebreakers and to discourage cheap foreign labor by helping laborers organize. In the nineteenth century business leaders questioned the loyalty of socialist leaders because of the socialist connection to international organizations. In late-twentieth-century Europe matters were almost reversed. Capital took the initiative in forming the European Union and in enrolling European states in international organizations from the World Trade Organization to the International Monetary Fund. In contrast, European labor leaders were notably slow to organize internationally. Increasingly students of labor movements have sought to understand how the most international of social movements has become so nationally oriented.

Labor history has revealed the multiple ways labor movements have interacted with national governments and national employers' organizations. A pressing issue is the extent to which adaptation to national environments has incapacitated labor for international organization. The varying structures of trade union organizations, the array of national strike repertoires and strike frequency, and the different cultural practices of national trade union movements pose serious problems for effective international coordination and collective action. In the past class conflict served as a potent force for mobilizing workers to recognize new circumstances and to adapt to new organizational forms. Will the advent of globalization and the greater transnational organization of capital produce a new sense of transnational class identity? Addressing this question may well become the next major item on the agenda of labor history.

See alsoMarxism and Radical History (volume 1);The Industrial Revolutions; Communism (volume 2);Social Class; Working Classes (in this volume);Gender and Work; Factory Work (volume 4); and other articles in this section.


Labor History

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Perrot, Michelle. Les ouvriers en grève, France 1871–1890. 2 vols. Paris, 1974.

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Stedman Jones, Gareth. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History,1832–1982. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

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Cohn, Samuel. When Strikes Make Sense—and Why: Lessons from Third RepublicFrench Coal Miners. New York, 1993.

Cronin, James E. Industrial Conflict in Modern Britain. London, 1979.

Franzosi, Roberto. The Puzzle of Strikes: Class and State Strategies in Postwar Italy. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Friedman, Gerald. State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States,1876–1914. Ithaca, N.Y., 1998.

Kerr, Clark, John T. Dunlop, Frederick Harbison, and Charles A. Myers. Industrialism and Industrial Man. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.

Shorter, Edward, and Charles Tilly. Strikes in France, 1830–1968. London, 1974.

Stearns, Peter N. "Against the Strike Threat: Employer Policy toward Labor Agitation in France, 1900–1914." Journal of Modern History 40 (1968): 474–500.

Trade Unions

Clawson, Mary Ann. Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Crouch, Colin. Industrial Relations and European State Traditions. Oxford, 1993.

Fox, Alan. History and Heritage: The Social Origins of the British Industrial RelationsSystem. London, 1985.

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Fulcher, James. Labour Movements, Employers, and the State: Conflict and Cooperation in Britain and Sweden. Oxford, 1991.

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Katznelson, Ira, and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds. Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Linden, Marcel van der, ed. Social Security Mutualism: The Comparative History ofMutual Benefit Societies. Bern, Switzerland, 1996.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Stein Rokkan. "Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments: An Introduction." In Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives. Edited by Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan. Munich, 1967. Pages 1–64.

Marks, Gary. Unions in Politics: Britain, Germany, and the United States in theNineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Tilly, Chris, and Charles Tilly. Work under Capitalism. Boulder, Colo., 1998.

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