7. Craft conflict in Bristol 1869-1877

Builders' belligerency

An increase in industrial action in Bristol during this period is clearly evident, although this occurrence should not be over emphasised. Outside of London strikes were more prevalent in medium-sized towns rather than in cities such as Bristol (J. E. Cronin (1982) 'Strikes 1870-1914', in C. J. Wrigley (ed.) (1982: Harvester: Brighton) A history of British industrial relations 1875-1914, p. 82). Industrial action in Bristol emanated largely from craft workers in the building industry. In 1869, a two-week strike by 123 members of the operative stone mason's society (OSM) was sparked by threats to established agreements. And in 1876, 349 stonemasons with OSM membership withdrew their labour until, after two weeks, the employers conceded to a penny per hour increase. It took a three-month stoppage in 1873 for 293 unionised carpenters to clinch the same deal. The other major stoppage involved 600 unionised building labourers who in 1876 also secured a penny per hour increase following a two-week strike (B. Atkinson (1982: Bristol Historical Society 51: Bristol) Trades unions in Bristol c.1860-1914, p. 4). The modernisation of the British economy at this time led to an increased demand for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The labourers' dispute in part reflects this development as it involved unskilled workers, a feature of strikes elsewhere, and has particular significance since it presaged the emergence of new unionism in the late 1880s (Cronin (1982) pp. 87-89).

Trade union organisation

Concurrent with these disputes trade union membership advanced in Bristol, although availability of data is insufficient to measure the extent of this advance. It is likely that trade union density in Bristol in the early 1870s was below 5 per cent, tempering thoughts of placing too much stress on the significance of trade union growth at this time. Moreover, the extension of trade union coverage to previously unorganised sections of the workforce, the semi-skilled and unskilled, was limited. Trade union organisation among miners, railwaymen, boot and shoe workers, dockers and gas workers was at best in its infancy (D. Large and R. Whitfield (1973: Bristol Historical Association 32: Bristol) The Bristol Trades Council c.1873-1973, pp. 3-4). Despite the fragility of union organisation, there is evidence to suggest that workers, given a favourable environment, were able to achieve some of their demands. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Latimer, rather disparagingly, cites miners as the main cause for the dramatic increase in coal prices in 1872:

The colliers,... not only insisted on repeated advances in wages, but refused to work more than a few hours a day for three or four days a week (J. Latimer (1887: Morgan: Bristol) The annals of Bristol in the nineteenth century, p. 467).

Although non-craft workers were beginning to make their mark trade unionism in Bristol in the early 1870s was still on the whole governed by craft exclusivity. This did not mean that it was inherently conservative. Bristol trade unionism, as elsewhere, was capable, when attacked, of mobilising its forces. During a national campaign in 1873 protesting against the imprisonment of seven London gas stokers for conspiracy, the Bristol Trades Council was launched (Large and Whitfield (1973) p. 2; Dawson and Wall (1968) p. 29; H. Pelling (1976: Penguin: Harmondsworth) A history of British trade unionism, p. 79). Incensed by the court's decision, an assault on trade unions' ability to function, Bristol craft unions deemed it necessary to establish an organisation that could provide support and a platform through which grievances concerning industrial relations could be disseminated. In the following year, however, the Bristol Trades Council, revealing its parochialism, failed to provide assistance in organising local women cotton workers. The National Union of Working Women in Bristol, founded in 1874, under the leadership of Emma Paterson, was left to fill this vacuum albeit temporarily (Kelly and Richardson (1996) p. 212).

Emma Paterson's role in organising women workers in Bristol, and elsewhere, demonstrates that leadership can play a significant part in mobilising workers who feel aggrieved. The action of the Trades Council, on the other hand, reveals that leadership, in this case a collective leadership with a relatively strong power base, can act as a barrier to mobilisation. The craft unions that dominated the Bristol Trades Council were fearful of unleashing the power of non-craft workers, particularly women. Craft exclusiveness was the barrier that unskilled male workers faced but at least they did not have to overcome gender prejudice. Therefore, taking this elitism and prejudice into account, it seems to be no coincidence that the unionisation of builders' labourers in the early 1870s resulted from one the one recorded instance where craft unions put exclusivity aside to provide assistance to fellow workers. T. M. Kelly, an Irishman, was the inspirational leader of the newly formed labourers' union, with an 800 strong Bristol branch in 1873 (Atkinson (1982) p. 6). He pursued a militant policy aimed at securing wage increases that met with a great deal of success, although other contingency factors, in particular the building boom, contributed to the advancement of labourers' pay. However, the building trade was more exposed to market forces than many other industries, consequently its workers were subjected to long periods of unemployment. This occurred in the late 1870s and during the 1880s (Harvey and Press (1988a) pp. 12-13), when the union, under a new leadership, adopted a policy of moderation rather than militancy and 'caution, once a necessity, became a principle' (Atkinson (1982) p. 6).

Banner of Tobacco Workers section of the
Dock Warf Riverside & General Worker Union

Technological change

Apart from the move, albeit very slow, to mechanisation in Bristol's boot and shoe industry in the 1870s, there is little evidence to suggest that changes in technology had any significant impact on the conduct of industrial relations in the locality during this period. Its importance was mainly in facilitating the growth of 'new' industries, particularly in the tobacco, chocolate and printing and packaging industries. This development helped to alleviate the impact of the slow demise of industries such as brass working, shipbuilding and glass making on unemployment and the Bristol economy (Harvey and Press (1988a) pp. 19-22).

Banner of Tobacco Workers section of the
Dock Warf Riverside & General Worker Union