Trade Unions may be described as the association of workmen in particular branches of trade for action in certain directions, namely, the regulation of wages, hours, and other conditions of labour, and for mutual relief. Trade unions (which have not yet been connected historically with the mediaeval guilds which they resemble in some respects) arose in various trades in England during the last century, as the mediaeval regulation of trade broke up and the distinction of master and workman became sharper. In 1799 all combination among workmen was prohibited by law; in 1824 the law was repealed, and a period followed of great activity, which excited much hostility among the middle classes, evinced, e.g. in the sentence of seven years' transportation on six Dorchester labourers in 1834 for conspiracy (in administering a trade-union oath). This activity declined with Owenism [QWEN] and Chartism (q.v.), but the great strike of engineers in 1852 and buiders in 1839 gave the movement a fresh impulse. The Royal Commission of 1867-69 was appointed in consequence of the outrages which were committed under the auspices of certain unions in Sheffield and Manchester, "rattening" being one of the most innocent of the malpractices. These outrages have been graphically, and apparently not unfairly, described by Charles Reade in Put Yourself in his Place. The outcome of the Commission was the passing of the Trades Union Act of 1871 and 1876, which together recognise trade unions, secure protection to their funds, and legalise "picketing" unaccompanied by violence.
Since that time the principle of trade unionism has steadily developed, and some of the developments give much food for reflection. The main objects of the majority of trade unions may be put down under some or all of the following heads: (1) The publishing of statistics as to the condition of trade; (2) the registration of men and masters in search of and prepared to give work respectively; (3) the aid of members of the association who are in search of work; (4) the regulation of the number of apprentices to be employed; (5) the aid of members of other trades who may be on strike; (6) the regulation of conditions of work; (7) the organisation of strikes in the event of the failure of more pacific methods of attaining their ends. Almost invariably trade unionists refuse to work with those who are not members of the union, a practice which seems inconsistent with that freedom of action in disposing of his labour which is thought to be every freeman's right. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that most unions insist upon their members doing their work in a proper manner, the result of complaints in this direction being reprimand, and, if necessary, expulsion from the union. Strikes, as Prof. Marshall has pointed out, are, like warfare, an admission that peaceful means have proved inadequate; and in spite of the combative attitude of the "New Unionism," many authorities prophesy that labour warfare will in time lead to industrial, peace through Boards of Conciliation.
The general working of a union may be judged from some details concerning one of the; most widespread and important of these societies - that of the Amalgamated Engineers. This contains 424 branches. The central authority is vested in a General Council, whose permanent officer is the General Secretary, who receives a good salary, has large powers, and has among other duties that of issuing weekly, monthly, and yearly reports. Next come local district committees; and each branch manages its affairs through a secretary and a referee, elected annually, and a president, vice-president, and assistant-secretary, elected quarterly, assisted by a committee and various subordinate officers. Attention to duties is secured by a system of fines upon those who are negligent. The Society of Compositors has a peculiar feature in the existence of "Fathers of Chapels," whose duties are to see that society regulations are carried out in the places where they are employed. This may be a relic of the old printing guilds.