How Workers’ Struggles Won our Rights

Since the 1800s, the upward march of the organised labour movement has transformed the world of work – reducing hours, improving conditions and winning new rights for millions of working people.

Since the 1880s, May Day has been celebrated as International Workers’ Day – a focus for protests to advance the labour movement and celebrate the workers’ rights that many of us now take for granted. Looking back at the struggles involved in achieving these rights shows us the development not only of legislation in the UK, but also of the trade unionist and labour movement as a whole.

Before the Industrial Revolution in Europe, the rhythms of labour were determined by the natural world; the seasons appointed the times for sowing and reaping, and the length of the working day in agriculture was determined by the amount of daylight at that particular time of the year. During industrialisation, the workday lengthened: indoor spaces could be illuminated artificially, meaning work could continue long after nightfall. Sixteen-hour days for men, women, and children were commonplace.

The abuses of unregulated working hours—particularly the risks posed to children and those working at night—were widely condemned by early members of the labour movement, as well as by some sympathetic mill owners and reforming parliamentarians. Several pieces of legislation, known as the Factory Acts, were passed between 1819 and 1874 in Britain, aimed at improving the conditions of factory work, particularly in the dangerous textile factories in the North of England.

The Cotton Mills and Factories Act 1819 introduced a cap of twelve hours per day, but only for children aged 9-16, and only in the cotton industry. The so-called ‘Ten-Hour Movement’, made up of millhands, priests, reformers, and other interested parties, set up regional ‘Short Time Committees’ which reported on the abuses of the earlier acts by mill owners as well as agitating for a further capping of the working day at ten hours and the extensions of the legislation to all workers, regardless of age or industry.

A key member of the Ten-Hour Movement was the early trade unionist John Doherty, born in Ireland in 1789, who was instrumental in founding the first national trade union in Britain, the National Association for the Protection of Labour, in 1830.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, pressure by labour rights movements led to a succession of bills to reduce the hours demanded of workers and expand the classes of workers protected. Labour organisations in the US and Australia during the 1860s had adopted the model of the eight-hour workday, and in 1884 the trade unionist Thomas Mann founded the ‘Eight Hour League’ in Britain. Mann aimed to fulfil the ambitious slogan of Welsh textiles reformer Robert Owen, who called in 1817 for ‘eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours recreation’.

The movement gained momentum across the 1880s, and in 1886 the American Federation of Labor chose 1 May as the focus for protests advocating for eight-hour shifts, a date later adopted by the European labour movement as International Worker’s Day. The eight-hour day became increasingly standard in many heavy industries, particularly after the success of a strike in 1889 at the Beckton Gas Works in London.

Today, in Britain, there exists no maximum shift length across all industries: worktime is calculated as hours-per-week, not hours-per-day. There is a cap of 48 hours of work in a week, taken as an average over seventeen weeks, as well as a mechanism for workers to opt to work more (one at risk of abuse by coercive employers). With the modern convention of a two-day weekend, this can work out to longer than eight hours each day, although 35- and 40-hour work weeks are the norm.

There’s no statutory mandate to have Saturday and Sunday as days off, either. The weekend was historically dictated by the conventional requirement of Sundays off for church and reduced hours on Saturdays, which gradually became a whole day – a move partly designed to encourage work attendance on Mondays, the traditional day of recreation for most artisans in England up to the mid-nineteenth century. The tendency for the working class to allow themselves Mondays off, having spent Saturday at work, was celebrated for decades as ‘Saint Monday’.

The working week, as we know it today, is the result of a long process of protest and negotiation, but so are the methods used to achieve it. In the nineteenth century, most improvements in working conditions were won through a combination of strikes, protest, informal pressure from labour groups, and the occasional support of reforming MPs; the twentieth century saw the move towards more regularised forms of negotiation and dispute resolution in the form of collective bargaining by larger unions.

Collective bargaining broadly refers to the practice of a delegated group negotiating on behalf of a group of workers to represent their interests to management, and it became the main tool of trade unions after their decriminalisation in Britain in 1871. From the 1890s, smaller plant- or shop-level unions formed larger federations along regional and industry lines, allowing for greater bargaining power. The success of collective bargaining depended on the potential disruption to industry through strike action, a precedent set by the Chartist strikes of the 1840s, some of the first workers’ organisations in Britain.

It was through collective bargaining that various unions were able to compel employers over concerns about wage decline and long work hours, and the success of the Eight Hour Movement relied on the pressure unions could apply to their respective industries. It was also through collective agreements reached between unions and representatives of employers that the first minimum wage measures were achieved in Britain.

Like the restriction of working hours, the first minimum wage agreements were made on an industry-by-industry basis as a result of the work of individual unions: they weren’t the same for all workers. When Parliament formalised the mechanisms for determining enforceable minimum wages with the Trade Boards Act of 1909, it was restricted to the female-majority industries of chain-making, tailoring, and lacemaking.

But the movement for fair wages continued to be the cause of much labour unrest in the early twentieth century, including the 1926 General Strike. It was only in 1998 that the New Labour government passed the National Minimum Wage Act, which expanded the protection of a minimum wage across all workers, although graded by age. The campaign continues for the National Living Wage, introduced by the Conservatives, to meet the internationally recognised standards of an actual living wage, rather than one pegged to the national median wage, as is the case at present.

Questions of pay also had more specific implications. The right of women to equal pay for equal work was at the center of the 1968 strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham by female sewing machinists whose pay had been cut below that of men in similarly skilled roles. The three-week strike led in part to 1970’s Equal Pay Act, which began to tackle workplace inequalities.

Women workers had been some of the earliest beneficiaries of the expansion of labour rights, but they continued to be routinely sacked for becoming pregnant up until the 1970s – and where they weren’t sacked immediately, there was no guarantee from employers that they could return to work at all, or in their original position. As part of a raft of legislation passed by the Macmillan government, the right of women to paid leave following a birth, to return to work, and to avoid unfair dismissal as a result of pregnancy was asserted in the 1975 Employment Protection Act.

Few women could take advantage of the measures, though, due to the long period of prior employment needed to qualify. The legislation was amended gradually, and in 2003, two weeks of paid leave for fathers was introduced, with shared parental leave of up to fifty weeks enshrined in 2010. The case for paid paternity leave was in many ways more difficult to present than maternity leave, though, due to the traditional expectation that women take up the ‘second shift’ of domestic work – and despite campaigns by the NHS, family rights groups, and the labour movement on its benefits, uptake of paternity leave remains low.

That uptake is just one of many ongoing problems. Today, new demands are appearing in the face of a globalised economy—freedom from electronic surveillance, a fair distribution chain, environmentally sustainable work—while old ones resurface in response to rising precarity and gig-ification: the right to minimum as well as maximum hours, to holiday leave and sick pay, to reasonable breaks, and to decent pay that reflects the state of inflation and the housing market.

These issues—of pay, hours, leave, breaks—cannot be individualised or separated from one another: they’re all part of a much larger project. While fighting defensive positions against encroaching archaic abuses like fire and rehire, we should take May Day as an opportunity to admire the strength and struggles of the comrades who came before us, and think big about the working world that we would like to build. The capitalists, after all, have already broken ground.