Labour movement

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The labour movement or labor movement (see spelling differences), or, respectively, labourism or laborism, are general terms for the collective organization of working people developed to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and, by the implementation of labour and employment laws, their governments. The standard unit of organization is the trade union.

In some countries, especially the United Kingdom and Australia, the labourism includes a formal political party, known usually as a "labour party" or "workers' party". Many people and political groups otherwise considered to represent ruling classes may be part of and active in labourism.

Contemporary labourism developed in response to the depredations of industrial capitalism at about the same time as socialism. However, while the goal of labourism was to protect and strengthen the interests of labour within capitalism, the goal of socialism was to replace the capitalist system entirely.[1]


Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, December 3, 1861[2]

In Europe, labourism began during the industrial revolution, when the number of agricultural jobs decreased and employment became more available in industrial areas. The idea met with great resistance. During the early 19th century, groups such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs of Dorset were punished and transported for forming unions, which violated the laws of the time.

Labourism was active during the early to mid 19th century and various labour parties and trade unions were formed throughout the industrialised parts of the world. The International Workingmen's Association, the first attempt at international coordination, was initiated in London during 1864. The major issues were the right of the workers to organize themselves, the right to an 8 hour working day, etc. During 1871 workers in France rebelled and the Paris Commune was formed. From the mid-nineteenth century onward labourism become increasingly globalized.

The movement gained major impetus during the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the Catholic Social Teaching tradition which began during 1891 with the publication of Pope Leo XIII's foundational document, Rerum novarum, also known as "On the Condition of the Working Classes," in which he advocated a series of reforms including limits on the length of the work day, a living wage, the elimination of child labour, the rights of labour to organize, and the duty of the state to regulate labor conditions.

Throughout the world, action by labourists has resulted in reforms and workers' rights, such as the two-day weekend, minimum wage, paid holidays, and the achievement of the eight-hour day for many workers. There have been many important labor activists in modern history who have caused changes that were revolutionary at the time and are now regarded as basic. For example, Mary Harris Jones, known better as "Mother Jones", and the National Catholic Welfare Council were important in the campaign to end child labour in the United States during the early 20th century. .

Labour parties[edit]

Modern labour parties originated from an increase in organizing activities in Europe and European colonies during the 19th century, such as the Chartism in the United Kingdom during 1838–50.

During 1891, localised labour parties were formed, by trade union members in the British colonies of Australia. They later amalgamated to form the Australian Labor Party (ALP). During 1893, Members of Parliament in the Colony of Queensland briefly formed the world's first labour government.

The British Labour Party was created as the Labour Representation Committee, as a result of an 1899 resolution by the Trade Union Congress.

While archetypal labour parties are made of direct union representatives, in addition to members of geographical branches, some union federations or individual unions have chosen not to be represented within a labour party and/or have ended association with them.

Labour festivals[edit]

Main article: Labour festival

Labour festivals have long been a part of labourism. Often held outdoors in the summer, the music, talks, food, drink and ,movies have attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees each year.

Labor and racial equality[edit]

A degree of strategic bi-racial cooperation existed among black and white dockworkers on the waterfronts of New Orleans, Louisiana during the early 20th century. Although the groups maintained racially separate labor unions, they coordinated efforts to present a united front when making demands of their employers. These pledges included a commitment to the "50-50" or "half-and-half" system wherein a dock crew would consist of 50% black and 50% white workers and agreement on a single wage demand to reduce the risk of ship owners pitting one race against the other. Black and white dockworkers also cooperated during protracted labor strikes, including general levee strikes during 1892 and 1907 as well as smaller strikes involving skilled workers such as screwmen during the early 1900s.[4][5]

Negroes in the United States read the history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us [...] They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table [...] Our needs are identical to labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures [...] That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
—  Dr. Martin Luther King, "If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins", December 11, 1961[6]

Development of labour movements within nation states[edit]

Historically labour markets have often been constrained by national borders that have restricted movement of workers. Labour laws are also primarily determined by individual nations or states within those nations. While there have been some efforts to adopt a set of international labour standards through the International Labour Organization (ILO), international sanctions for failing to meet such standards are very limited. In many countries labour movements have developed independently and represent those national boundaries.

Development of an international labour movement[edit]

With ever increasing degrees of international trade and increasing influence of multinational corporations, there has been debate and action among labourists to attempt international co-operation. This has resulted in renewed efforts to organize and collectively bargain internationally. A number of international union organizations have been established in an attempt to facilitate international collective bargaining, to share information and resources and to advance the interests of workers generally.

List of national labour movements[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eatwell & Wright, Roger & Anthony (March 1, 1999). Contemporary Political Ideologies: Second Edition. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 83. ISBN 978-0826451736. If ‘labourism’ sought to protect and defend the interests of labour in relation to this system, ‘socialism’ sought to change the system itself... 
  2. ^ Selections from the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, by Abraham Lincoln, edited by Ida Minerva Tarbell, Ginn, 1911 / 2008, pg 77
  3. ^ James, Paul; O’Brien, Robert (2007). Globalization and Economy, Vol. 4: Globalizing Labour. London: Sage Publications. pp. ix–x. 
  4. ^ See content, references and citations at New Orleans Dock Workers and Unionization
  5. ^ See content, references and citations at 1892 New Orleans general strike
  6. ^ A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by James Melvin Washington, HarperCollins, 1991, ISBN 0-06-064691-8, pg 202-203

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert N. Stern, Daniel B. Cornfield, The U.S. labor movement:References and Resources, G.K. Hall & Co 1996
  • John Hinshaw and Paul LeBlanc (ed.), U.S. labor in the twentieth century : studies in working-class struggles and insurgency, Amherst, NY : Humanity Books, 2000
  • James, Paul; O’Brien, Robert (2007). Globalization and Economy, Vol. 4: Globalizing Labour. London: Sage Publications. 
  • Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor's story in the United States, Philadelphia, Pa. : Temple Univ. Press 2004 (Series ‘Labor in Crisis’), ISBN 978-1-59213-239-3
  • Beverly Silver: Forces of Labor. Worker's Movements and Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-52077-0
  • St. James Press Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide, St. James Press 2003 ISBN 1-55862-542-9
  • Lenny Flank (ed), IWW: A Documentary History, Red and Black Publishers, St Petersburg, Florida, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9791813-5-1
  • Tom Zaniello: Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (ILR Press books), Cornell University Press, revised and expanded edition 2003, ISBN 0-8014-4009-2
  • Neither Washington Nor Stowe: Common Sense For The Working Vermonter, The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective, Catamount Tavern Press, 2004.

External links[edit]