Eric V. Snow

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The Relative Weakness of the Farmworkers' Unions Compared to Others in England
Compared to the urban skilled trades, unionism among the farmworkers was much weaker, especially early in the century. The Tolpuddle case, in which six Dorset laborers were sentenced for transportation for seven years 1834 because they took oaths when forming a union, constituted an early and interesting anomaly. It united trade unionists across England in protest against the incredibly arbitrary and unjust legal proceedings of magistrate James Frampton. The Tolpuddle unionists had organized to fight a cut in wages from an already paltry seven shillings a week to six. Since they had not yet stuck, withdrawn any labor, or issued any demands, they could only be heavily punished by citing a law designed to deal oath-taking as part of the government's attempts to put down sedition in the wake of the naval mutinies of 1797. Although these farmworkers had no such intent, they were still convicted and transported, only returning in 1838 after having their sentences remitted in 1836 because of massive and continuing protests by urban unionists.659 The Tolpuddle martyrs case had great symbolism to the cause of unionists across England, illustrating how all their members potentially were at risk in the hands of arbitrary magistrates. Besides Tolpuddle, farmworker unions showed some signs of life in the 1830s. One union in the Kent/Sussex border area in 1835 used a friendly society as its cover--an old trick--because of the legal dangers involved, especially in the squire/magistrate-dominated countryside even after the combination laws had been repealed. Nevertheless, the practical effects of unions among farmworkers remained trivial until the 1860s and early 1870s. The Hammonds suggested the paucity of organized resistance among the laborers compared to urban workers was due to the softening effects of the natural rural setting they lived in, and because possible leaders were continually eliminated by the imprisoning and transporting of poachers, "tossed to the other side of the world."660 Furthermore, a delayed response occurred to changes in the organic bonds of the village community, where many of the laborers had lived in or fairly close nearby for many generations. A generation elapsed after the dissipations of the traditional vertical relationships of client-patron in the countryside through the decline of service, enclosure, and the tightening of relief under the poor laws before the laborers fully realized their plight and devised effective solutions to it. Then they sought to develop effective horizontal relationships of unity within their class, such as by organizing unions to resist the dominant class, when individualistic solutions such as migration were rejected. The countryside Somerville toured was plainly restive, as illustrated by the elite's fear of arson and machine-destruction. But it took time for the slowly changing mores of a largely illiterate or semi-literate subordinate class of unskilled workers to begin effectively act their growing class consciousness because of the rural elite's power and the high rate of unemployment, which made unionization difficult. Hobsbawm and Rude note it took time for the ideas of continuing, permanent organization to take hold of the minds of people in the rural hinterlands away from its origins among urban artisans. Through the growth of such organizations as friendly societies including such national organizations as the Foresters and Oddfellows and the nonconformist sects (both discussed above, pp. 54-55, 89-90, 153-57), rural laborers increasingly did learn how to organize practically in ways which the slaves never had a chance to because they had much less freedom.661
The Organization of the Agricultural Labourers' Union in 1872
Paramount in the history of farmworker unionism was the creation of the Agricultural Labourers' Union (ALU) in 1872. Beginning locally in Warwickshire under the leadership of Joseph Arch after being asked by three other men to speak in favor of organizing a union, it was born the evening of February seventh at Wellesbourne. When he arrived, he found nearly two thousand laborers in attendance, and after a speech that lasted about one hour, two or three hundred signed up. Although Arch paints a very dismal picture of the condition of the laborer at that moment--"Their poverty had fallen to starvation point, and was past all bearing"--this is questionable considering the broader picture. It is no coincidence that Arch's union began near the peak of the business cycle (1872) just before the depression of 1873 was to sweep over Europe and America, leading eventually to the straightened conditions of English agriculture for much of this decade and thereafter. Jones' research points to a turning point in agricultural unemployment in the 1840s, leading to increasing labor shortages in the 1850s and 1860s. In a classic case of a revolution resulting from rising expectations, Arch's union began during a pause in the upward trend of the standard of living. While conditions were hardly wonderful for the farmworkers, even when compared to the rest of the English proletariat, they still were likely better in the 1870s than they were in the 1830s. Neither was Southern Warwickshire by any means the area with the worst conditions in southern England, as Caird's tables indicate.662 Arch's personal perception of the situation compared to the recent past among the same people was likely somewhat exaggerated, unless locally southern Warwickshire was experiencing unusual problems.
By the end of May in 1872, this union had nearly 50,000 members. In the April of 1875, it had 58,650 members in 38 districts with 1,368 branches, with total income of £21,000 in 1874 and £23,130 in 1875. Over £6,000 was spent on migration and emigration purposes, helping nearly 2,000 men go to Australia and New Zealand, 500 to what was Queensland, and almost 4,000 to Canada. In 1874, £7,500 was spent on relief during strikes and lockouts, and £21,400 in 1875. Due to the impact of the 1870s depression, these numbers turned downwards. In 1881, there were some 25,000 members scattered over 22 counties. After flickering upwards in 1890-91, the union collapsed mid-decade. Rather ironically, Arch attributed his union's demise to the laborers' thinking after gaining the vote and access to the land they no longer needed the union despite it had been a significant factor in getting them the vote to begin with! Arch's union was not the only one among the farmworkers. Started nearly a year earlier in 1871 in Herefordshire, another had quickly spread over six counties and had organized about 30,000 laborers. Curiously enough, the rector in the village it began in--Leintwardine--had backed it. Opposing strikes from its beginning, this other union emphasized migration and emigration as the solution to Hodge's problems. Its activities still caused wages to increase two shillings a week in Herefordshire and also some in Wiltshire and Dorset in particular. Arch's union had had its successes as well--it pushed wages in Bedfordshire up one shilling in 1874, to a nineteenth-century peak. Its major struggles included a lockout in East Anglia, where it attempted to support those staying out for the union by asking for help from urban workers and others. Much of its power disappeared after 1875, as the force of the agricultural depression hit, and the farmers again often had a local reserve army of the unemployed to draw upon, and could use falling agricultural prices to justify cutting wages. Splitting after a conference in Birmingham in 1875, the ALU spawned the National Farm Workers Union. Headed by Matthew Vincent, the editor of the Labourers Union Chronicle, the union newspaper, it emphasized land reform. Arch's group had emphasized raising wages instead. The Agricultural Labourers' Union was rent by major internal struggles, especially in the late 1880s over the sick fund which eventually virtually bankrupted it. Although unions only represented a small percentage of all farmworkers, they had influence beyond those organized. Farmers would have to pay union wages to non-unionized laborers when unionized laborers worked for them, otherwise they might go join the union. Other kinds of spillover effects existed, even when no union locally backed the demands. Robert Long complained in his diary in 1867, even before these unions were organized, about how one laborer of his, dissatisfied with his wages, demanded a one shilling per week pay hike, because of recent strikes in the adjacent county of Berkshire. He refused to grant it: "Was [this increase] likely when my neighbours are paying the same as myself?"663 So even in the practical realm of gaining higher wages or preventing further decline, the farmworkers' unions had weight considerably beyond their numbers. As Rule noted about trade unionism generally, it had influence beyond those formally declared members through affecting the mores of the workplace in favor of the workers:
For thousands more workers than can be counted in membership statistics, a collective labour experience and response was central even if amounting, on most occasions, to no more than a tacit insistence that the customs and norms of the workplace be regarded, and was only episodically dramatic.664
Comparing Two Subordinate Classes' Methods of Resistance
The English farmworkers' highest order achievement was the creation of unions, with their permanent organization of members in a movement to resist the demands of the dominant class. Due to how the laborers still had some minimal rights and were considered part of their society, albeit an oppressed, subordinate part, these allowed them to achieve levels of organized resistance that were forever denied to African-American slaves, whose very humanity was only reluctantly conceded by the Southern legal system. The structure of English society allowed them some ability to gain their ends within the system, without having to totally overthrow it, as illustrated by the (male) farmworkers eventually gaining the vote in 1884, something which the broad majority of African-Americans in the South, besides the hiatus of Reconstruction, were denied until the 1960s. The covert "weapons of the weak" of daily infrapolitics are the main tools used by a subordinate class when it has no formal means of gaining redress for its grievances openly and legally. American slaves inevitably had to lean upon covert and semi-covert day-to-day resistance more than the laborers because they had no open means of legally resisting their masters, while the English laborers did eventually gain and use such rights, despite all the obstacles placed in their way. The English laborers' advantage in possessing rights compared to the slaves is illustrated by incidents in which Arch was harassed for holding assemblies of laborers. In one instance, demonstrating well the adage that knowledge is power, Arch dumbfounded farmers opposed to his gathering, after a policeman told him he could not hold a meeting on the village green of Pillinghurst, Sussex, by replying that "any Englishman can stand on any public ground, and deliver a speech in favour of a petition to the House of Commons? I have a petition here for the House of Commons, and you must not touch me." Similarly, his union won a test case after deliberately holding a meeting in an area where three local leaders of laborers were charged for supposedly blocking the Queen's highway in the same spot. Actually, since the primitive Methodists had held meetings there, this all was plainly a pretense for finding some legal means to obstruct the union's efforts. This act of civil disobedience paid off--his union won after showing they were not blocking any travelers, since enough space existed around the crowd to allow them to pass around. Or, consider the implications of the Anti-Corn Law meeting held in Upavon in the summer of 1845, featuring a laborer as speaker, which had at least a thousand people attending it, mostly laborers and their families. Although the speaker, David Keele, had been fired for being at such a meeting before, he had found work again.665 Here the laborers, although legally voteless, were actively participating in the broader political questions of their nation--a level of political participation unimaginable for American slaves. The American equivalent would be a thousand slaves gathering to hear one of their number speak out against free trade before the Civil War--the equivalent heresy on this issue to Southern slaveholders. Impossible! Slaves had no right to freedom of assembly at all, which inevitably destroyed any possible peaceful, organized attempts for the redress of their grievances against their dominant class. All their organized efforts had to be covert, and since their social system allowed no place for open complaints against their rulers, it inevitably turned these efforts towards violence, because open, organized, non-violent protest held no promises of success for them. While the rights Hodge had were often ignored or denied by his rulers, he still was able to use them to carve out breathing space that protected open organized vehicles for resisting the rural elite in time, while Sambo had no such rights legally to begin with, causing open organized resistance to be necessarily violent, because his social system prohibited any formal permanent structures by the subordinate class to resist the dominant class.
Both the farmworkers and slaves suffered from the oppression of their dominant class, and both groups gained a reputation for being relatively quiescent, compared to (say) Russian or French peasants or English and French urban artisans. Both took to the use of day-to-day resistance, through such acts as theft, lying, and (for the English farmworkers) poaching, as the dominant means of resistance during most of the period surveyed (1750-1875). Since frontal attacks on the prerogatives of the dominant class were dangerous, both groups were turned to covert, circular means of gaining their ends. The American slave ended up depending on such means proportionately more, and sporting a thicker mask generally, because the likely punishments for resistance were much more drastic and violent, and their dominant class held proportionately more power over them, such as through its ability to split up slave families as a tool of labor discipline. While the English ruling class was willing to draw blood upon occasion, as Peterloo and the repressive measures following the Swing Riots demonstrate, it was much less than that which followed the two major American slave revolts (in the period 1750-1865) or even mere conspiracies such as Vesey's. Correspondingly, the level of violence employed by the slaves was much higher than that used by English farmworkers, because corporal punishment inflicted by masters, mistresses, and overseers sometimes spawned a violent backlash effect when some slaves could take it no more, or refused whippings on principle. The build-up of emotional pressure was higher among the slaves due to the thicker mask they had to wear, in avoiding (say) open insulting comments about their owners more continuously, causing a stronger, more likely violent, venting of feelings when they were released. The stories of overseers and masters getting physically attacked, even killed, by slaves on the job are many--anecdotes about the farmworkers doing likewise are hard to even find. Nat Turner's vision of "blood flow[ing] in streams" contrasts sharply with Arch's counsel to a crowd of laborers numbering in the hundreds, with the county's policemen watching, to avoid violence, riot, and incendiarism, to "act as law-abiding citizens, not as red-handed revolutionaries."666 The reasons for this difference was not due to any of the intrinsic virtues or vices of Hodge as opposed to Sambo, but due to the fundamentally differing legal statuses they held in their respective societies, the level of violence routinely employed by their respective dominant classes, and the resultant inability for one of these societies to tolerate any open organized dissent by its subordinate class, while in the other this was grudgingly granted.
The farmworkers resisting also benefited from the English rural elite's relatively greater divisions compared to Southern slaveholders. The farmers, since they generally rented the land they tilled, were not necessarily at one with the local establishment of parson and squire, seeing tithes and rents as drains upon their profits. They took advantage of the Swing Riots in East Anglia in order to reduce both, as was described above (pp. 150, 274). Even among the gentry and clergy themselves, no perfect unity of class interest existed, for some really did take paternalistic ideology seriously to one degree or another, at least in times of dearth, even as others, as the nineteenth century advanced, accepted the middle class ideologies of Malthusianism and Classical economics. Some local magistrates during the Swing riots temporalized, seeing the justice of the laborers' complaints to one degree or another, such as those of Tunstead and Happing, Norfolk. They recommended to the "owners and occupiers of the Land" to discontinue the use of threshing machines and to raise the laborers' wages, saying "no severe measures will be necessary" if these demands of the laborers were granted.667 Although Arch and Cobbett accurately and repeatedly described the reactionary tendencies and positions of the Anglican clergy, an ideological divide existed among them that surely did not exist among the clergy of the American South over slavery by the 1850s. Consider how the rector of Leintwardine favored a farmworkers' union that began in his village, the rector of Petworth strongly condemned aspects of the New Poor Law, as mentioned above, or the Bishop of Manchester, Dr. Fraser, spoke in favor of Arch's union.668 The natural teleology of extending the franchise starting with the Reform Bill of 1832 helped box in the English elite into granting something that was not really in their best interests. The premises that underlay that bill were gradually extended to the rest of the potential adult electorate in the century that followed. By contrast, not only were the slaveholders united as a class in their desires to keep their bondsmen in bondage, but the poor whites could be counted upon to put the black man in his place should he ever revolt or threaten to. The laborers' greater successes at resistance, especially in an organized form, resulted not only from the more open nature of their social and political system, but also from the greater divisions among the English rural elite compared to the slaveholders in the Southern United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century.
The resistance of the laborers also had more positive benefits and fewer long-run ill effects upon them than that of the slaves. Due to the greater power of the slaveholding regime and its individual masters and mistresses having been delegated the authority to use physical violence against them, the slaves wore thicker masks than the laborers. Correspondingly, the slaves employed more day-to-day resistance that had higher costs to it to themselves than the laborers had to, such as through lies, shirking, and thefts. The overhang from such bad habits did not disappear overnight after (semi-)freedom came, helping stunt their economic progress during Reconstruction and afterwards. The laborers, before the time their "freedom" came (arguably with the vote in 1884), did not live under as harsh a regime, and had, even outside the unions and various riots, more freedom of speech against their betters, as Assistant Poor Law Commissioner Hawley had experienced first hand while traveling the roads of rural England. While the laborers also suffered some of the effects stemming from the duplicity of mask-wearing, these were much more mild, and had the countervailing effects of unionization towards the end of the surveyed period. The thinner the mask, the fewer the ill-effects that came from the day-to-day resistance that accompanied it, which placed the laborers in a more advantageous position for economic competition compared to the slaves, over and above the problems caused by continuing racism of American society long after the Civil War. In short, because the English rural elite gave their subordinate class more rights, the laborers were able to resist them much more openly and continuously than the slaves were able to, lessening the intrinsic ill-effects that came from many methods of infrapolitics that employed lying, stealing, and shirking.
Resistance and the Subordinate Class's Quality of Life
For those inclined to glorify any subordinate class's resistance and sufferings, a standard conundrum lurks, ready to bite the unwary. Consider the dilemma facing socialist discourse that Dwight MacDonald observed. On the one hand, if one emphasizes the sufferings of the oppressed working class and the damage inflicted on them by the capitalist regime, then its victims must have been brutalized and deeply damaged psychologically. On the other hand, if one emphasizes how powerfully and stalwartly the workers stood up to their capitalist masters, it implies conditions must not have been so bad after all.669 The worse the oppressions suffered by a subordinate class are said to be, the less plausibly any effective resistance occurred, and the more likely its members were infantilized or otherwise damaged as effective human beings. The mere act of resistance in itself implies the existence of resources, material or legal, to do so, and the more effectively it is done, the more the resources or breathing space the dominant class allowed it, whether by default or intention. The school that emphasizes oppression holds to the "damage" or "victim" thesis, which Elkins's work, with its concentration camp analogy, exemplifies in the historiography of African-American slavery. The "resistance" school extremities are reached by Angela Davis's journal article, with its "Rah-Rah-Rah!" present-minded spirit, but it is hardly alone. Shore suggests the need to scrap the endless assault on Elkins's work--which he justly labels a "historiographical disaster, seminal only in the sense that a caricature generates other caricatures"--that turns the ordinary, the survivors, and the time-servers, and just about everyone else in the subordinate class into heroes for engaging in routine daily activities that got them by in life. One needs to cultivate more a sense of tragedy, despair, defeat, and isolation about the struggles that enslaved Americans--or, I may add, oppressed English farmworkers--without falling into the trap of believing all or most were totally brutalized by their experience, nor that all or most were heroes (like Frederick Douglass or John Little). When John Lindsey, once a slave himself, portrays them due to slavery as having "their faces scarred and wrinkled, and almost deprived of intelligence in some cases,--their manliness crushed out; stooping, awkward in gait,--kept in entire ignorance," one should not automatically reject this unflattering description.670 But neither should one then go to the opposite extreme, and maintain all or the great majority were this way. Selective perception is simply deadly, since it blocks a balanced picture of this institution, or of the conditions of English laborers, split between major north and south variations in their standard of living. What becomes evident above, despite the (southern) English farmworkers had arguably a lower standard of living than most American slaves, is that their superior legal status allowed them a higher quality of life, including a greater ability to resist their masters, and suffered less from the inevitable kick-backs coming from forced accommodation and morally troublesome day-to-day resistance strategies. The successes of the English agricultural workers in forming long-standing organizations, such as benefit clubs, and (later) unions, dedicated to promoting solidarity among themselves and (for the latter in particular) resistance against their masters, while American slaves lacked these entirely, were a function of the English rural elite giving their subordinate class much more breathing space in their legal system than Southern slaveholders gave to theirs. The differences had nothing to do with any intrinsic character flaws of slaves, but rather the farmworkers gained greater organizational skills over the decades through participating in Nonconformist sects, benefit clubs, friendly societies, even unions, which their elite (often reluctantly) allowed them to have, but the American slaveholders totally forbade their slaves from developing (except perhaps in the religious sphere some). The English farmworkers had a superior quality of life, since they could engage in more resistance, do it more openly, and suffer from fewer kick-backs from the routine tactics a subordinate class uses in infrapolitics.671
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