A number of historians have tried to make a distinction between early forms of workers’ organisations emerging in the eighteenth century and the later forms, using epithets like ‘primitive’ to describe the earlier activities and following the Webbs in perpetuating a Whig interpretation from ‘barbarism’ to ‘a more civilised society’.1 There is little justification for such an interpretation. There are very few aspects of modern trade unionism which are not apparent in the earliest years of its existence. Journeymen craftsmen combined to provide mutual aid in the form of cash payments in sickness or for widows and orphans. They devised mechanisms to assist those who were out of work to find a new job. They combined to exert pressure on employers to protect earnings and, occasionally, to try to improve hours of work or push up wages, while also trying to devise rational and fair procedures for settling differences. They sought to control who could enter the craft and be employed. They joined workers in other crafts to campaign for or against legislation and, occasionally, they took to the streets to protest and demonstrate. By the end of the eighteenth century they were providing financial support to one another across craft divisions in industrial disputes.
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