The Exploitation and the Rise of Labor Unions

Labor in Europe in the 19th Century: Exploitation and the Rise of Labor Unions

As Carolyn Tuttle of Lake Forest College points out, the first textile mills in England were bad enough to elicit the opprobrious condemnation of none other than Charles Dickens in the 19th century, who scorned them as “dark satanic mills” (Tuttle). By the beginning of the 19th century, the First Factory Act of 1802 was passed — but it did little to amend the strict, severe, and inhuman conditions in which “labor shortage” issues were solved by “employing parish apprentices” (i.e., via the exploitation of child labor) (Tuttle). Dickens would become a proponent of labor and education reform in England, depicting the latter as pernicious as the former in Hard Times (a novel which portrays the headmaster of a school as stubbornly insistent on the rote memorization of “facts” and “nothing but facts” (1) — a subtle Dickensian point indicating that education had become as mechanical and inhuman as the labor force under the weight of Industrialization). But it was not just in England that labor and education in the time of the Industrial Revolution suffered from the de-humanizing character of the era. In countries such as Spain, France, Switzerland and others, the impact of Industrialization was keenly felt. However, each country had its own customs when it came to labor and politics, and with the rise of labor unions in the 19th century, both England and the Continent began to address more directly the issues that men like Dickens highlighted in their own homelands. This paper will show how labor unions and various trends in Europe in the 19th century correlated to bring an end to the exploitation of children in factories and to provide more rights for workers in general.

Labor, Unions, Children and Education

Throughout Europe in the 19th century and prior, communities viewed child labor as an outlet for poor families — a way for every member of the family (including children) to contribute to the household. However, prior to the rise of Industrialization in the 19th century, labor was less intensive, less modernized, less factory-based and factory-driven — and, therefore, less detrimental to the physical well-being of minors (Pleck 178). With the rise of the machine-based operations of the 19th century, where working conditions became more dangerous, less sanitary, and more taxing in terms of hours worked and ground to be made up (as poverty increased in various communities), nations began to take a closer look at the role of children in the workplace. This was as true for England as it was for the Continent. Industrialized urban centers in Spain were no different from those in the UK or other parts of Europe (Cunningham 414-416).

Grievances illustrated artistically in the popular novels of Dickens were matched by writers and activists in other nations: Spain had its Realists, just as France had Emile Zola, who was preceded by Victor Hugo (author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables) and Honore Daumier (Goldstein 43). Hugo himself predicted the effect that the labor unions would have on the fate of children in the future when he wrote that “sooner or later the splendid question of universal education will present itself with the irresistible authority of the absolute truth; and then, those who govern under the superintendence of the French idea will have to make this choice; the children of France or the gamins of Paris” (12). Indeed, just ten years after Hugo penned those words, a workers’ rebellion in France gave birth to the Paris Commune. As a result, the Labor Movement in one of the leading intellectual cities of the Europe fanned the flames of social justice — to such an extent, in fact, that the Catholic Church under Pope Leo XIII in Italy issued its own perspective in the encyclical “Rerum novarum — Of revolutionary change: Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor: On the Condition of the Working Classes,” which called for the standardization of working hours, wages, the abolition of child labor, and the rights of labor unions (which had seen undue repression under the various regimes that had come into power in the Continent throughout the century). Writers were as responsible as anyone else in these nations for stirring the social consciousness, which when prompted exerted its influence through the development of labor unions. Indeed, writers were part and parcel with the labor unions in many ways, as the relationship between the novelist and the activist was born in the same salons. Together their impact on social, political and economic changes in their individual homelands could be discerned, even as the character of those nations changed over the decades. The labor unions themselves were not the sole catalyst for change, however: technology became more and more developed, requiring more skilled labor from adults (and thus displacing any real need for child labor in particular sectors of the labor market) (Tuttle).

Society too began to adopt values in which households identified the father as the “breadwinner” and the mother as the “homemaker” — values that supported the rising middle class in its identification of itself and in its perspective on the role of children in the family and in society (Tuttle). Children, by the mid-19th century, were no longer needed as strongly as partial-providers of the family’s sustenance; by the third-quarter of the century, school and education began to be promoted from the top-down throughout all Europe as better places for children than the factory. From the Pope to progressives in Switzerland to the Victorian labor union leaders in England, bolstered by the writings of English Romantic poet William Blake whose “The Chimney Sweeper” epitomized the exploitation of child labor just prior to the 19th century, attention to the children of the 19th century finally gained the eyes and ears of lawmakers and leaders, who then set about instigating the necessary changes.

The labor unions varied from country to country in Europe in the 19th century. Spain was wracked by revolution and social unrest throughout the period with “minor revolutionary uprisings” being put down by “harsh repressive measures” (Goldstein 186). Even in the beginning of the century, Spain had been under the pressure of dichotomous extremes, with Ferdinand, following his release from Napoleon in 1813, first swearing allegiance to the 1812 Constitution and then just two years later declaring it “void” (Goldstein 126). France itself was no better, still reeling from the Revolution and its war with Britain (as well as its own internal struggle to come to grips with Napoleon). The century was one which began in one era (the Romantic-Enlightenment Era) and concluded in another (the Industrial Era). Every country in Europe experienced a change in social mood, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the surge of Romanticism, and the advent of technology. In the light of these changes, reform movements throughout Europe, including Spain, did manage to draw attention to changes and ideals within the social consciousness regarding welfare, education and labor for children. As Goldstein observes, “reforms that slightly shifted the burden off the backs of the poor in Germany, Italy, Austria, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom” had taken hold by the end of the 19th century and helped in the transition from cruel working conditions for children at the start of the century to better and more appropriate educational conditions by the end of the century (254).

In Switzerland, labor unions won a tremendous victory and were, in fact, the first in Europe to do so, when in 1877 “a comprehensive factory regulation bill” was approved “by national legislative referendum” and set by law a maximum working day (11 hours) while simultaneously excluding “children from factory work” (Goldstein 265). The other European nations soon followed suit, and in England, where Dickens had pushed for reform on the behalf of children in both the workplace and the schools, the entire concept of labor, society, family and education began to come under increased scrutiny. The British Labour Party grew out of the Trade Union Congress of 1899. But it itself had its earliest roots in the Chartist Movement in England, from 1838 to 1858: a period of two decades that saw a working-class union of millions petitioning the House of Commons for manhood suffrage (the idea that men should be better represented by the law and have rights in terms of labor, property and wages). The demand for better and fairer constitutional representation by men in mid-19th century England was a clear indication of the direction in which the labor unions were heading: more responsibility for men (“the breadwinners”), less exploitation of children (they should be in school, not in the factories). The Chartists helped lay the ideological foundation in the UK for the labor movement and the impact that the unions would ultimately have throughout Europe (Pickering 144).

Throughout Europe, diversity of nationality was nullified by the umbrella of activism by the labor movement, which focused not only on children’s labor but also on the rights of adult men. Wanting to receive fairer treatment, men banded together in every country to assert their demand for living wage, for suffrage (as it was defined in England). The impact of this (the demand for respect and the assumption of responsibility by men) was that children were viewed as a less viable means of cheap labor by companies who now faced public pressure and scrutiny to act morally and fairly. Because of advancements in technology, more adult labor was being needed at any rate — so in every way, children were being moved out of the factories and into the school. But these two needed reform. What had come before was mechanized and inhuman, as Carr notes, echoing Dickens in his assessment of what was wrong with children’s education in the 19th century: “The nineteenth-century fetishism of facts was completed and justified by a fetishism of documents. The documents were the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of fact” (Carr 16). It was this “fetishism of facts” that allowed schools and workplaces to prevail in such deplorable conditions for so many years: the idea of a human element, of consideration for the nurture aspect of socialization had disappeared in the wake of so many revolutions and revolts in Europe in recent years. One could go back to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, tracing the unending litany of wars that ravaged European nations as the order of Christendom fell beneath the weight of new rulers and leaders and fighting factions. What the labor unions achieved in Switzerland well before the Roman Pontiff’s encyclical in 1891 was an indication of just how difficult it was for social institutions already in place to recognize the shift that had taken place on the lower levels of the social strata. The plight of families in France, Spain, England, Switzerland, etc., in mid-19th century was far different than it had been in mid-18th century.

Thus, the role that labor unions played in the shift in the 19th century was essentially that of facilitator: the 19th century tested the Marxist view that capitalism was “mainly a bipolar struggle between capital and labor” (Wetzel). What emerged at the end of that test was the fruit of the industry of the labor unions in concerted effort with various social groups, whether writers like Dickens and Hugo or religious leaders like Leo XIII: the result after a century of change and struggle was a “state-regulated, corporate form of capitalism” that cooperated with the various governments of Europe (defined as Fascism by Mussolini in Italy in the 20th century but essentially the same in every country, whether Spain, England or even the U.S.) (Wetzel). These new regulations also fostered a new concept of self and family and social status: a “new class” emerged, and that new class had to be managed by a new bureaucracy — the socio-political arm of the cooperative between government and business (a cooperative which gestated throughout the 19th century).

In nations like Spain, where religious and social control were essentially battlefronts (Spain had remained monarchal, like England — but unlike England, Spain had remained Catholic and loyal to Rome; England had not; thus, progressive forces in Spain battled for control of the nation), it took the encyclical of the Pope in 1891 to drive home the point that labor unions and the rights of workers should be respected. In Spain, reform and socialism went hand-in-hand and went under the name of Anarchism (as it did in France and Italy). For a country whose heritage was still traditionally Catholic, Anarchism was viewed as an upheaval of the established social order. Lost in the conflict were, as usual, the children. It is important to remember that all of these nations in the 19th century were essentially developing nations: each was undergoing rapid and severe and straining changes as a result of revolutionary ideas permeating their cultures, Industrialization transforming the landscape and fostering urbanization, and old world loyalties and ideals being tested by the new and unorthodox. Spain’s Catholic culture, moreover, meant that families had many children and for the family to support itself, children were expected to do some part in the labor. However, Industrialization changed the way that labor was construed. With the rise of the factory, children were apprenticed in factory labor skills — and for factory owners, this was a cheap method of increasing productivity and profits. If one were following Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, it made perfect sense to divide labor up among children. Prior to Industrialization, exploitation had not been a major issue in child labor; child labor had merely been customary. The factories changed the dynamic, and the social response was evident in Spanish Anarchism — the Spanish representation of the English labor movement: a vast, surging uprising and protest of the robbing of Spanish manhood of its due, as working places turned more and more towards child labor in the first half of the 19th century. The response from Catholic leaders was slow, and so Anarchism bridled and chaffed, and a socio-political conflict emerged, sweeping through the country.

By the end of the 19th century, Spain’s culture had become a mixture of progressive and Catholic strains (which would boil over into war in the first half of the 20th century); but as far as children were concerned, the encyclical of Leo XIII put an end to the question. It was a nod to the labor unions in Spain, an expression of appreciation for what they had done to bring to the attention of the Continent that social justice in labor was something that needed attention. As a result, the exploitation of children in the labor force was discontinued as the country advanced both technologically and politically.

Why This Issue is Still Studied Today

This issue is still studied today because, unfortunately, the exploitation of child labor is still a problem in developing parts of the world that seek to catch up with the rest of the developed world. It is this stage of transition that causes so many social problems for families, as more demands are placed on them but less is given them for their labor. In developing parts of the world, labor unions are viewed as trouble makers. But the issue is not one of anarchy; it is rather one of fairness. Children should not be used as slaves — but there is a difference between a child “doing one’s bit” and a child who is exploited for a factory’s or a multinational’s monetary gain, as is the case in places like China today (Morrow 436).

All over the world, even now, the question of how children should be viewed in their societies is still being asked. Much of it depends upon culture and custom — of the kind of necessity that was common in Spain or England or France in the 19th century before the unions garnered a modicum of control for workers and a modicum of freedom for children and a better system of education as a result. In Afghanistan, for instance, children as young as four years of age participate in the brick making process — a process that helps to forge the infrastructure of local communities: it is not an exploitative endeavor, but one that is communal and necessary for survival; no corporate multinational profits. On the other hand, in China, children under 15 are “forced to produce electronics” for companies that seek only to expand their profits (United States Department of Labor). By examining the difference in the way that children are treated and what is expected of them, more understanding can be generated among all interested parties. From the past can be learned methods of dealing with and improving the present. Child labor is not something that ended in the 19th century. It continues to be an issue, and, as a corollary, the issue of children’s education and its neglect is one that is lost in the shuffle.

Historians have essentially agreed about the impact of labor unions on children’s education in the 19th century, indicating that it was not just the unions themselves that allowed children to escape the slavery of the factory: the assertion of manhood suffrage, the social unrest in places like Paris and Spain, the advancement of ideologies that could capably address the changing social nature of the Industrial Era, the rise of the new class that adopted ideals, such as the notion of a single “breadwinner” for the family — all of this factored into the equation. It is important to understand the complexity of the issue so as to better appreciate how present society has arrived at the place where it is now. It is also important to continue to ask questions, such as: Children may no longer be working in factories in the developed nations of Europe, but are they better off? Have their schools fundamentally improved? What should be the basis of education?

These are not questions that are easily answered, and historians and philosophers and other academics continue to address them because they each have their own ideas about how society could continue to develop and better itself. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for instance, is just one example of the way in which education reform is discussed and promoted: the need for the liberation of children from the workplace has allowed thinkers to now begin to address the issue of the need for the liberation of children from the stagnant enclosures of the classroom.

Works Cited

Blake, William. “The Chimney Sweeper.” Songs of Innocence and Experience, Plate 45,

“The Chimney Sweeper” (Bentley 37). Yale Center for British Art, 1794. Web. 1 May 2016.

Carr, E. H. What is History? Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Cunningham, Hugh. “The Decline of Child Labour: Labour Markets and Family

Economies in Europe and North America Since 1830.” The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 3 (Aug., 2000): 409-428. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. England: Bradbury and Evans, 1854. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Goldstein, Robert. Political Repression in 19th Century Europe. NY: Routledge, 2010.


Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. France: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie., 1862. Print.

Leo XIII. “Rerum novarum — Of revolutionary change: Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor: On the Condition of the Working Classes.” Vatican, 1891. Web. 1 May 2016.

Morrow, V. “Should the World Really be Free of Child Labour? Some Reflections.”

Sage, 2010. Web. 1 May 2016.

Pickering, Paul. “Class without Words: Symbolic Communication in the Chartist

Movement.” Past & Present, no. 112 (Aug. 1986): 144-162. Print.

Pleck, Elizabeth. “Two Worlds in One: Work and Family.” Journal of Social History, vol. 10, no. 2 (Winter, 1976): 178-195. Print.

Tuttle, Carloyn. “Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution.” EH, 2001.

Web. 1 May 2016.

United States Department of Labor. “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor.” DOL, 2014.

Wetzel, Tom. “Workers Power and the Spanish Revolution.” Libcom, 2006. Web. 1

May 2016.

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