Interview: Court's in Session
Industrial: Whose Choices?
Politics: Peter's Principles
Environment: TINA or Greener?
History: Its Not Just Handshakes and Aprons
International: US Locks out Jose' Bove
Education: No AWA - No Job
Culture: Jesus was a Long-Grass Man
Review: Charlie the Serf
The Locker Room
Belated Merry Whatmas?
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
I Think Therefore I Scam
A Taxing Answer
Leslie John Turner
Its Not Just Handshakes and Aprons
Freemasonry has been accused of controlling the world. In reality Freemasons and friendly societies were formed to enable mutual aid, help working men gain and retain some control over their own fate, through combining for sickness and health benefits, and to ensure they obtained a decent return for their skill and efforts. The worker is worthy of their hire. Handshakes were a part of it for sure! Friends in the trade and around a country ensured mutual aid and a livelihood.
Historians, once again given their queue from E. P. Thompson, have been looking more closely at the way these societies were founded and how they operated. Bob James has been perhaps the most interested scholar, with friendly society tradition is well within his interest in co-operative and anarchist movements who rejected the role of the state. Trade unions have unfortunately been too willing to be incorporated into the state and industrial capitalist system. Elsewhere Thompson's student Bryan Palmer, in his Cultures of Darkness places friendly societies in a similar situation, as part of the resistance to the restructuring of the world that ushered in globalization in the 1600s. The lodges and public houses of the 18th and nineteenth century were the meeting places for fraternal orders to combine for their protections. As Palmer puts it, "the fraternal orders that dotted the organizational landscape of nineteenth century society had their origins in an age-old human proclivity to join voluntary associations that would provide aid to their members in times of financial need."
An exhibition in Ireland (North and the Republic) that looked at guild traditions and marching unions ((in 1978) placed the origins of unions in Ireland in the twelfth century:
"In the banners the symbols of the unions' self-reliance mingled strangely with emblems of other earlier traditions, adopted for the air of respectability they lent.
It is for this reason that many Irish trade union banners right up to this century have depicted coats of arms or saints associated with the medieval guilds. These guilds were not, like the unions, workingmen's associations. Introduced into Ireland by the Normans at the end of the twelfth century, they were associations of merchants and craftsmen formed to obtain a monopoly of trading. Their keynote was their exclusiveness. No merchant who was not a guild member could buy or sell in the district it controlled: no craftsman could practice his trade unless he had been admitted to the relevant guild."
Bob James looks into this in great depth, emphasising the way many had to be secretive about their societies:
"the history of manual labour and the history of the dignity, even the sacredness of physical work, is necessarily the history of secret societies. A second, more benign, 'insiders' view of the need for 'sacred knowledge' is that it is information kept hidden until the society member is considered ready. Implicitly hierarchical, the test of readiness is also a test of the commitment of members to the values of the society and of their perseverance in the face of challenges to the society itself. ...
From the time the Gothic cathedrals were under construction, stonemasons, and other artisans in guilds controlled entry into their trade or 'misterie'. Thus they controlled who worked, what they were paid and under what conditions, with secret handshakes, passwords and secret signs of recognition. Apprentices were taught the skills 'in lodge' and qualification was marked by their being 'made', or admitted, at the higher degrees of Craftsman and Master Mason, for example. "
The guilds were successfully integrating functions which we see today as inevitably separate. The guild was simultaneously a religious society, an industrial (ie, a working conditions enhancer, ie, trade union) society, a convivial society and a secret society. Because of its success in combining these four functions, it held a central place in its community, and was able to develop its fifth function, which is the best descriptor of the whole, that of a benefit society.
The industrial revolution, which must be taken to include accounting and administrative pressures, shattered the integrated whole and forced benefit societies into competition for members and for funds and therefore into role specialisation. It is only then that divergent strands which could be called freemasonry, trade-based societies and friendly societies appear. Another strand, of course, is life insurance, another is the religious 'orders'. Freemasonry can no longer be called an industrial organisation and the trade-based societies are no longer seen as religious, but neither have yet lost the organisational imperatives inherent in their common heritage. All have been concerned with survival and thus are part of working people's history, and all have sought gentry patronage.
By this view, 'trade unions' are not a modern form, they are a residual form, specialising in industrial matters, but clearly carrying fragments of the other guild functions long after any proposed 'cut off' date, when the irrational, superstitious past supposedly gave way to a 'modern', scientific present. The practice of Eight Hour Day and May Day, for example, showed continuing use of 'guild' symbolism well into the 20th century."
The dangers to genuine solidarity in this approach that really ossified (although I think James disagrees) in the 19th century as the guilds came up against mass production and the breakdown of the skill divisions. The societies became even more exclusive, so that only masters were represented, not journeymen and apprentices. These others formed their own organizations. Hierarchy led to division and that was death (almost).
According to the Irish exhibition catalogue, as trade unions remained illegal organisations in Ireland until 1824 (secret societies all - Ireland was part of the UK then) both the tangible rights and privileges enjoyed by the guilds and the aura of respectability surrounding them was highly desirable. Many unions adopted the same name as the old guilds, and also their date of incorporation.
The catalogue also discusses James' point about the religious associations and pagan connections. Guild members would honour particular saints on feast days. The Clothiers all over England and Ireland honoured Bishop Blaise. St Crispin appeared on the twentieth century banner of the Irish Shoe and Leather Workers' Union.
The use of these figures in parades was part, as now with union marches, a show of strength. May Day processions in Limerick in 1669 was part of rural festivities, but it also became a day of rivalry and later violence as the Company of Grocers joined together, and
"began to march through the streets with their officers and colours as others did; but as they imagined that all other trades should give way to them, they attempted to take the right hand, but they were terribly nagged and beaten..."
Some sectarianism was no doubt also a part of this. The decline of the guilds from 1750 in Ireland was partially due to the bitterness of the journeymen and apprentices towards the Masters, and also because of the exclusion of Catholics.
So as the guilds declined, the trade unions, despite legal prohibition, struggled into existence. It is here that Bob James' emphasis on secret societies as differing from the masons and the like comes in, ad also I think where he departs from earlier work by Thompson to attempt to draw out why the ant-systemic movements can learn much from the societies, as opposed to the "traditional" labour history view of them giving way to unions better organized around the modern forms of work.
Palmer and James discuss how these earlier societies influenced the practice of unions and friendly societies in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how they declined. Both see the decline as due to the inability to alter their traditions and practices to be more inclusive, rather than less as we have seen, but both also see reason to study the way the societies operated as perhaps providing new ideas for a union movement and other "new social movements' as they face up to a worldwide assault of worker and civil rights, and on the very biosystem we live in.
Palmer emphasises the dialectic. The working class as a whole sought to sustain their precious security (at a time when they only had their labour to sell)
"through voluntary fraternalism and the collectivity of mutual aid - a process reinforced by a powerful rhetorical and representational attachment to equality". At the same time "they were drawn into the fragmenting ideological cauldron of the friendly society lodge". The Lodges by then were a part of the Nation and Empire. Palmer noted one Oddfellow being proud that the friendly societies had been the means of
"vast savings in the revenue of England, in poor rates and otherwise" and that the working classes were beginning to prize "self-help, and manly independence."
John Howard would be proud.
The friendly societies cannot all be tarred with this bloody brush, as the secret societies were a source of many Australian convicts sent away for taking oaths swearing them to mutual aid and collectivism. These ideals spilled into Chartism in the UK and the development of trade unionism and communist and socialist groups (James noted Marx was a Freemason??). It also spread its ideals of mutual aid internationally to Canada, the US and Dar es Salaam.
The fraternalism had its dark side, as Palmer's book emphasizes the dark. It was subversive of the social order, but also its protectionism, as noted, created increasingly rigid hierarchy and division, leading to its decline. Palmer sees it becoming the fraternalism of insurance companies (GUIOOF, NRMA for example in Australia). The meeting places in pubs had become their own exclusive halls. The trade unions used the pubs as key meeting and organizing venues, thus stepping into the vacated space, to develop a different form of worker organising, based initially on the lodges of old. Trade unions in the same way are now re-inventing themselves to deal with the changing nature of power and control. The histories of these older organisations and their decline and/or change are important in charting that course of openness and community contact, or we face the same fate.
Belinda Loftus (compiler) (1978) Marching Workers: an exhibition of Irish Trade Banners and Regalia. Ulster Museum, Belfast 2-28 May 1978; Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin 14 June-5 July 1978 (Arts Council of Ireland Exhibition in association with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions)
Bryan Palmer (2000) Sociabilities of the Night: Fraternalism and the Tavern. Chapter 10 of Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression [from Medieval to Modern (New York: Monthly Review Press)
Bob James (1999) Secret Societies and the Labour Movement At http://www.takver.com/history/secsoc01.htm
Also Bob James ((2002) Craft, Trade or Mystery? Part One - Britain from Gothic Cathedrals to the Tolpuddle Conspirators. At http://www.takver.com/history/indexbj.htm
E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin); and Customs in Common (Merlin Press) give the initial clues
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