A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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By the late 19th century a significant number of Chester workers were joining trade unions, doubtless partly in response to the poor and often insecure working conditions which they faced. Although Cestrians played little role in the development of the union movement nationally before 1914, worker organization was not absent from the city. Its origins can be traced in the later 18th century, when workers in some of the traditional trades were already participating in prototrade unions. In 1777 Chester hatters were involved in a national organization of journeymen and joined with colleagues elsewhere in unsuccessfully petitioning parliament against a Bill promoted by the employers to remove limitations on the number of apprentices which each master might take. (fn. 1) Craftsmen in the city's building industry also seem to have had a tradition of organization. There was a branch of the Operative Stonemasons in the city in 1833, and in 1867 they were involved in a nine-month strike on the town hall building site. (fn. 2) Chester plumbers took part in the establishment of the United Operative Plumbers' Association in 1865. (fn. 3) In 1894 there was a strike of joiners and carpenters over rules of work, (fn. 4) and in 1899 bricklayers' labourers went on strike, gaining support for their demands from the Chester Chronicle. (fn. 5) The national explosion of industrial unrest and trade unionism in the early 1870s also found some expression in Chester. The city's rail workers were represented at the foundation meeting of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants in 1872, (fn. 6) and formed a local branch in 1874. (fn. 7) Some Chester shoemakers attended the meeting at which the footware riveters seceded from the Amalgamated Cordwainers' Association in 1873 to form their own union, although the Chester men chose to remain with the older craft association, an indication perhaps of the technical backwardness of the trade locally. (fn. 8) In 1874 there was a wage strike of planters at F. & A. Dickson's nurseries. (fn. 9)
In 1871 the Chester Trades Council included bakers, bricklayers, cabinetmakers, coachbuilders, engineers, ironfounders, joiners, masons, plasterers, railway servants, tailors, tobacconists, and the chain and anchorsmiths of Saltney. The number of affiliated members was around 600, almost 7 per cent of the adult male labour force, (fn. 10) and including workers both in traditional crafts and in the newer industries. Union organization probably weakened in Chester in the later 1870s, as it did nationally, (fn. 11) and the trades council seems to have fallen into abeyance. In 1879 wage reductions were imposed in the Chester engineering trade, and there was an unsuccessful strike at the Hydraulic Engineering Co. over the introduction of piecework. (fn. 12) The national upsurge of New Unionism in 1889 does not seem to have found any immediate local response, but the trades council was refounded in 1894, (fn. 13) and in 1904 attempts were made to organize tramwaymen, cabmen, and women tailors. (fn. 14) A majority of Chester railway workers took part in the 1911 national strike even though most of the strikers still belonged to no union, but workers at the General passenger station mostly stayed at work. (fn. 15) In the same year there was a strike of apprentices at the electrical engineering firm of Brookhirst. (fn. 16)
It seems clear that trade unionism in Chester before 1914 was typical of that in many provincial market towns. Only a minority of workers ever joined a trade union, and union bargaining power in most sectors was weak and fluctuating. Apart from the railways, the service sector remained almost totally unorganized and the weak manufacturing base meant that there was never a significant 'labour aristocracy' in Chester to play a formative role in developing the labour movement locally. There were, nevertheless, surges in both militancy and union membership at favourable times, and Chester shared, albeit rather weakly, in the trend towards greater worker organization which characterized the years before 1914.