Rome at the beginning of the Republic was not a democracy by any means. The rich were preying on the poor.
The plebeians were oppressed by hunger, poverty and powerlessness. Allotments of land didn't solve the problems of poor farmers whose tiny plots stopped producing when overworked. Some plebeians whose land had been sacked by the Gauls couldn't afford to rebuild, so they were forced to borrow. Interest rates were exorbitant, but since land couldn't be used for security, farmers in need of loans had to enter into contracts (nexa), pledging personal service. Farmers who defaulted (addicti), could be sold into slavery or even killed.
Some patricians were making a profit and gaining slaves, even if the people to whom they lent money defaulted.
The first recorded general strike happened in Rome in 494 BC. Because General Strike was not a term that had been invented yet, the term used was Secessio plebis
- in which all the plebians
(i.e. working class) simply left the city until the patricians (i.e. aristocracy) gave in. The name of this conflict was known as the Conflict of the Orders
While the appearance of this conflict was labour related, in fact it was a direct class conflict.
It didn't happen often, but Secessio plebis was extremely effective when it was used. The plebians used it in 494 B.C.
to force the patricians to create the political office of tribune.
There, without any commander, in a regularly entrenched camp, taking nothing with them but the necessaries of life, they quietly maintained themselves for some days, neither receiving nor giving any provocation.
A great panic seized the City, mutual distrust led to a state of universal suspense.
Without the working class cooking, cleaning, and protecting them, the aristocrats were powerless.
In 449 B.C. it was used to force the creation of a written and published legal code, something the authorities vehemently opposed.
In 287 B.C., the last time Secessio plebis was used, the working class managed to force the patricians to abolish debt slavery, laws forbidding the marriage of a plebian and a patrician, gave plebians final say in all legislative matters, and allowed any plebian to hold any political office.
In other words, a non-violent general strike was far more successful for the average, working class person than any armed revolt in history.
An Unusual Worker's Compensation Agreement
Work on the High Seas in the 17th Century was dangerous and unrewarding. Its for these reasons more than any other that piracy spread. Generally the person who had the most to fear from being captured by pirates was the captain of the ship.
According to The Many-Headed Hydra, the pirate vessels of the days were incredibly progressive in their egalitarianism (all captains were elected) and race was not a factor in duties or rank.
Given this, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to discover that pirate ships were pioneers in the idea of workers compensation.
It was the custom to draw up articles of agreement before the commencement of a voyage, and it can be certain that the men who joined [Captain] Kidd on the Adventure Galley at London signed such an agreement. These articles regulated the various charges and payments to all members of the crew. Esquemiling, in the Buccaneers of America, writes of such agreements in the following terms:
Lastly, they stipulate in writing what recompense or reward each one ought to have that is either wounded or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage. Thus they order for the loss of a right arm 600 pieces-of-eight, or 6 slaves; for the loss of a left arm 500 pieces-of-eight; or 5 slaves; for a right leg 500 pieces-of-eight, or 5 slaves; for a left leg 400 pieces-of-eight, or 4 slaves; for an eye 100 pieces-of-eight, or one slave; for a finger of the hand the same reward as the same eye.
Trouble with the help Part 2; the cradle of labor activism
the first unauthenticated strike in America may have come from the most unlikely of sources. The Charleston Gazette on October 29, 1763, has a very unusual news report.
It seems that Negro chimney sweepers "had the insolence, by a combination amongst themselves, to raise the usual price, and to refuse doing their work, unless their exorbitant demands are complied with."
Philadelphia was first in another major milestone in labor history - the general strike.
"The blood sucking aristocracy stood aghast; terror stricken they thought the day of retribution had come."
- John Ferral, union leader
The idea of a general strike was first circulated by a man named William Benbow. Benbow was an English socialist, but his radical ideas about "common concerted job action across occupational lines" began circulating in pamphlet form on the east coast in 1831.
Seventeen trade unions struck for a 10-hour day in Baltimore in 1833, but the strike was quickly crushed. Shortly afterwards a similar effort was made in Boston, and met a similar fate.
Word travelled from city to city. By June 1835, Philadelphia was ready.
Three hundred armed Irish longshoremen marched through the streets calling workers to join them on strike. Leather workers, printers, carpenters, bricklayers, masons, city employees, bakers, clerks and painters joined in, carrying their tools.
In all, 20,000 workers walked off their jobs and idled the city in a general strike for a 10-hour day. In what might be called the first "concern troll" in history, the Germantown Telegraph fretted
for the well-being of the workers.
the brevity of only a sixty-hour week would be harmful to workers, that all the extra time would be "applied to useless and unworthy purposes."
After a week the city government caved. City workers would now only work 10 hours, from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., with one hour for lunch and one hour for dinner. Three weeks later the other employers in the city gave in to the general strike. The 10 hour day was adopted throughout the city along with some wage increases.
The success of the general strike electrified the labor movement, and a wave of strikes swept the east coast. By the following year the 10-hour day was the standard for skilled workers. In 1840 President Martin Van Buren instituted the ten hour day for federal employees.
Trouble with the help Part 3, or On Strike Against God
The most noteworthy of firsts in labor history has to be the very first recorded strike. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing what day this occurred.
toward the end of the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses III widespread corruption and inefficiency had made Egypt barely governable, and construction at the city of Thebes had apparently severely depleted the grain reserves used to pay the workers at the royal necropolis. On the 21st day of the second month, in Ramses's 29th year, the scribe Amennakht personally delivered a formal complaint about this situation to the royal mortuary temple that was part of the large administrative complex of Medinet Habu. The workers implored,
"We are hungry: eighteen days have elapsed in the month."
Although a payment was soon made, the poor conditions continued, and in the sixth month of that year the workers organized the first recorded strike in history. The men of the two crews stopped work and marched together to one of the royal mortuary temples, where they staged what would today be called a sit-in. The men insisted,
"It was because of hunger and thirst that we came here. There is no clothing, no ointment, no fish, no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh our good lord about it, and send to the vizier our superior, that sustenance may be made for us."
The workers repeated their protest on the following day within the complex of another temple, and possibly a third, until their complaints were recorded by the priests and sent across the river to Thebes. Only then were the rations owed finally distributed. However, similar protests were repeated before the reign of Ramses III ended; and even in the reigns of subsequent Pharaohs workers had to go on strike in order to receive payment.
This was around 1158 or 1157 B.C.
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