|The Robert Owen Museum. Photo by "Indigo Goat" Some rights reserved|
The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union
"National arrangements shall be formed to include all the working classes in the great organisation"
Robert Owen had returned home a poor man, having sold his shares in New Lanark to finance New Harmony, but his faith in the co-operative ideal remained strong. Moreover, he discovered that his ideas which had been ignored by the upper and middle classes were spreading amongst the workers through the new trade unions.
At this time, in the early 1830's, the trade union movement was growing and a number of co-operative societies had opened shops and workshops. In 1832 Robert Owen started his own newspaper, "The Crisis", but he was gradually drawn into the co-operative and labour movement. He opened the National Equitable Labour Exchange in London for the exchange of goods between co-operative societies and issued Labour Notes valued in hours in exchange for merchandise.
The new unions were growing rapidly and fighting for shorter hours, the end of child labour, co-operative action and labour exchanges, reforms which Robert Owen had been campaigning for over the last 20 years. In 1832 he proposed that the unions should unite and in 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed. Within a week it had over half a million members and the government were alarmed by this new mass labour movement.
The government reacted by arresting six agricultural workers from Tolpuddle in Dorset, who were members of the new union, under the Illegal Oaths Act, and sentenced them to seven years transportation.
Robert Owen led a protest of 30,000 union members, but the Home Office refused their petition. The union was slowly financially weakened by strikes and lock-outs by the employers and while Robert Owen called for co-operation between the employers and the union, the employees believed in fighting for their rights. In August 1834 the union collapsed dragging down hundreds of small co-operative shops and Owen's newspaper and labour exchange. This marked marked the end of the popular mass labour movement which had grown around Robert Owen.
However, the idea of the co-operative movement did not die completely, for in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers started a co-operative venture in Lancashire which eventually grew into the modern Co-operative Movement