Craft-like control persisted in amended form in the mid Victorian factory, a privilege enjoyed by a new aristocracy of labour. John Foster argues that these new aristocrats derived their status from a change in employer strategy. Stripped of their former craft control, skilled workers were incorporated in a new authority structure designed to strengthen discipline and increase productivity. The introduction of the ‘piecemaster’ system in the engineering factories brought the skilled engineer into active involvement in the work of management as pacemaker and technical supervisor. In cotton factories, spinners retained skilled status as the crucial pacesetter group after the introduction of the self-acting mule. These male workers forced an intensification of labour from juvenile and female time-paid assistants, an effective adaptation of traditional gender and family roles to the factory environment
There is some disagreement on the degree to which this new aristocracy was secure. Gareth Stedman Jones insists that distinctions of status were purely formal and real control had passed to the employers with the restructuring of industry on ‘modern’ lines. Skilled workers, he suggests, became defensive and collaborationist in approach seeking to preserve their status and differentials through the goodwill of their employers. In the absence of technical expertise, employers were often forced to concede considerable autonomy to skilled workers, though they generally derived some benefit from the arrangement. Allowing spinners to appoint their own piecers relieved employers of direct responsibility for labour recruitment and discipline. Apprenticeship operated in a similar way, providing employers with a skilled workforce trained at worker expense. This pragmatic compromise between skilled workers and employers was usually negotiated locally and informally. Capital made production possible, but the actual details of production, the workers insisted, was the responsibility of labour.
Where no independence was allowed, workers were often reluctant to enter employment whatever the material advantages it offered. Domestic service, a comparatively well paid occupation largely unaffected by cyclical unemployment, was shunned by working-class girls in factory districts and urban areas. Lancashire marriage registers show that servants tended to marry husbands from a lower social-economic status than their peers, an indication of the social stigma attached to service in an area where alternative female employment was readily available. The middle-classes of the factory districts had to depend on rural migrants for domestic servants and some obtained cheap line-in servants from the local workhouse.
Factory employment offered women some independence but they seldom attained the most lucrative and responsible jobs. They were thought ineligible for the crucial supervisory tasks, the jobs that carried skilled status and workplace authority. These male preserves were jealously protected by ‘closed’ trade unionism. There was some technical and physical basis that denied women access to the well-paid spinning sector. Women were physically quite capable of operation self-acting mules but they often lacked the necessary technical skills and experience. They had been removed from the spinning factories in the 1810s and 1820s when the use of ‘doubled’ mules put a premium on male physical strength. Without recent hands-on experience, women were the victims of a cultural discontinuity in the transmission of craft skills and knowledge from one generation to another. The cult of domesticity that sought to limit female paid employment to the brief period before marriage further hindered the acquisition of workplace skills. In some parts of Lancashire, married women went out to work in substantial numbers, but not in the southern spinning belt where the well-paid spinners and engineers feared a loss of status should their wives return to paid employment.
Unable to restrict labour supply through closed organisations, the weaver, male and female, united in ‘open’ trade unionism, a development deplored by paternal employers. The Preston lock-out of 1853-1854 brought confrontation between employers and workers in an attempt to reverse the 10 per cent wage cuts of 1847. The cotton workers were starved back to work after twenty-eight weeks, a decisive defeat that marked a turning-point in union strategy. The union leadership now abandoned politics as an economic strategy and cultivated an image of moderation and respectability, a public relations exercise to secure recognition from reluctant employers. Blackburn employers granted union recognition and negotiating rights on the strict understanding that union officials would ‘police’ the agreement. Though recognition was elsewhere delayed until the 1880s, the Blackburn weavers pointed the way forward towards modern collective bargaining.
In industries that were already unionised, similar conciliation and arbitration schemes enjoyed considerable success in the late 1860s and early 1870s. They were first introduced in the Nottingham hosiery industry and were of mutual benefit to unions and employers, an institutional expression of the mid-Victorian compromise in labour relations. New sliding wage-scales were welcomes in the coal and iron trades where wage disputes had broken many unions: conciliation boards now automatically adjusted wages to product price. Some of the other schemes clearly favoured employers: in the building trade, for example, employers took advantage of mutual negotiation to reassert and redefine managerial powers thereby curtailing the autonomous regulation of the trade. Conciliation and arbitration schemes, however, came to an end with the collapse of the mid-Victorian boom.