Guilds

Mary Ann Dimand amaebi at iwon.com
Sat Aug 12 11:48:42 EDT 2000


Jill Wadsworth asked,

> So does this mean Guilds were a primitive version of Unions?

Well, this depends on the functions you think of as defining unions.
Personally, I'd give you a qualified "no".

First, the qualifications:
1. The early (1869) Knights of Labor was in fact modeled on Guilds, and was
a craftsman's association with some benevolent society aspects, like a
Guild. This association was the immediate forerunner to Samuel Gompers's
(1886) American Federation of Labor, the AFL. The AFL continued to have many
Guild-like attributes, notably in that it was an association of skilled
workers, unlike the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) with which it
eventually affiliated.
2. Labor historians have considered some even earlier labor associations
than the Knights of Labor as precursors to unions. Like the Knights, these
were or started as secret societies with craft union and benevolent society
functions. Some also espoused a sort of William Morris socialism, but not
very actively. Labor historians tend to reject these as true precursors to
unions on the grounds that they were not formed to negotiate with employers
and did not function that way.

In fact, to my mind that's the crux of the matter.

Guilds were associations of skilled workers who functioned as sellers in
their own industry. Yes, most were employed, but by masters in that
industry. There were many laws and customs governing apprenticeship in its
varying stages, and a craft worker who was reasonably skilled and lived long
enough could anticipate becoming an independent master.

To my mind, the definitive function of a union is in functioning as a
bargaining unit-- over remuneration, work hours and conditions. And they
bargain with employers who are not in that industry, and whose "place"
individual union workers cannot reasonably expect to accede to.

I would say that the American Medical Association is considerably more like
a Guild in terms of its functions in establishing barriers to entering the
profession and the associated but not identical maintenance of professional
standards. And as an association of workers who are final sellers more than
employees.

Mary Ann


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