Why we need unions

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Hard Times, first published in 1854, takes the reader into a harsh, polluted and highly efficient society. It is a northern industrial mill town in England given the name of Coketown. The industrialists are unregulated as employers and in their impact on the environment. The leading industrialist in Coketown, Josiah Bounderby, is also the town magistrate, so any troublemakers are automatically dealt harsh punishment.

Hard Times has been noted since the time of publication as a realistic and bleak portrayal of social and industrial conditions before and during the introduction of organised labour and the union movement. The workers in the textile mills, known as The Hands, are as tightly programmed as robots from birth. We see the schooling at the Model School, based on rote learning and hard discipline, conditioning young people to accept their fate as machines who will soon toil from before light to 9pm at night, with one hour off for lunch. This will provide just enough money to rent a small room to live in and necessities. Even having children means dire poverty, with the extra mouths to feed. There seems to be no escape.

The Hands labour like slaves in Coketown. The town ‘of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled’ is so polluted by industry that the town has a black canal in it, and a river that runs purple with ill-smelling dye, and the buildings rattle in time with the piston of the steam-engines.

Dickens reveals the ideological underpinnings which keep the factories going, and the tragedy and spiritual sickness at the heart of it. The factory owners firmly believe that The Hands are lazy, grasping and wicked. Any suggestion that more could be done to prevent pollution, industrial accidents or child labour are met by the owners with cries of ‘ruination’ and threats of throwing their property into the Atlantic Ocean, for how could the economy get along without them.

The plot also includes an arranged marriage, a bank robbery, an untimely death down an abandoned mine shaft and the doings of a group of circus folk and the return of the heroic old circus dog Merrylegs. The Hands begin to organise themselves.

This is a complex and thrilling story with wonderful characters.

Pam Blakeley
July 2019