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This Day in Labor History: October 25, 1831

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On October 25, 1831, the first of several revolts by silk workers in Lyon, France, began, which rocked the nation. The Canut revolts that this began was among the first serious challenges to the labor systems of the Industrial Revolution. With the slogan of “Live Free or Die Fighting,” they serve as a precursor to more than a century of industrial revolt before the benefits of industrialization would be shared fairly with European workers.

As was common in early industrialization, skilled workers controlled much about the means of production. In the nascent French silk industry, based in Lyon, canuts, or the chief weaving craftsmen, owned their own looms. There were about 8000 of them. They employed approximately 30,000 apprentices. There were then several thousands lower-paid workers, many of them women and children, who did the brute labor that made the looms work, such as folders, spinners, and people who made the weaving tools. Lyon had developed an unusually strong working-class culture for this period. While the literacy rate in France as a whole was about 25 percent in 1831, in Lyon it was more like 65 percent. The workers had not one but two newspapers of their own to educate themselves about their common economic and political needs.

A down economy in 1831 led to a collapse in silk prices. The silk employers thus reduced workers’ wages. Broader industrial changes were also making the standards of living for the canuts increasingly precarious. The invention of the Jacquard loom, a much larger and more expensive piece of equipment, meant that it was harder for the canuts to control their labor, in part because they had to buy these things and in part because they either had to move to the suburbs or find room for these gigantic machines, causing significant hardship for many. Overhead costs grew and the canuts bore the brunt of them. Moreover, the entire Lyon economy depended upon a single industry, making it quite susceptible to depressions if silk prices declined, even temporarily. Working conditions were also extremely poor, as they were throughout the nascent industrial revolution throughout western Europe and the United States. Weavers routinely worked at least 14 hours a day and could have to work up to 20. To say the least, this was not an ergonomic workplace and workers’ bodies felt the years of awkward seating and lengthy workdays.

The workers responded by demanding a minimum price for silk, which they felt would guarantee them a standard, livable wage. Effectively a local tariff, this was strongly opposed by the merchants, leading to greater tensions between the two groups. On October 25, the canuts and their supporters marched through the streets of Lyon to demand the creation of this tariff. They succeeded and the tariff was to be implemented on November 2. But by November 5, it was clear that the merchants had no intention of following the new law. The prefect equivocated when the merchants called it unconstitutional on November 17, saying he could not force them to pay it but that it was the right thing to do and they should. Of course, the merchants did not do the right thing. They did the thing that would save their profits.

Angry about the merchants ignoring the ruling and the prefect’s unwillingness to force the issue with them, the canuts organized to seize the silk mills. On November 21, the canuts effectively started taking over the city. The prefect then organized guard units to stop the strike from spreading around the city, but he made a huge mistake by creating a whole guard unit out of the silk merchants. They then seized the Lyon arsenal, defeating a local military force. Other workers were organized into another force, who basically just let the canuts through to occupy the city. On November 22, the canuts and the military engaged in an open battle that was incredibly bloody, with about 100 soldiers and 69 civilians dying, with another 400 or so total wounded. The town’s mayor and military commander fled Lyon.

Finally, the French government sent Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, a veteran officer who had served in the Napoleonic Wars, to put down the rebellion. The workers did not want bloodshed, nor did they have any political agenda other than setting silk prices. So they surrendered on December 2. But this did not turn out well for them. There were arrests, but all the workers were acquitted. Unfortunately, the minimum price they implemented was immediately repealed and they won no wage gains. The revolt was ultimately a failure. In the aftermath, Adrien Etienne Pierre de Gasparin was placed in charge of Lyon, with a mission to solve the problems that led to the strike. His first move was to deport all the Italian immigrants in Lyon in order to provide the French workers with jobs. Second, he tried to craft a compromise that would not allow the tariff but rather would attempt to create a common agreement on what the price of silk should be that would serve as a baseline for problems of money between merchants and workers. He then created a government-subsidized loan office that would help the canuts. This all had a pretty limited effect, but were pretty wide-reaching for the 1830s considering the inability and unwillingness of governments to do anything to assist workers. The loans only went to master workmen with wives, which helped solidify the divide between the labor aristocracy of the canuts and everyone else. Plus the price agreement had no legal authority, leading to it breaking down almost immediately.

As early as April 1832, tensions began to rise again in Lyon. The canuts would continue to revolt, first in 1834 and then again participating in the broader revolts that rocked France in 1848.

This is the 196th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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