The Luddites were skilled workers in the English woolen industry around the years 1810 to 1814. New machines such as power looms and shearing frames were taking their jobs, and they demanded protection against displacement by machinery as a constitutional right. They wanted a gradual introduction of new machinery, with alternate employment for displaced workers. They also wanted a legal minimum wage, better working conditions, especially for women and children, and the right to organize trade unions.
Luddites were defending more than their own jobs. They saw the huge cotton mills advancing with their long hours of work, exploitation of child labour, and the reduction of workers to objects in the marketplace – all this powered by the mean –spirited, degrading ideology of unregulated laissez-faire competition.
As E. P. Thompson said in his excellent book, The Making of the English Working Class, “the principle behind Luddism was the regulation of industrial growth according to ethical priorities, and the pursuit of profit subordinated to human needs.”
Because the English Parliament had blocked all constitutional means of reform, the Luddites were forced into destructive action against property. “We will never lay down Arms till the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all machinery hurtful to commonality…We petition no more – that won’t do –fighting must, said Ned Ludd.
Violence against machinery was organized and selective. For example, framework-knitters only broke the frames where wages had been lowered.
In 1812 the Government responded to the frustrations of the wool workers by making frame-breaking a crime punishable by death.
Eventually the Luddite struggle was crushed, but the vision of the workers lived on in the Ten Hour Movement and the fight for the democratic vote. William Cobbett reflected the Luddite dream when he wrote about the rights of working people in 1833, “Among those rights was the right to…have a living out of the land of our birth in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land, whether that distress arose from sickness, from decrepitude, from old age, or from the inability to find employment.”
Today our rights, including the right to a decent job at a decent wage, are being taken away from us by an international, corporate agenda driven by the same Scrooge-had-it-right, laissez-faire, economic ideology against which the Luddites fought.
Our Luddite brotherss and sisters were part of the two hundred year fight for a more democratic and just society. We, also, are part of that long haul.