By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Worker protests over unsafe conditions followed an Amazon warehouse fire. After being told to resume working, some unionized workers staged a sit-in, while others walked out. Organized labor has medieval roots.
On October 3, a trash compactor at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island caught fire, causing management to send day-shift workers home with pay. However, night-shift employees were told to wait in the break room until further decisions could be made.
After being ordered to resume work, many employees expressed concerns over smoke inhalation, demanding the same treatment as day workers, despite the New York Fire Department certifying the building as safe. Some staged a sit-in, while others staged a walkout. An attorney for the Amazon Labor Union says the workers may file unfair labor practice charges against the company.
Today’s workers’ unions and organized labor began as trade guilds dating back as far as the 12th century. In her video series The Medieval Legacy, Dr. Carol Symes, Associate Professor of History, Theatre, Classics, and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, shares the early history of these guilds.
Authentication Service and the Guild
In the Middle Ages, towns began to emerge due to an 11th-century economic boom. They often centered around castles or monasteries and provided a greater level of social mobility than in times past. They also led to the first iterations of organized labor in the form of trade guilds. These guilds were major cultural and social forces, advocating for innovation and changes in their hometowns.
“To an extent, the emergence of self-regulating guilds was an extension of the medieval town’s own corporate status,” Dr. Symes said. “Many of these towns were fiercely independent, formed around a sworn association of free citizens whose mutual oath, the coniuratio, constituted a political, social, and economic bulwark against the predations of local lords and the meddling of emerging monarchies.”
These towns often formed communes and demanded charters from local rulers. By obtaining them, the towns became self-governing bodies with the power to make laws within its established territory.
This legal status also allowed towns to make and use an official seal, enabling them to participate in economic and political transactions. A town’s seal increasingly came to symbolize the quality of goods produced there, associating the commodity with the town. It went so far that a damask became the name for a luxurious silk from Damascus. So where do guilds come in?
“Protecting the integrity and quality of a product was the trade guild’s most essential purpose, together with the protection of its members’ legal rights and welfare,” Dr. Symes said.
Importance of Sharing Interests
According to Dr. Symes, all early guilds benefited from the fact that any professional practicing a certain craft likely lived on the same street or in the same neighborhood as others doing the same. Marriages and family partnerships also created strong affiliations within a trade.
Archaeological evidence and even surviving place names have taught modern scholars about how medieval towns were laid out. Dr. Symes said that skinners, tanners, and fullers lived on the peripheries of a town, likely due to the messy nature of their work. Leather workers, shoemakers, parchment makers, and bookbinders lived near one another since they often worked the same animal hides in different ways.
High-end metalworkers, blacksmiths, and butchers lived and worked nearer the center of town. Finally, luxurious trades like weavers and drapers, goldsmiths and silversmiths, merchants, and bankers congregated along a city’s main street or square.
“In all cases, guilds fostered a sense of group identity and mutual responsibility—and, as such, could be perceived as threatening to established authorities and hierarchies,” Dr. Symes said. “There were efforts on the parts of both ecclesiastic and secular rulers to outlaw guilds, especially if their meetings or holiday festivities became unruly, but these efforts were constantly thwarted.
“Later medieval guilds were occasionally powerful enough to spearhead urban uprisings and general strikes that were remarkably successful, if, ultimately, temporary.”
The Medieval Legacy is now available to stream on Wondrium.