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Marc Steinberg, England's Great Transformation: Law, Labour, and the Industrial Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016).

Marc Steinberg, England's Great Transformation: Law, Labour, and the Industrial Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016)

IN ENGLAND'S GREAT Transformation, Marc Steinberg challenges the traditional narrative of the emergence of free labour markets in England during the 19th century. He observes that a number of industries relied heavily upon the law and local institutions of justice to control labour markets and discipline their workforce. Of particular interest are master and servant laws, a body of statutes that permitted justices of the peace to summarily enforce contracts of employment. These laws were characterized by a double standard of sanctions, which treated the failure of workers to fulfill their contracts as a criminal matter, but offered only mild civil remedies for the broken promises of employers. Steinberg adds to recent research showing that during the 19th century masters made use of these laws much more frequently than workers. Master and servant statutes, enforced by justices who were increasingly likely to be employers of labour themselves, allowed employers to compel the specific performance of labour contracts against the threat of imprisonment. Steinberg uses three case studies to explore the social, political, and economic circumstances, as well as factors in the production process, that encouraged some regional industries to turn these laws to shape labour markets and maintain control of the workplace. He also examines the effects this reliance had upon the development of these industries, the organization of production, and the law itself. By examining the use of the law by employers in the pottery industry in Hanley, Hull's fisheries, and Redditch agriculture and needle manufacture, Steinberg theorizes about the operation of labour markets and the relationship of the state to workplace control and class struggle. It is a welcome contribution that will be of great interest to honours and graduate level students in history, sociology, labour studies, and social and political thought.

In Hanley there was a heavy concentration of the pottery industry, which was reliant upon skilled workers and craft-based production. The trade had witnessed very little mechanization prior to the 1870s. After a bitter labour dispute in 1836-37, the victorious masters imposed a highly one-sided annual contract which gave them great authority to set the conditions of work. To enforce compliance with this annual bond, employers turned to master and servant law enforced by the local bench of magistrates, nearly half of whom were pottery manufacturers themselves. Prosecutions by employers became more frequent in boom periods of high industrial demand, and the masters were nearly always successful before the courts. These laws allowed employers to resolve problems of absenteeism, leaving work before the term of service had expired, conflicts over the quality of work, or bad behaviour in their favour quickly and cheaply. Imprisonment was relatively rare, as the more desirable outcomes for the capitalists were orders to return to work combined with fines, wage abatements, or sureties. Steinberg suggests that the effectiveness of this regime might have contributed to the slow development of mechanization and alternative methods of labour control in the industry.

The law was also utilized to control a much different labour force in the Hull fishing trade. Smack (a fishing trawler) owners staffed their boats with parish apprentices and child labour, who worked under terrible and dangerous conditions for minimal remuneration. As these workers gained experience, many sought to flee their situation for better paying work at sea. Smack owners turned to the Borough Courts to hold onto these young workers. Although fishing employed only 3 per cent of the male workforce in Hull, it accounted for the lion's share of the master and servant prosecutions before the local court. Apprentices felt the coercion of the law, facing high rates of imprisonment and compulsion to complete their service on unfavourable terms.

Steinberg's third case study is Redditch, Worcestershire, a more rural area that was home to agriculture and needle making. Master and servant cases represented a much higher proportion of the total business of the Redditch Petty Session than the national average, yet there was a marked contrast in how the law was used by farmers and employers in the needle trade. The highly sub-divided and localized needle trade suffered from chronic labour shortages and poor industrial relations. Here employers deployed master and servant law enforced by magistrates (many of whom were needle manufacturers) to make workers to complete the terms of their contracts. As in Hanley, imprisonment was a rare sanction for needle workers in master and servant cases because their employers wanted them to complete their work more than for them to be punished. Magistrates used the threat of imprisonment to force needle makers to return to work on their masters' terms. Smaller masters were more likely to turn to the law than larger manufacturers, making this the one case study that conforms to Daphne Simon's much challenged assertion that master and servant law was the weapon of the small employer. The use of master and servant law by farmers in the area sheds light on the changing nature of agricultural service. Annual hiring of servants in husbandry was still common here, but farmers were abandoning many of the paternalistic obligations toward those in their charge. Farmers prosecuted servants in husbandry most frequently for disobedience or affronts to their authority, and often sought to end contracts and abate the wages of difficult employees. This chapter has a number of descriptions of specific master and servant cases, and thus provides more insight into how individual employees experienced master and servant law and how it affected their working lives than the other case studies. It also has the most extended consideration of gender and the experiences of female workers of any of the case studies. All three of Steinberg's case studies demonstrate the ways in which law, local politics and hierarchies, and the organization and control of work are deeply intertwined with one another.

The title of Steinberg's book is a nod to Karly Polanyi's The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944). He reworks Polanyi's narrative of the rapid emergence of unrestricted labour and laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th century which led to a countermovement in response demanding greater regulation and protection from the state. In fact, the law remained deeply embedded in the workplace and labour markets in ways that made workers deeply suspicious of state involvement and desirous of a de-juridification of employment relations. I am skeptical of this last point, as in my own work I have found a number of contexts in which workers and unions sought greater state involvement in the workplace and their lives, including efforts to end truck wages, workplace fines, and unfair deductions. This quibble aside, England's Great Transformation is a fascinating and thought-provoking work of historical sociology.


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Author:Frank, Christopher
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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