Reforms and Social Changes
Rights of workers and trade unions
“The realm of liberty begins only where work that is determined by need ceases.” Karl Marx
Throughout the 19th century, European workers fought relentlessly for improved working conditions including rest days, shorter working hours and no child labour. As a result, trade unions were set up all over Europe to defend these rights, using various methods, from destroying tools (for example, in England), strikes, and dialogue with owners and government (for example, in Germany). Strikes were sometimes broken by force. International Workers Day commemorates such violent confrontations. European governments gradually accepted the presence of trade unions, with certain reservations. In France, trade unions were authorised by the Waldeck-Rousseau law (1884), although civil servants were excluded. In British and French colonies and protectorates, trade unions were only legally authorised after World War I. French predominance, for example, prevented Tunisia from applying the 1884 legislation.
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Scenes from life
Working conditions
Rights of workers and trade unions
"Workers' pensions"


National Library of France , Paris, France

Artist: Aristide Delannoy

Workers were barely protected from the hazards of everyday life in the 19th century. They had to rely on their families in old age or if they fell ill. In Europe, workers began to organise, creating mutual assistance societies and demanding that the state and employers consider welfare provisions such as health insurance and pensions. Pensions became a key electoral issue.

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