The history of unions in the US is firmly rooted in the much older Guild system that arose in medieval Europe (and which in turn may have sprung from the collegia of the Roman Empire). It’s easy to forget, with all the anti- and pro-union rhetoric that gets slung around in this day and age, what an astonishing and effective system the Guilds were. They were generally divided into three classes: merchant guilds, craft guilds, and service guilds. The merchant guilds were for… well, merchants, those who traded between cities and nations, as well as locally. They might sell raw materials to artisans, or sell an artisan’s product (wool, woven into cloth, for example) but they were not generally producers. Craft guilds, which included makers of all sorts, from victuallers (bakers, butchers, brewers) to printers, papermakers, and bookbinders, were focused on production. Lastly, there were service guilds, to which clerks, drivers, and barbers would have belonged (remember that barbers were dentists and surgeons as well as tonsorial experts).
It may not be the first thing we think of now, but guilds’ primary function was to serve “as mechanisms for organizing, managing, and financing the collective quest for eternal salvation”1 by enforcing routine participation in religious services, organizing alms and festivals on Holy Days, and providing burial, funeral masses, and distributing alms in the name of the deceased. Guilds required standards of piety in their members, in line with Christian values: honesty, chastity, respect for authority, rest on the Sabbath. Would the man-on-the-street in medieval Europe have been familiar with these standards? Of course. But the guilds reinforced them, essentially policing piety among members for their souls’ sakes.
Guilds also provided enforcement of professional standards. It was in the interest of all members that workmanship and merchandise be of the highest standard; to that end, some guilds sent out inspectors to check members’ products, even their homes and workshops, to ensure that all the guild rules were being met.2 If a member failed to keep his work to the guild’s standard he might be fined; if he continued to do so he could–and often was–expelled from the guild. This was no small matter: not only would he be barred from practicing his own trade, but the guild would cease involvement in the member’s religious life: no burial or masses provided, no alms distributed in his name. Members were, in fact, forbidden to pray for him.
Finally, guilds provided continuity of knowledge through the apprentice system.3 A boy, apprenticed to a master craftsman, would learn all parts of the master’s work and–hopefully–become first a journeyman (a skilled employee or day-laborer) and, then a master himself. In the wake of the Black Death the apprentice system became important as a way of creating an informal structure for both children and craftsmen who had lost some or all of their families, and assured that the skills and experience of one generation would not be lost to the next. However, the progression from apprentice to journeyman to master was not always so orderly. Some apprentices rebelled and ran away from their masters; some journeymen never had the ambition to become master themselves, or could not save enough money to set up a shop and create the “masterpiece” that would permit him entry into the guild (in London, in 1747, the cost to set up a bindery could be between £50-£100).4
Medieval guilds flourished, becoming the center of social, and of religious life in cities and towns, but with the advent of the Reformation their influence began to wane (not least because their primary religious function was out of step with new beliefs). In some nations guilds were suppressed; in others some guilds dwindled into “friendly societies,” where “it was the custom of many of the journeymen to meet in public houses adjoining their workshops, to drink ‘a social pint of porter.’”5 Sometimes–as in London in the 1780s–these societies grew into trade associations, journeymen banded together to negotiate, or force, better terms from the masters. These societies differed from the guilds because they were no longer groups that included all binders: they were meant specifically to advocate for the journeymen against the masters.
There we see the the genesis of the modern labor union. In the US, where the guild system was a remnant of the medieval system, “friendly societies” and “brotherhoods” became trade unions. In the UK, where guilds persisted, even co-existed with trade unions, they came to occupy a position of some civic power and a good deal of ceremonial pomp. It is doubtful a medieval apprentice, journeyman, or master would recognize the current incarnation of the guild.