trade unions

A trade union or labour union is an organization of workers. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members ("rank and file" members) and negotiates labor contracts with employers. This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. The agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers.

Most unions claim a right of exclusivity. The union has the authority to determine who may be a member of the union and who may not. Most unions assert a right to mandate that only its members, and no others, may be permitted to work at certain jobs. Furthermore, the union contract is exclusive with regard to the employer, an employer is generally not permitted to seek out the services of another labor union or hire another competing labor union even if he is dissatisfied with the performance of the current labor union.

These organizations may be comprised of individual workers, professionals, past workers, or the unemployed. The most common, but by no means only, purpose of these organizations is "maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment"[1]

Over the last three hundred years, trade unions have developed into a number of forms, influenced by differing political and economic regimes. The immediate objectives and activities of trade unions vary, but may include:
  • Provision of benefits to members: Early trade unions, like Friendly Societies, often provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership.
  • Collective bargaining: Where trade unions are able to operate openly and are recognized by employers, they may negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions.
  • Industrial action: Trade unions may organize strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
  • Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favorable to the interests of their members or workers as a whole. To this end they may pursue campaigns, undertake lobbying, or financially support individual candidates or parties (such as the Labour Party in Britain) for public office.

History of trade unions

The traces of trade unions existence could be traced from eighteenth century,that to in the Western society (with most changes occurring earliest in Britain) witnessed a transformation from an agrarian culture with craft-based production to a culture shaped by the first industrial revolution. Some of the changes brought on by this new order, such as new work methods and downward pressure on traditional wage structures,[2] sparked rising alarm in the crafts and guilds of the time, who feared encroachment on their established jobs.

Additionally, the rapid expansion of industrial society was to draw women, children, rural workers, and immigrants to the work force in larger numbers and in new roles. This pool of unskilled and semi-skilled labour spontaneously organized in fits and starts throughout its beginnings,<ref name="webb" /> and would later be an important arena for the development of trade unions.

Origins and early history

Trade unions have sometimes been seen as successors to the guilds of medieval Europe, though the relationship between the two is disputed.[3] Medieval guilds existed to protect and enhance their members' livelihoods through controlling the instructional capital of artisanship and the progression of members from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, and eventually to master and grandmaster of their craft. They also facilitated mobility by providing accommodation for guild members traveling in search of work. Guilds exhibited some aspects of the modern trade union, but also some aspects of professional associations and modern corporations.

Additionally, guilds, like some craft unions today, were highly restrictive in their membership and included only artisans who practiced a specific trade. Many modern labor unions tend to be expansionistic, and frequently seek to incorporate widely disparate kinds of workers to increase the leverage of the union as a whole. A contemporary labor union might include workers from only one trade or craft, or might combine several or all the workers in one company or industry.

Since the publication of the History of Trade Unionism (1894) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the predominant historical view is that a trade union "is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment."<ref name="webb" /> A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is "an organization consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members."[4]

Yet historian R.A. Leeson, in United we Stand (1971), said:

Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive guild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies,...the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women' for a 'different order of things'...

Recent historical research by Bob James in Craft, Trade or Mystery (2001) puts forward the view that trade unions are part of a broader movement of benefit societies, which includes medieval guilds, Freemasons, Oddfellows, friendly societies, and other fraternal organizations.

The 18th century economist Adam Smith noted the imbalance in the rights of workers in regards to owners (or "masters"). In The Wealth of Nations, , Smith wrote:

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate... When workers combine, masters... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen.

As Smith noted, unions were illegal for many years in most countries (and Smith argued that schemes to fix wages or prices, by employees or employers, should be). There were severe penalties for attempting to organize unions, up to and including execution. Despite this, unions were formed and began to acquire political power, eventually resulting in a body of labor law that not only legalized organizing efforts, but codified the relationship between employers and those employees organized into unions. Even after the legitimization of trade unions there was opposition, as the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs shows.

Many consider it an issue of fairness that workers be allowed to pool their resources in a special legal entity in a similar way to the pooling of capital resources in the form of corporations.

The right to join a trade union is mentioned in article 23, subsection 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which also states in article 20, subsection 2 that "No one may be compelled to belong to an association". Prohibiting a person from joining or forming a union, as well as forcing a person to do the same (e.g. "closed shops" or "union shops", see below), whether by a government or by a business, is generally considered a human rights abuse. Similar allegations can be leveled if an employer discriminates based on trade union membership. Attempts by an employer, often with the help of outside agencies, to prevent union membership amongst their staff is known as union busting.

19th century unionism

The National Labor Union was the first national union in the United States. It was created in 1866 and included many types of workers. This union did not include Chinese, and partially included blacks and women. This union won the right to an eight hour workday in government jobs. After this union crumbled, the Knights of Labor became the lead.

The Knights of Labor was founded in the United States in 1869. Eventually over 700,000 workers joined the Knights.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded by Samuel Gompers. By 1904, AFL-affiliated unions had a membership of over 1.4 million nationwide. Under Gompers's leadership, the AFL advocated an approach known as "business" or "pure and simple" unionism, which emphasized collective bargaining to reach its goals. Demands were centered around improvements to the immediate work environment, like better wages, hours and working conditions.

In France, Germany, and other European countries, socialist parties and anarchists played a prominent role in forming and building up trade unions, especially from the 1870s onwards. This stood in contrast to the British experience, where moderate New Model Unions dominated the union movement from the mid-nineteenth century and where trade unionism was stronger than the political labor movement until the formation and growth of the Labour Party in the early years of the twentieth century.

Unions today

Structure and politics

Union structures, politics, and legal status vary greatly from country to country. For specific country details see below.

Enlarge picture
A rally of the trade union UNISON in Oxford during a strike on 2006-03-28.

Unions may organize a particular section of skilled workers (craft unionism), a cross-section of workers from various trades (general unionism), or attempt to organize all workers within a particular industry (industrial unionism). These unions are often divided into "locals", and united in national federations. These federations themselves will affiliate with Internationals, such as the International Trade Union Confederation.

In many countries, a union may acquire the status of a "juristic person" (an artificial legal entity), with a mandate to negotiate with employers for the workers it represents. In such cases, unions have certain legal rights, most importantly the right to engage in collective bargaining with the employer (or employers) over wages, working hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. The inability of the parties to reach an agreement may lead to industrial action, culminating in either strike action or management lockout, or binding arbitration. In extreme cases, violent or illegal activities may develop around these events.

In other circumstances, unions may not have the legal right to represent workers, or the right may be in question. This lack of status can range from non-recognition of a union to political or criminal prosecution of union activists and members, with many cases of violence and deaths having been recorded both historically and in the current day.[5][6]

Unions may also engage in broader political or social struggle. Social Unionism encompasses many unions that use their organizational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation favorable to their members or to workers in general. As well, unions in some countries are closely aligned with political parties.

Unions are also delineated by the service model and the organizing model. The service model union focuses more on maintaining worker rights, providing services, and resolving disputes. Alternately, the organizing model typically involves full-time union organizers, who work by building up confidence, strong networks, and leaders within the workforce; and confrontational campaigns involving large numbers of union members. Many unions are a blend of these two philosophies, and the definitions of the models themselves are still debated.

Although their political structure and autonomy varies widely, union leaderships are usually formed through democratic elections.

Some research, such as that conducted by the ACIRRT,[7] argues that unionized workers enjoy better conditions and wages than those who are not unionized. On the other hand, in a free market worker productivity is the single most important factor in determining wages, not union membership. In a free market, there can be very little difference in wages between union or non unionized workers.[8]

Shop types

Companies that employ workers with a union generally operate on one of several models:
  • A closed shop (US) employs only people who are already union members. The compulsory hiring hall is an example of a closed shop — in this case the employer must recruit directly from the union.
  • A union shop (US) or a closed shop (UK) employs non-union workers as well, but sets a time limit within which new employees must join a union.
  • An agency shop requires non-union workers to pay a fee to the union for its services in negotiating their contract. This is sometimes called the Rand formula. In certain situations involving state public employees in the United States, such as California, "fair share laws" make it easy to require these sorts of payments.
  • An open shop does not discriminate based on union membership in employing or keeping workers. Where a union is active, the open shop allows workers to be employed who do not contribute to a union or the collective bargaining process. In the United States, state level right-to-work laws mandate the open shop in some states.

Diversity of international unions

As labor law varies from country to country, so is the function of unions. For example, in Germany only open shops are legal; that is, all discrimination based on union membership is forbidden. This affects the function and services of the union. In addition, German unions have played a greater role in management decisions through participation in corporate boards and co-determination than have unions in the United States. (newsletter/files/BTS012EN_12-15.pdf}.

In Britain a series of laws introduced during the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher's government restricted closed and union shops. All agreements requiring a worker to join a union are now illegal. In the United States, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed the closed shop, but permitted the union shop unless the state government chose to prohibit it.

In addition, unions' relations with political parties vary. In many countries unions are tightly bonded, or even share leadership, with a political party intended to represent the interests of working people. Typically this is a left-wing, socialist, or social democratic party, but many exceptions exist. In the United States, by contrast, although it is historically aligned with the Democratic Party, the labor movement is by no means monolithic on that point; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has supported Republican Party candidates on a number of occasions and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. (However, when PATCO went on strike in violation of their "no strike" contract, President Reagan ordered them back to work. Those who didn't return to the job were fired and replaced, effectively destroying PATCO.) The AFL-CIO has been against liberalizing abortion, consistent with a Republican position, so as not to alienate its large Catholic constituency. In Britain the labor movement's relationship with the Labour Party is fraying as party leadership embarks on privatization plans at odds with workers' interests.

In Western Europe, professional associations often carry out the functions of a trade union. In these cases, they may be negotiating for white-collar workers, such as physicians, engineers, or teachers. Typically such trade unions refrain from politics or pursue a more ordoliberal politics than their blue-collar counterparts .

In Germany the relation between individual employees and employers is considered to be asymmetrical. In consequence, many working conditions are not negotiable due to a strong legal protection of individuals. However, the German flavor or works legislation has as its main objective to create a balance of power between employees organized in unions and employers organized in employers associations. This allows much wider legal boundaries for collective bargaining, compared to the narrow boundaries for individual negotiations. As a condition to obtain the legal status of a trade union, employee associations need to prove that their leverage is strong enough to serve as a counterforce in negotiations with employers. If such an employees association is competing against another union, its leverage may be questioned by unions and then evaluated in a court trial. In Germany only very few professional associations obtained the right to negotiate salaries and working conditions for their members, notably the medical doctors association Marburger Bund and the pilots association Vereinigung Cockpit. The engineers association Verein Deutscher Ingenieure does not strive to act as a union, as it also represents the interests of enineering businesses.

Finally, the structure of employment laws affects unions' roles and how they carry out their business. In many western European countries wages and benefits are largely set by governmental action. The United States takes a more laissez-faire approach, setting some minimum standards but leaving most workers' wages and benefits to collective bargaining and market forces. Historically, the Republic of Korea has regulated collective bargaining by requiring employers to participate but collective bargaining has been legal only if held in sessions before the lunar new year. In totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany Trade Unions were outlawed. In the Soviet Union, unions have typically been de facto government agencies devoted to smooth and efficient operation of enterprises.

Trade unions worldwide and by region and country

Worldwide and international cooperation

Enlarge picture
Unionisation in the world
Enlarge picture
Labour force in 2006

The largest organization of trade union members in the world is the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, which today has approximately 309 affiliated organizations in 156 countries and territories, with a combined membership of 166 million. Other global trade union organizations include the World Federation of Trade Unions.

National and regional trade unions organizing in specific industry sectors or occupational groups also form global union federations, such as Union Network International and the International Federation of Journalists.

Impact of unions

Proponents often credit trade unions with leading the labor movement in the early 20th century, which generally sought to end child labor practices, improve worker safety, increase wages for both union and non-union workers, raise the entire society's standard of living, reduce the hours in a work week, provide public education for children, and bring a host of other benefits to working class families .

In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1928 established a national minimum wage, guaranteed time and a half for overtime in certain jobs, and prohibited most employment of minors in "oppressive child labor," a term defined in the statute.

The transformation of labor law put into motion by unions is today considered particularly important for groups that are most likely to suffer discrimination in the labor market. On average, women in Britain earn 20% less than men for the same work, but women who are union members earn 24% more than those who are not. [1] In the People's Republic of China, where independent trade unions are illegal, the pay gap between men and women has actually increased in recent years despite the booming economy. [2]


Trade unions have been accused of benefiting the insider workers, those having secure jobs, at the cost of the outsider workers, consumers of the goods or services produced, and the shareholders of the unionized business. Those who are likely to be disadvantaged most from unionization are the unemployed, those at risk of unemployment or workers who are unable to get the job they want in a particular line of work.[9]

Dr. Charles Baird of California State University East Bay argues from a pro-free-market perspective that labor is a commodity, and unions essentially operate by cartelizing labor, forming a monopoly on the commodity. This monopoly on labor has the same negative effects as any other monopoly.[10]

In the United States, the outsourcing of labor to Asia, Latin America, and Africa has been partially driven by increasing costs of union partnership - a competitive disadvantage alleged by union-employing businesses[11]

Violence and crime

Main article: Violence in industrial disputes#Union violence

Some unions have perpetrated crimes during labor disputes, targeting replacement workers or destroying company property. According to one study by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, an institute known for its anti-compulsory union stance, the Teamsters are the most violent union in the United States, with over 1,456 incidents of union related violence since 1975. The same study reported that in total, there have been over 9000 reported incidents of union violence in the United States since 1975, and speculated that most union violence goes unreported, because of the coercive nature of the violence.[12]

Union publications

Several sources of current news exist about the trade union movement in the world. These include LabourStart and the official website of the international trade union movement Global Unions.

Another source of labor news is the Workers Independent News, a news organization providing radio articles to independent and syndicated radio shows.

Labor Notes is the largest circulation cross-union publication remaining in the United States. It reports news and analysis about labor activity or problems facing the labor movement.

See also

This article has a
Translation summary:

Union related topics

Types of unions

Major unions

Union federations

Labor allied organizations

Related books and films

  • The 2000 film Bread and Roses by British director Ken Loach depicted the struggle of cleaners in Los Angeles to fight for better pay, and working conditions, and the right to join a union.
  • The 1985 documentary film Final Offer by Sturla Gunnarsson and Robert Collision shows the 1984 union contract negotiations with General Motors.
  • The 1979 film Norma Rae, directed by Martin Ritt, is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Jordan's successful attempt to unionize her textile factory.


1. ^ Webb, Sidney; Webb, Beatrice (1920). History of Trade Unionism. Longmans and Co. London.  ch. I
2. ^ Fraser, W. Hamish (1974). Trade Unions and Society (The Struggle for Acceptance, 1850–1880). New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 0-87471-514-8.  pg. 34
3. ^ Trade Unions and Socialism International Socialist Review, Vol.1 No.10, April 1901.
4. ^ Trade Union Census. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved on 2006-08-05.
5. ^ ICFTU press release - regarding Cambodia.
6. ^ Amnesty International report 23 September] 2005] - fear for safety of SINALTRAINAL member José Onofre Esquivel Luna
7. ^ Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training report.
8. ^ Hazlitt, Henry; Economics in One Lesson, chapter 20, "Do Unions Really Raise Wages?" 1946. [3]
9. ^ Card David, Krueger Alan. (1995). Myth and measurement: The new economics of the minimum wage. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.
10. ^ Charles Baird, "Unions and Antitrust: Governmental Hypocrisy." The Freeman, Vol. 50 No. 2. Foundation for Economic Education, New York.
11. ^ Kramarz, Francis (2006-10-19). Outsourcing, Unions, and Wages: Evidence from data matching imports, firms, and workers. Retrieved on 2007-01-22.
12. ^ Union Violence Lookout. National Institute for Labor Relations Research (1999-03). Retrieved on 2007-01-22.


  1. Clarke, T.; Clements, L. (1978). Trade Unions under Capitalism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. ISBN 0-391-00728-9. 

External links




  • Trade union membership 1993-2003 - European Industrial Relations Observatory report on membership trends in 26 European countries
  • Trade Union Ancestors - Listing of 5,000 UK trade unions with histories of main organizations, trade union "family trees" and details of union membership and strikes since 1900.
  • TUC History online - History of the British union movement

United States


labour (or labor) is a measure of the work done by human beings. It is conventionally contrasted with such other factors of production as land and capital. There are theories which have created a concept called human capital (referring to the skills that workers possess, not
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professional can be either a person in a profession (certain types of skilled work requiring formal training/education) or in sports (a sportsman/sportwoman doing sports for payment).
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Retirement is the point where a person stops employment completely. A person may also semi-retire and keep some sort of retirement job, out of choice rather than necessity.
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worldwide view.
Unemployment is the state in which a worker wants, but is unable, to work. The unemployment rate is the number of unemployed workers divided by the total civilian labor force.
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Employment is a contract between two parties, one being the employer and the other being the employee. An employee may be defined as: "A person in the service of another under any contract of hire, express or implied, oral or written, where the employer has
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A friendly society (sometimes called a mutual society, benevolent society or fraternal organization) is a mutual association for insurance-like purposes, and often, especially in the past, serving ceremonial and friendship purposes also.
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worldwide view.
Unemployment is the state in which a worker wants, but is unable, to work. The unemployment rate is the number of unemployed workers divided by the total civilian labor force.
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worldwide view of the subject.
Please [ improve this article] or discuss the issue on the talk page.

Collective bargaining is the process whereby workers organize collectively and bargain with employers regarding the workplace.
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WAGE can refer to:
  • Wide Area GPS Enhancement
  • WAGE (AM), an AM radio station located in Leesburg, Virginia

A wage is a compensation which workers receive in exchange for their labor.
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Industrial action (UK) or job action (US) refers collectively to any measure taken by trade unions or other organised labour meant to reduce productivity in a workplace.
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Strike action, often simply called a strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal by employees to perform work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances.
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A lockout is a work stoppage in which an employer prevents employees from working. This is differentiated from a strike, in which employees refuse to work.

A lockout may happen for several reasons.
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Labour Party

Leader Gordon Brown

Founded February 27, 1900
Headquarters 39 Victoria Street
London, SW1H 0HA

Political Ideology Democratic socialism (Official Position)
Social Democracy
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Industrial Revolution was a period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation had a profound effect on socioeconomic and cultural conditions in Britain and subsequently spread throughout the world, a process that
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A craft is a skill, especially involving practical arts. It may refer to a trade or particular art.

The term is often used as part of a longer word (and also in the plural).
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A guild is an association of craftspeople in a particular trade. The earliest guilds are believed to have been formed in India circa 3800 BC, and though they are not as commonplace as they were a few centuries ago, many guilds continue to flourish around the world today.
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A guild is an association of craftspeople in a particular trade. The earliest guilds are believed to have been formed in India circa 3800 BC, and though they are not as commonplace as they were a few centuries ago, many guilds continue to flourish around the world today.
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Instructional capital is a term used in educational administration after the 1960s, to reflect capital resulting from investment in producing learning materials.

Some have objected to this phrasing, which is an elaboration of referring to training as "human capital," either
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A trade as an occupation usually refers to the profession that require some particular kind of skilled work. In historical sense, particularly as pertinent to the Medieval history and earlier, the term is usually applied towards people occupied in most kinds of crafts and
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Apprenticeship is a system of training a new generation of skilled crafts practitioners, which is still popular in some countries. Apprentices (or in early modern usage "prentices") build their careers from apprenticeships.
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artisan, also called a craftsman,[1] is a skilled manual worker who uses tools and machinery in a particular craft.

Artisans were the dominant producers of goods before the Industrial Revolution.
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A master craftsman (sometimes called only master or grandmaster) was a member of a guild. In the European guild system, only master craftsmen were allowed to actually be members of the guild.
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A professional body or professional organization, also known as a professional association or professional society, is an organization, usually non-profit, that exists to further a particular profession, to protect both the public interest and the interests of professionals.
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History of Trade Unionism is a book by Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

First published in 1894, it is a detailed and influential accounting of the roots and development of the British trade union movement.
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Sidney James Webb, 1st Baron Passfield PC (13 July, 1859 – 13 October, 1947) was a British socialist, economist and reformer, normally referred to in the same breath as his wife, Beatrice Webb.

He was one of the early members of the Fabian Society in 1884, along with G.
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Martha Beatrice Potter Webb (January 22, 1858 - April 30, 1943) was a British socialist, economist and reformer, usually referred to in the same breath as her husband, Sidney Webb. Although her husband became Baron Passfield in 1929, she refused to be known as Lady Passfield.
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Bob James can refer to different people:
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A benefit society or mutual aid society is an organization or voluntary association formed to provide mutual aid, benefit or insurance for relief from sundry difficulties.
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A guild is an association of craftspeople in a particular trade. The earliest guilds are believed to have been formed in India circa 3800 BC, and though they are not as commonplace as they were a few centuries ago, many guilds continue to flourish around the world today.
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