By the end of the 19th century there were over 2 million industrial workers in Russia. At this time the Russian industrial employee worked on average an 11 hour day (10 hours on Saturday). Conditions in the factories were extremely harsh and little concern was shown for the workers' health and safety.
People who attempted to form trade unions were likely to be imprisoned or sent to Siberia. Strikes were illegal and the Russian government would often call out the Russian Army to deal with workers during industrial disputes.
In 1901 Sergei Zubatov, chief of the Okhrana in Moscow, used secret agents to set up the Mutual Assistance League of Workers in the Mechanical Industry. His agents became the leaders of this union and they attempted to persuade the workers not to make demands for higher wages and better working conditions. This proved unsuccessful and by 1903 the union had to be disbanded because its members had began to take part in strikes.
In 1903 Father George Gapon, a priest from St. Petersburg, formed the Assembly of Russian Workers. Within a year it had over 9,000 members.
1904 was a bad year for Russian workers. Prices of essential goods rose so quickly that real wages declined by 20 per cent. When four members of the Assembly of Russian Workers were dismissed at the Putilov Iron Works, Gapon called for industrial action. Over the next few days over 110,000 workers in St. Petersburg went out on strike.
In an attempt to settle the dispute, George Gapon decided to make a personal appeal to Nicholas II. He drew up a petition outlining the workers' sufferings and demands. This included calling for a reduction in the working day to eight hours, an increase in wages and an improvement in working conditions. Gapon also called for the establishment of universal suffrage and an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
Over 150,000 people signed the petition and on 22nd January, 1905, Gapon led a large procession of workers to the Winter Palace in order to present the petition to Nicholas II. When the procession of workers reached the Winter Palace it was attacked by the police and the Cossacks. Over 100 workers were killed and some 300 wounded.
After the 1905 Revolution the Russian government decided to change the laws that prohibited trade unions. This was followed by the rapid expansion of trade union membership. Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were often the leaders of these new unions.