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How the Tories shackled the workers

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The recent Gate Gourmet and Rolls Royce disputes have highlighted how Britain’s anti-union laws prevent workers defending themselves. GR McColl looks at how they were imposed

The post war idea of “curbing union power” did not originate with the Tories. By the late 1960s the union movement was on a forward march in both the private and public sectors, with a strong shop stewards’ movement that had begun to assert independence from national union bureaucracies. Mounting anxieties among key employers’ bodies soon shaped the actions of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government.

Initially, the Donovan Commission conducted an inquiry focused on the growing influence of stewards and the alleged “anarchy” of British industrial relations. Its conclusions were tentative, but they laid the basis for an attempted major legislative attack by Labour. This was embodied in a White Paper entitled “In Place of Strife” and Barbara Castle was given the job of pushing it through. Opposition from the trade unions, then a powerful force in the party forced it to be shelved. But its substance foreshadowed key elements of the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, introduced by the Tories under Ted Heath.

The Heath government underestimated the strength of the unions when it sought in one fell swoop to curtail their “power” with extensive restrictions on secondary picketing and solidarity action, and threatened bans on strikes in essential services accompanied by US-style mandatory cooling off periods. The 1971 legislation was a seen as such a provocation that even the TUC had to mount a campaign of resistance. Most unions withdrew from the Act’s registration procedures, but more significantly the dramatic success of the miners’ 1972 strike against Heath’s policies of wage restraint bolstered the confidence of rank and file activists throughout the movement.

The jailing of “Pentonville Five” dockers, members of the TGWU, for contempt of court brought about a confrontation that sounded the death knell for the legislation. A mass demonstration through London’s streets with tens of thousands joining unofficial strikes forced the TUC to call for Britain’s first general strike in more than 45 years. The government retreated and the Law Lords to swiftly overturned the original court ruling and secured the TGWU members’ release.

By the end of Heath’s administration in early 1974 even the CBI favoured repeal of the Act as inoperable. Few bosses were prepared to make use of its provisions and the Tories under Heath were unwilling to take on a militant union movement. In five years a new Tory leadership under Margaret Thatcher would have no such qualms. Influenced by the key ideologues of neo-liberalism such as F A von Hayek and Milton Friedman, Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street in 1979 with a ruthless determination to tame and ultimately crush effective trade unionism. But she and her key advisors were also pragmatic class warriors, prepared to move slowly rather than attempting the “big bang” approach adopted by Heath.

In his memoirs Thatcher’s first Employment Secretary, James Prior, outlined the initial aims and approach: “to bring about a lasting change in [union] attitude by changing the law gradually, with as little resistance and therefore as much stealth as possible. There were also dangers in having tougher legislation, which the employers might, in practice, be afraid to use. It would be wrong to pass legislation which the courts could not enforce as happened with the 1971 Act.” (Prior, Balance of Power, 1986).

The legislative assault began in 1980 with the introduction of the first of seven major Acts. The various rounds of legislation had several overarching strategic objectives:

• To increase “labour market” flexibility - in short to make it easier to sack workers

• To restrict the scope of collective bargaining

• To increase state interference in unions’ internal operations,

• To strip unions of immunities for industrial action that left them open to massive fines or even complete sequestration - crucially by making solidarity strike action, so called “secondary action”, unlawful. (See box for an outline of the most significant measures).

The TUC dithered for nearly two years before formulating something akin to a strategy contenting itself with a “day of action”, along with an educational programme for full-time officials and sometimes shop stewards. Finally, in spring 1982 the TUC convened a special conference at Wembley to agree a campaign of opposition. The conference agreed that TUC affiliates would boycott ballots on closed shop arrangements and refuse state funding for internal ballots. There was also an agreement to consider the possibility of co-ordinated industrial action to back any individual union faced with legal action under the Employment Act 1982.

Initially, bosses proved reluctant to make use of the law and only a handful of cases reached the courts before Thatcher’s June 1983 electoral triumph. The victory strengthened the bosses resolve and the gloves came off - the unions began to receive a pummelling in the courts.

The central flashpoint came in November/December 1983 when the National Graphical Association (NGA) mounted a defence of the closed shop, which meant all workers had to join the union, at a small provincial newspaper, the Stockport Messenger.

Its publisher, Eddie Shah, was determined to make use of the law against the NGA and dragged the union through the courts in an effort to stop secondary picketing, which had, in turn, met with brutal policing. Eventually, after the courts imposed a series of fines, which the NGA refused to pay, a High Court order allowed accountants to seize the union’s overall assets. Eventually, the TUC General Council voted against solidarity action in response to the attack on the NGA and abandoned the union to its fate.

The capitulation of the top layer of the trade union bureaucracy at one of the first tests of will with the government set the stage for the epic confrontation between the miners and Thatcher’s government in which anti-union laws were used to try and drain the union of financial resources during the strike.

The ultimate defeat of the year long Great Strike in March 1985 secured for Thatcher the strategic objective of smashing the workers vanguard and paved the way for further legislative attacks. The defeat also strengthened the most right-wing sections of the union bureaucracy, which began to coalesce around a “new realism” that argued that industrial resistance was effectively futile and that the future of trade unionism lay in the provision of cheaper holidays and financial services to members.

The serious defeats of the 1980s and the legislative arsenal that developed around them have continued to shape the terrain of struggle today. The dead hand of bureaucracy has gained strength in many unions, with the union tops often invoking the possibility of legal action as a reason not to pursue effective action as in the case of the “secondary action” by baggage handlers in the Gate Gourmet dispute.

After more than eight years of New Labour in office nothing has been done to remove the key restrictions on unions imposed by Thatcher. While there has been some tinkering around the margins of the anti-union laws, especially in respect of union recognition, Tony Blair has honoured his pledge to the bosses to “leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world”.

Key elements of the Tory anti-union legislation (1980-1993)
Employment Act 1980:
• Restrictions on picketing and “secondary” action
• Ballots for new closed shops
• Abolition of previous basis for recognition rights

Employment Act 1982:
• All closed shops subject to ballots
• Tighter definition of a trade dispute
• Union faced new liabilities for “unlawful” acts

Trade Union Act 1984:
• Mandatory elections by secret ballot for senior official posts in national unions every five years
• Ballots required for industrial action to retain immunity
• Political fund ballots once a decade

Employment Act 1988
• Enforcement of post-entry closed shop made “unlawful”
• Removed right of unions to discipline/expel members for scabbing on strikes
• Creation of the office of Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members
Employment Act 1989
• New, tighter limits on facility time for union representatives
• Tighter procedures for use of Employment Tribunals and introduction of deposits for those lodging claims

Employment Act 1990
• Unions liable for unofficial industrial action in the absence of a written repudiation
• Selective sacking allowed of those on unofficial strike
• Absolute bar on “secondary” action
• Further restrictions on the closed shop

Employment Act 1993
• Strike ballots become strictly postal
• New rights for members of the public to sue for damages caused by industrial action
• Finance from the state to pursue such cases
• Minimum of seven days notice required prior to strike action
• Abolition of the industrial Wages Councils