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Reigning in the Unions

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 12 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights Miners Dockers Labour

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s power in the United Kingdom rebounded between Labour and the Conservatives, and the unions got stronger and stronger. Successive governments introduced new labour laws or repealed those that the previous government had just enacted. The prevailing mood of the time was of conflict, with the unions perceived as belligerent and the management, although they didn’t get the same bad press at the time, being just as bad.

Fuel Crisis Misery

There had been unrest, sometimes violent, in 1973 and 1974, as the fuel crisis bit and the miners, dockers and car workers repeatedly took action. But they weren't the only ones. Local government workers, teachers, railway workers and many others joined in to get parity with each other in a spiral of wage claims. Runaway inflation and soaring house prices for the rest of the decade caused misery, and the mainly right-wing newspapers made sure the unions got the blame. When Labour was forced to call a snap election in 1979, it was largely assumed that it would retain power, but the mood of the country had changed and the Conservatives became the new government.

The stage was set for battle and Margaret Thatcher, the first female leader of the country, decided to take the moment when the militant mine workers started strike action against proposed pit closures in 1984. The run up to this had seen the Tories enacting anti-union legislation that restricted their activities, enforcing secret ballots before strike action could be taken (effectively outlawing instant union action) and enforcing limits on the numbers on picket lines.

The Miners' Strike

The coal industry was heavily subsidised and many of the pits were unprofitable. Pit closures had been mooted in 1981 but were abandoned because of the threat of strike action. This spurred the government to begin stock-piling coal ready for the next fight, which duly came when the closure of 20 mines, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, was announced.

A national strike was ordered but there was confusion about the legal process surrounding the ballot, enabling the government to claim the strike was illegal. Action went on into 1985 with the unions, lacking the universal support they desperately needed, eventually defeated, as successive pits slowly went back to work. By this time legal arguments about the legality of the strike had led to nearly £5 million worth of National Union of Mineworkers' assets being sequestered.

Restriction Continues

This broke the will of the unions in general, particularly since the Trade Union Congress didn’t fully back the miners, so they were unlikely to back any other union. There were further high profile actions after the miners' strike, but all were unsuccessful. These included the picketing of Rupert Murdoch's facilities in Wapping after the sacking of workers who had struck over redundancies, and a similar dismissal of 2,000 striking workers at P&O's Dover ferry port. In both cases, the supporting unions had their funds sequestered.

The Conservatives continued its policy of adding new laws to restrict the powers of the unions, with no real opposition. The government also dismantled many of the national bodies that operated in the UK where union members could make their influence felt, such as the Industrial Training Boards and, most damagingly, the National Economic Development Council. On this panel six TUC leaders had met government officials and leading business owners every month since 1964. In Thatcher's Britain, such collaboration was not welcomed and the unions were to be sidelined.

Labour Return to Power

The Labour Party finally regained power after Thatcher's grip was loosened by the disaster of the Poll Tax and her refusal to take any dissenting advice from her cabinet. Although the Tories won another election after Thatcher was deposed, with a landslide election victory in 1997, many people thought there would be a reversal of the anti-union laws that the Conservative government had introduced. They were to be disappointed, however, as Tony Blair's Labour turned out to be have largely shunned socialism when moving themselves to the centre in order to get elected.

Union membership is now lower than it was in the late 1970s, and many white collar workers are not Union Members. The move to smaller business units and outsourced working has been reflected by the union movement in a move to smaller local groups, diminishing the power at district level and making national action harder to organise. Although Labour introduced the National Minimum Wage and a number of anti-discrimination laws, they also abolished the Wage Councils.

Anti-Terrorism Laws Bring New Dangers?

Many left-wing social commentators now believe that personal freedoms are more restricted than they were in Thatcher's day. The recent terrorism outbreaks have allowed the government to introduced laws which impinge on personal privacy, ostensibly to protect us. But it is unlikely, when the threat diminishes, that these laws will be repealed. How, and if, this will affect ordinary people in the workplace remains to be seen.

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