Home > Working Rights History > Trade Union Power

Trade Union Power

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 24 Sep 2019 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights Trade Union Closed Shop

The shift in demographics commerce and economics that resulted from the Industrial Revolution sowed the seeds of discontent among the working classes that led to the phenomenal rise of the unions in the lead-up to the First World War. Influenced by reforming philosophers and enlightened church leaders, the union movement grew to become a powerful force.

First Major Strike Wins

After the first effective strikes, that of the Bryant and May matchgirls in 1888 and the London gas workers and dockers in 1889, trade unions sprang up everywhere in a resurgence of socialist activity. Membership rose from somewhere in the region of three-quarters of a million to over six-and-a-half million by the end of First World War.

A few years after these gains the employers fought back with a number of legal precedents, allowing them to gain compensation from unions for damages caused by strikes, and outlawing picketing, which had begun in the middle of the 19th century as the first labour unions sprung up.

In 1910, there was a wave of strikes as the rise of radical socialist union members attacked the leaders of the moderate Trades Union Council (TUC) for collaborating with the ruling classes.

Radicalism Takes a Breather

After the First World War there was a boom period and, although the war had emphasised the gap between the upper and lower classes, radicalism went quiet for a while. Mass enfranchisement, with all UK citizens earning the right to vote in 1928, went a long way to diverting attention. This coincided with the decline of the Liberal Party and the emergence of the workers' party, the Labour Party, strongly supported by union funds, as the main opposition.

In the inter-war years, the rise of fascism clouded the picture with the communists directly opposing them. This meant that the Labour Party, with a strong anti-communist stance, found itself effectively supporting fascism by refusing to join the broader anti-fascist front. The outbreak of the Second World War cleared the air and the foundations were laid for the first Labour Government in 1945.

The unions and the Labour Party were largely united in their efforts to change society for the better of the common man. Many industries were brought into public ownership (nationalised) to take them out of the hands of the ruling classes, and the National Health Service promised free healthcare for all.

Labour also immediately repealed the 1927 Trades Dispute and Trades Unions Act, allowing more union participation in the Party. But a harsh winter and an economic crisis in 1947 put the pressure on the government and a wage freeze was implemented, tolerated but not supported by the TUC.

Conservatives in Control

The result of this unrest and Labour's ineffectiveness at running the country was a Conservative Government from 1951 to 1964. Full employment in the post-war rebuilding years of the 1950s put the unions in a weak position with their membership, so initially they concentrated on the beneficial aspects of unionism, supporting members and their families.

As economic growth weakened in the late 1950s and early 1960s unemployment returned and some calamitous decisions by industry owners set the tone for confrontation. This period put the unions, who had only tasted power for a couple of years, squarely in conflict with the government and the excesses that earned the trade union movement such a bad name in the latter half of the 20th Century were all being practised.

The closed shop, restricting work to union members only, compulsory union membership and public voting on major issues made coercion too easy a tool for many shop stewards to ignore. The press, run as it was by the upper classes, focused on the intransigence of the unions, while ignoring the desperately poor management of businesses that often led to union action.

With the on-off strikes of the 1970s, resulting in power cuts and the three-day week when the oil crisis hit in 1973-74, union membership continued to rise despite their depiction in the national press as the villains of the piece. Membership rose until, in 1979, 55% of the all workers were union members, although the closed shop was responsible for much of that, and resentment at the closed shop and its restriction on job movement was felt at all levels in the workplace.

All Change

But 1979 also heralded the election of the UK's first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. And she had her own plans for the unions.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Iya ive just started a new job and theres rumours about flees in the building I've beenbitten all over my body I've only been there two days, ive spoken with the manager who has noted that there has been flees and the building has been fumigated and told me there's been no other reports about this only me, so how has the building been fumigated in the first place! I was advised to attend walk in centre which I did and was told that they are flea bites which are infected (celuicus) I then called mange and asked as I got the option to go home but I wont be paid which I think isnt right for one it's the building fault not mine plus I have to attend the walk in centre and pay for prescription at my cost where do I go from here and what rights do I have.thanks chelsie
Chelsie - 24-Sep-19 @ 10:52 AM
@N/A - Firstly, check your contract to see whether a mobility clause has been included and what the details specify. Some companies may offer a redundancy package if an employer relocates. It usually takes into account the new distance travelled, or they may offer alternative employment at a different workplace. However, if you have a mobility clause within your contract it allows an employer to change your place of work. Should you need any further advice then you can call Acas for free advice on 0300 123 1100.
WorkingRights - 11-Dec-14 @ 10:04 AM
What does the law says when the company is moving to another place? Should the workers be given money for transport looking at the dinstance where they come from? Or it is up to the company to decide?
N/A - 10-Dec-14 @ 12:43 PM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word: