Britain’s anti-union culture: the labour landscape since 1979

I have noted elsewhere how Britain has become more like Chile in recent years. I admit that there are few stories of trade unionists being set upon by the state’s thugs in today’s papers, but the Battle of Orgreave Colliery showed us what levels the state was prepared to stoop in order to impose its will. Thatcher used the police as  her own personal gendarmerie, yet if one watched the BBC news reports for that day, one would come away with the impression that the miners were the aggressors. But thanks to the very good work of Glasgow University Media Group we learned the truth: it was the police who charged the miners and not the other way around.

Since 1979 the trade unions have been painted variously as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘greedy’. The tabloid press – largely controlled by Conservative sympathizing proprietors – prints smear after smear about the unions. The same papers will also tell us how any strike is likely to affect you. On strike days we are treated to vox pops of angry commuters who have had to battle in  to work because of a tube strike. A typical vox pop might run like this,  “I’m absolutely livid. Why do they have to strike? They’ve got jobs. They should be grateful”. The same channel may even wheel out an economic ‘expert’ (usually someone like Ruth Lea or Digby Jones) who will inform us that “strike days costs the British economy x amount”. How do they work out such precise figures?

The press-created Winter of Discontent of 1978 has been used as a stick to beat the unions with since the election of Thatcher in 1979. Unions were described as “too powerful” and held responsible for the nation’s ills. In the unions, the Tory press found an easy scapegoat. Curiously enough, no one asked searching questions about Britain’s managers who,  prior to 1979, were more than happy to take long lunches and run companies like their own personal piggy banks.

Let’s remind ourselves what anti-union laws have been passed since 1979. I found this on the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union’s website,

1980 Employment Act

  • Definition of lawful picketing restricted to own place of work
  • 80% ballot needed to legalise a closed shop
  • Funds offered for union ballots
  • Restricted right to take secondary action
  • Code of practice (six pickets)
  • Repeal of statutory recognition procedure
  • Restricts unfair dismissal and maternity rights
  • Unfair dismissal rights from 1 year to 6 months in companies under 20

1982 Employment Act

  • Further restrictions on industrial action – eg. definition of trade dispute
  • Further restricted action to ‘own’ employer
  • Employers could obtain injunctions against unions and sue unions for damages
  • 80% rule extended to ALL closed shops every 5 years
  • Compensation for dismissal because of closed shop
  • Removed union only labour clauses in commercial contracts

1984 Trade Union Act

  • EC elections every 5 years by secret ballot
  • Political fund ballots every 10 years
  • Secret ballots before industrial action

1986 Public Order Act

  • Introduced new criminal offences in relation to picketing

1988 Employment Act

  • Unions to compensate members disciplined for non-compliance with majority decisions
  • Members can seek injunction if no pre-strike ballot
  • Union finances to be open to inspection
  • Unions prevented from paying members’ or officials’ fines
  • Action to preserve post entry closed shop made unlawful
  • New restrictions on industrial action and election ballots
  • Ballots for separate workplaces
  • Ballots for non-voting EC members
  • Election addresses controlled
  • Independent scrutiny
  • Establishment of CROTUM (Commissioner for the Rights Of Trade Union Members)

1989 Employment Act

  • Tribunal pre-hearing review and proposed deposit of £150
  • Exemption of small employer from providing details of disciplinary procedures
  • Restricts time off with pay for union duties
  • Written reasons for dismissal now require 2 years’ service
  • Redundancy rebates abolished
  • Abolition of training commission

1990 Employment Act

  • Attack on pre-entry closed shop – unlawful to refuse to employ non-union member
  • All secondary action now unlawful
  • Unions liable for action induced by ANY official unless written repudiation using statutory form of words sent to all members
  • Selective dismissal of strikers taking unofficial action
  • Extended power of CROTUM

1992 Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act

  • Brings together all collective employment rights including trade union finances and elections; union members’ rights including dismissal, time off; redundancy consultation; ACAS, CAC and CROTUM; industrial action legislation
  • Does not cover individual rights like unfair dismissal, redundancy pay, maternity etc (these are covered by 1978 EPCA)

1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act

  • Individuals can seek injunction against unlawful action
  • Creation of Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • 7 days notice of ballots and of industrial action
  • Members to be involved in ballot to be identified
  • Attack on Bridlington procedures
  • Written consent for check-off every three years
  • Financial records, including salaries, to be available
  • Checks on election ballots
  • Independent scrutiny of strike ballots
  • All industrial action ballots to be postal
  • Postal ballots on union mergers
  • New powers for Certification Officer to check union finances
  • Higher penalties against unions failing to keep proper accounts
  • ‘Wilson/Palmer’ Amendment (sweeteners to those moving to individual contracts)
  • Unlawful to dismiss heath & safety rep in course of duties and those walking off unsafe site
  • Right of individual to challenge collective agreement in contravention of equal treatment terms
  • Changes to Transfer of Undertakings Regulations
  • Changes to redundancy terms (consultation)
  • Abolition of Wages Councils
  • Changes to Tribunals and EAT procedures

1999 Employment Relations Act

  • Amendments to Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
  • Recognition and negotiation procedures for employers with at least 21 workers, establishment of bargaining unit
  • Derecognition from loss of trade union independence or majority support of bargaining unit
  • Complaint process for use of political funds and breach of union disciplinary, electoral or other internal rules
  • Dismissal for participation in official industrial action deemed unfair
  • Ballot and notice provisions for strike or industrial action
  • Abolishes offices of Commissioner for Rights of Trade Union Members and Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • Funds to be provided to assist in developing employment partnerships
  • Amends Employment Rights Act and TULRA to prevent complaint over unfair dismissal if action for purposes of national security

As we can see, when Labour introduced the 1999 Employment Relations Act, it left the anti-union laws intact. It was a piecemeal bit of legislation designed to placate those who feared a return to the 1970’s and to pay lip service to the worker’s rights. CROTUM (Commissioner for the Rights Of Trade Union Members) was created to advise members on taking action against their union. It also happens to be one of the most amusing acronyms that I have ever seen and offers itself readily to abuse (just put an “S” in front of the “C”).

In today’s climate, management would rather negotiate with individuals – if at all. Negotiating with individuals leads to a divide and conquer situation where worker is pitted against worker. In cases like this, there can only be one winner: the boss.

Today membership of trade unions is lower than it has been in the entire history of the movement. Anti-union legislation is mainly responsible but the number of people working on short-term contracts has also increased and few private sector companies have any active trade unions. If Labour are lucky enough to be re-elected it is unlikely that they will repeal any of the anti-union laws. I would recommend any union that is currently affiliated with Labour to disaffiliate at once. We need a party that will look after the interest of workers and not be beholden to capitalists or their apologists. But that party also needs to have a good chance of gaining seats in the Commons. Under the present system and the one proposed (AV) this is unlikely to happen. Therefore the need to reform the voting system is vital. The anti-democratic tendencies of the main parties have to be curbed because it was these anti-democratic tendencies that led to the abolition of the metropolitan councils, Section 28 and the Poll Tax.

People need unions now more than ever.


I discovered this interesting blog about the Lawful Industrial Action Bill. It fell in the Commons last week due to a lack of enough MPs to support it. This is very depressing.

Out of 255 Labour MPs (or thereabouts) only 82 could bring themselves to support the Bill. Green MP Caroline Lucas supported it together with one SNP, one Plaid Cymru, and even 2 Tories. Four Labour MPs were out of the country, one in hospital, one ill, and one at a funeral. Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle and Gareth Thomas, excelled themselves by being present in the Commons but refusing to vote for it. The rest appear to have nipped off to their constituencies (or their second homes). The right of workers to strike was not sufficiently important for them to stay in London on a Friday.

You can read a list of who did and who didn’t vote here.

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Filed under Government & politics, Trade Unions

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