How the British state legislated against free trade unions in the last two decades
For the last 23 years, successive governments have consistently introduced legislation to curtail the action of free trade unionism in the UK. Theirs was a long-term strategy in response to the growth in militant trade unionism from the 1970s. The laws introduced in the 1980s curtailed existing immunities and made solidarity action illegal.
But by the 1990s, the Conservative Government felt confident enough to bring in laws that would fundamentally undermine the role of free trade unions and their rights to organise and take action - in the face of a wave of privatisation which changed the British industrial landscape so much that not only were whole sectors decimated but whole communities destroyed as well.
What follows is a brief resume of the legislation introduced during this period and its initial impact upon the workers it was intended for.
The 1980 Employment Act
- Abolished trade union recognition rights and restricted picket line numbers to only six.
- Made solidarity action illegal.
- Severely restricted the closed shop, which now had to be approved by 85% of the workforce.
The 1982 Employment Act
- Introduced an extremely limited notion of a 'trade dispute' which when coupled with the 1980 Act, outlawed most forms of solidarity action including international solidarity with workers who are employed by the same multinational companies - one of many precursors to the rapid progress of globalised capital that we are witness to today.
- Limited the definition of a legal strike whereby workers could only take action against their immediate employer. A strike had to be wholly related to pay and conditions, dismissals, redundancies, sackings, disciplinaries or union membership. Workers could not strike for political reasons.
- Made trade unions legally liable to pay disabling damages from strikes. Fines of up to £250,000 could be charged. If fines were not paid, the union's entire funds could be sequestrated.
The 1984 Trade Union Act
- Made it illegal to strike without a ballot and ordered unions to instruct their members that they are breaking their contract of employment if they vote in favour of strike action.
- Imposed on unions a ten-yearly ballot to decide whether to have a political fund ie. whether union money could be spent on political campaigning and affiliation
The 1988 Employment Act
- Imposed postal ballots - as against workplace or branch meetings - to decide on union executive elections or decisions on political funds (even though workplace ballots get a higher rate of participation).
- Made it illegal for unions to expel or discipline members who refuse to participate in industrial action after a legal ballot.
The 1989 Employment Act
- Restricted time off for trade union reps.
- Introduced a pre-hearing assessment for industrial tribunals to scrutinise the validity of any applicant's case.
The 1990 Employment Act
- Made pre-entry closed shops illegal, resulting in a gradual erosion of trade union membership.
- Held trade unions financially responsible for walk-outs and unofficial action unless they publicly disowned a dispute.
- Allowed the sacking of stewards and key union members involved in unofficial action.
- Made all secondary action illegal.
The 1993 Employment Act
- Introduced a minimum six-week delay between the decision to ballot and the date of any industrial action.
- Required that members give written confirmation that they want their union dues automatically deducted from their wage packets.
- Gave people the right to sue unions if industrial action 'damages' them.
- Abolished wages councils which previously had afforded some protection to workers in some sectors.
All this went hand-in-hand with the massive programme of privatisation of almost all of the previously nationalised industries in Britain, and the unceasing barrage of Thatcherite propaganda in the Tory press. It has resulted in a large decline in union membership, massive growth in the power of private firms and global capital which has lobbied (bribed) successive governments relentlessly.
The New Labour Government has kept the Tory anti-union laws virtually untouched, with only a few minor amendments (such as limited rights to recognition). Britain still has the most draconian union legislation in Europe - a fact that Tony Blair boasts about!
It is not, however, the end for those of us who choose to defend our class against the horror of modern-day capitalism. Even though our own industry, the Underground system, has for the most part been flogged to the privateers through the PPP fiasco, we are still one of the most militant section of workers in the UK at the moment.
We need to continue to politicise workers through education, workplace bulletins and participation in industrial disputes. We need to push our union executives for stronger leadership rather than standing by and watching them pick only the fights they think we can win.
Time and time again militant workers on the Underground have taken action in the face of court bans, hostile media, bullying management and wobbly union leaders. It is important to remember how strong our power base is on the ground and that we can return our rail network wholly to public control and accountability and help build a safe, reliable system free from cowboy contractors and accountants.
Our unions must campaign for the full repeal of the anti-union laws. But wemust also make our union leaders understand that we will have to confront the laws - break them, and keep breaking them until they are matchwood.