The history of labour relations in the UK is a story of the gradual empowerment of the working classes. The system of industrial relations in the United Kingdom (UK) is traditionally characterised by voluntary relations between the social partners, with a minimal level of interference from the state. In the context of very early industrialisation and a liberal political culture in which the state seldom intervened in the affairs of private actors, trade unions gradually consolidated their membership and power base throughout the 19th century. Various legislative developments also allowed trade unions the right to organise workers and engage in industrial action. In 1868, the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), the confederal umbrella body for UK trade unions, was formed. The 1871 Trade Union Act recognised trade unions as legal entities as corporations and granted them the right to strike. Subsequently, the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act allowed the right to peaceful picketing, while the 1906 Trade Disputes Act allowed UK trade unions to engage in industrial action without the threat of being sued for damages. In addition to this body of legislation, a minimal level of legal regulation that stipulated basic health and safety conditions in workplaces was also built up during the 19th century.
The economic context throughout this time was also favourable to the development of trade unionism. Owing to the pace of industrialisation and the existence of substantial colonial markets for UK industry, the 19th century and early 20th century were characterised by extensive economic growth. This economic climate facilitated the development of a system in which some of the fruits of economic development could be designated for collectively bargained wage increases. In terms of the role of the law, collective bargaining was far more important than the influence of legal regulation. For employers and trade unions, the role of statute law was to support and extend collective bargaining rather than to comprehensively regulate the system. Notably, the law provided trade unions with a series of ‘immunities’ from UK common law. These immunities covered the right of trade unions to engage in industrial action with employers, which would otherwise have been illegal under UK common law.
The membership of UK trade unions grew markedly in the post-war years. The era also represented the golden age of British ‘pluralism’, where the role of trade unions in securing industrial peace and efficiency was emphasised. In the private and public sectors, sectoral level collective agreements were also typically reached that covered whole industries. By the late 1960s, however, concerns emerged about the efficacy of a system in which shop floor industrial unrest appeared to be rising. This led to the Donovan Commission, a government commission that attempted to investigate the causes of workplace disputes. Industrial conflict grew markedly in the 1970s, partly as a result of the economic crisis that affected western countries after the 1973 ‘oil shock’. The era was characterised by trade union militancy and high levels of industrial action, and attempts by successive left-wing and right-wing governments to regulate the system largely met with failure. The period culminated in the 1978–1979 ‘winter of discontent’, where public sector trade unions engaged in regular and lengthy industrial action over the incumbent Labour government’s policy of public sector pay restraint.
A conservative government, led by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was elected in 1979 on an anti-trade union, neo-liberal platform. Successive governments of this political stripe pursued a legislative programme that placed legal restrictions on trade unions’ ability to engage in industrial action, and that privatised many areas of the public sector, while managing the public sector in an anti-union fashion. During this period, trade union membership also...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document