The erosion of trade union power since 1979
Trade unions in Britain have existed for over two hundred years. In the early 19th century, trade unions were outlawed for being anti-competitive but by the early 20th century there were two million trade union members and this rose to a peak of over thirteen million in 1979. However, in the 1980s there was a sharp fall in the number of trade union members. There are a number of possible explanations for this radical change in trade union membership in the 1980s but I feel that there are three main reasons. Firstly, the recession of 1980-82 led to an increase in unemployment of nearly two million and the unemployed tend to let their trade union membership lapse. It is interesting to note, however, that the rise in employment in the late 1980s did not lead to a corresponding rise in trade union membership. Secondly, the 1980s saw a radical restructuring of British industry as employment in manufacturing, a sector which was very highly unionised, fell significantly. The new jobs that were created tended to be in the service sector of the economy, which is traditionally far less unionised than manufacturing. Thirdly, the 1980s was a decade in which the government showed a marked hostility to trade unions. This affected the willingness of workers to join unions and increased the confidence of those employers attempting to reduce or eliminate trade union activity in their workplaces. Trade unions have to work within a legal framework and this started in Britain when they gained the right to organise in 1824 with the repeal of the Combination Acts and their right to strike without being sued for damages by an employer was enshrined in the Industrial Disputes Act of 1906. During the 1960s, however, there was a growing feeling that trade unions and their members were using their power in a way which was damaging to the economy as a whole. The Labour government of 1964-70 shelved plans to introduce trade union reforms in the face of union opposition, but Edward Heath's Conservative government of 1970-74 did take action. The Industrial Relations Act (1971) was highly controversial, met substantial opposition from the trade union movement and failed to reduce their power effectively. It was repealed in 1974 when a new Labour government came into office and trade union rights were extended by various pieces of legislation in the following two years. The 1980s, arguably, saw a transformation in the climate of industrial relations in Britain. The Conservative government, instead of introducing large scale legislative reform, passed a number of acts each of which restricted union power at the margin. By 1990 secondary picketing had been made illegal; trade unions had to hold a secret ballot and gain a majority of the votes cast to call an official strike; social security benefits were withdrawn from the dependants of striking workers; union officers had to be elected by secret ballots and closed shop agreements were restricted and greater opportunities were given to employees to opt out of closed shops.
Power within the trade union movement has also shifted because before 1979, small groups of workers who were willing to take unofficial strike action and certain militant trade union leaders tended to dominate at least the newspaper headlines and the policy decisions and activities of their branches. The reforms of the 1980s made it more costly and more difficult for workers to take widespread unofficial action and the power of trade union leaders to call strikes was curbed because workers now had to be balloted on strike action. Moreover, the democratisation of union voting procedures made it much more difficult for militant trade union leaders to get elected to key posts within trade unions. The government also shrewdly distanced itself from the prosecution of trade unions. Previous legislation had concentrated on criminal law, where offenders were prosecuted by...
Bibliography: British Trade Unionism c. 1770-1990 K. Laybourn 1991
Trade Unions WEJ McCarthy 1972
Trade Unions In Britain Today J. McIlroy 1988
Trade Unions. Public Goods or Public C. Robins 1981
The Future of the Trade Unions R. Taylor 1994
The History of Trade Unionism S&B Webb 1922
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