Trade Unions: from the beginning to 1979

In the UK today around 6.5m workers belong to a trade union. This compares with around 13 million in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The British trade union movement; its origins dating back to the mid-nineteenth century; was a unified movement ‘’in the sense that it wasn’t structurally divided on the basis of religion or politics’’.

Rather it had and still has one central organisation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC), founded in 1868, which includes over 90% of the unionised labour force. It was the trade union movement itself which was largely responsible for the foundation of the Labour Party. Until 1960 it enjoyed a close relationship with the party, sponsoring its own members to stand in Parliament as Labour MPs. More importantly the movement has made substantial financial contributions to Labour.

Since 1922, the trade union movement exercised no control over the process of policy-making, nor did it seek to become the political leadership of the Labour Party. To the Labour Party, the movement was not only a financial asset, but also an electoral asset, in fighting elections.

The Trade Union Movement post 1945

The trade union movement has widened its aims considerably since then. From 1945 UK trade unions set out to enjoy a decisive influence over government economic policy, at the same time demanding free collective bargaining without state interference.

The achievements of the Welfare State and full employment diminished the unions’ reliance on the Labour Party, while creating a suitable environment in which they could concentrate on their industrial role. During the 1950s they devoted most of their attention to the operation and protection of national collective bargaining. They were moderate in their pursuit of trade unionism and sensitive to national interests. Even under a Conservative administration 1955 to 1964 they crushed union militants in support for pay restraint.

A number of factors led to the politicisation of trade unions. During the 1960s a number of tensions emerged which distanced the Labour Party from the trade unions, enabling them to become an influential force in UK politics. The existing conflict resulted in a major crisis by the end of the decade.

Firstly, the TUC accepted the establishment in 1962 of a new planning body, the National Economic Development Council (NEDC). This was an institution on which sat representatives of the TUC, employers and government to plan an economic programme. Although the TUC alone could represent workers, increased government intervention annoyed many trade unionists. The TUC decision to serve on the NEDC was a crucial factor in influencing the political impact of trade unionism.

Secondly, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) became increasingly bourgeois distancing itself from the workers. A growing trend towards middle-class, university educated MPs in the Party, particularly in its leadership disillusioned a sizeable proportion of the trade union movement who had to deal with issues that related to activity at the workplace.

Thirdly, the trade union movement moved to the ‘left’ as the Labour Party moved to the ‘right’. The new left leadership personified by Jones, Scanlon and Scargill gained strength and were critical of government policy. These men displayed few of the loyalties of the past. They were more concerned with union and worker than with the national interest.

Rank and file militancy on the shop floor became a problem for the government. This became more pressing when the passage of power to the shop floor was facilitated rather than resisted.

Trade Unions and the Labour government 1964-1970

An incomes policy was suggested and accepted by the majority of the trade unions providing it would be voluntary and would be part of an overall social and economic policy that would be inspired by a sense of social justice. However, by 1965 this incomes policy became an instrument of wage restraint which was backed by legal controls and sanctions. This move annoyed the TUC. Between 1966 and 1968 one union after another came out in opposition to government policy.

A great deal of attention focused on the industrial strength of the unions, especially when power had seeped to shop-floor level. it was on this issue that a Royal Commission produced its findings, the Donovan Report 1968. The report recommended that industrial relations should be allowed to function largely on a voluntary basis. The Labour government tried to bring the unions within the law to control unofficial strikes and their influence. The 1969 document ‘In Place of Strife’, framed by Barbara Castle, was defeated by a substantial segment of the PLP – a decision welcomed by the TUC.

Trade unions and the Conservative government 1970-1974

The 1971 Industrial Relations Act further politicised the trade unions bringing them firmly within a legal framework. This clearly defined the limits of their behaviour and power – a move which upset the unions.

Prime Minister Ted Heath’s incomes policy brought confrontation to a head resulting in the three- day-week from January 1st to March 6th 1974, and Miners’ Strike later that year. Partly as a result of this Heath’s Conservative government lost the general election in 1974.

Trade unions and the Labour government 1974 TO 1979

From 1970 the unions were reluctant to allow the Labour Party any commitment whatsoever on an incomes policy. As Lewis Minkin (page 33) pointed out ”it was the trade union viewpoint that dominated industrial and incomes policy questions after 1970.” This politicisation of the union movement from below and the growing distance of the Labour Party led to the formulation of a ‘Social Contract’ in 1974. In return for employment protection and the repeal of the 1971 Act the unions agreed to exercise wage restraint. Colin Crouch noted how influential the unions were through the ‘Social Contract’ with Labour – ”the first phase of the social contract was remarkable in securing their aims, in terms of legislation, in advance of wage restraint.”

The 1975 Employment Protection Act widened trade union rights in areas such as dismissal, redundancy, maternity leave and provision of time off work to carry out union duties. It was grass-roots pressure which finally wrecked the social contract in 1978 which ended in a succession of strikes over pay known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. In June 1979 a new style of Conservative government was elected pledged to further trade union reform.

Read more by Stephen Lambert.

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