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 It was repealed in 1974 when a new Labour government came into office and trade union rights were extended by various pieces of legislation in the following two years.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 the state and could be fined or imprisoned and as a result government always risked creating trade union “martyrs”. Much of the union legislation concentrated on civil law and so employers were given powers to sue trade unions for breaches of the law.
For instance, if a trade union called a strike without holding a secret ballot, it was the employer affected that sued the trade union for damages. The government has no power to prosecute the union. This means that the trade union risks losing considerable sums of money if it does not comply with the law, but individual trade union members cannot gain public sympathy by being sent to prison as they could in theory under the 1971 Industrial Relations Act.
Not only has the government considerably reduced the ability of trade unions and their members to take industrial action, it also, during the 1980s, took a strong stance with public sector trade unions. The most important trade union defeat in the public sector was the breaking of the miners’ strike in 1984-5. Furthermore, the government completely cut off the trade union movement from decision making at a national level. This contrasted with the 1960s and 1970s when governments, both Labour and Conservative, would often consult trade union leaders before making important decisions.
To say whether the reduction in the trade union movement is a propitious development or not, a definition of what trade unions are needs to be obtained. Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s definition of a trade union as “a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives” is still very apt today. For many important players in the economy, such as this Government, the Institute of Directors and the CBI, the decline of the unions is seen as a propitious development.
They blame Britain’s trade unions for pushing up wages, applying restrictive controls to work and thwarting management’s ability to plan and innovate and as a result are the “prime factor in economic crisis”, as McIroy puts it. The Right also emphasise the role of trade unions in creating inflation and cramping productivity. They tend to believe that employees are self-regarding individuals, who have less need than in the past to organise themselves collectively to defend or promote their interests in the workplace.
While some of these arguments can be seen as being true in the 1970s, when trade union power arguably got out of control, these views carry less weight today because of the decline of union power. Other factors must be taken into consideration when looking at Britain’s economic problems. There is the view that there is a debilitating split between the interests of the financial world and the industrial world. In other words borrowing, lending and currency speculation have taken precedence over what is really important as the basis of a thriving economy, building factories and producing goods.
Others claim that incompetent management, the fragmentation of the economy into small units, or the tendency of capitalists to put consumption and dividends before investment, or investment overseas before investment at home is equally to blame. I feel that there is still a need for trade unions as they provide several important functions for the majority of workers. For a start there is and always has been an unequal relationship at work. In other words, the employee as an individual in the workplace suffers from having an unequal relationship of power with his or her employer.
It is only when the employees decided to join together collectively, that they can create enough united strength to have a strong and credible voice to counter that of the employers. Unfortunately, the main feature of today,s labour market is its insecurity and lack of certainty. As a result a great fear for the future exists among employees. This insecurity is no longer confined to unskilled manual workers but has spread to all sections in the British workforce. As John Monks, General Secretary of the TUC said, “There are no steady jobs. They are here today, gone tomorrow jobs with no security, no pension, no sick pay and no paid holidays. Trade unions at least go some way in trying to redress this balance. Recent years have seen the rise of a divided workforce because the British labour market is not just deregulated but it is also becoming increasingly segmented. The growth of part-time employment has strengthened the sense of employee insecurity. Problems are caused for employees because part-time workers have no legally enforceable employment protection like those who are employed in full-time jobs. Even with trade union representation, employees, especially in retailing, find their working lives unstable, insecure, low paid and under valued.
Without trade unions all the evidence suggests that their situation would be even more impoverished than it is at the moment. The government’s own commissioned Workplace Industrial Relations Survey carried out in 1990 indicated just how vital trade unions are. Its findings revealed “repeatedly how much worse off employees who do not enjoy the protection of collective bargaining are. They are, on average, less favoured in terms of pay, health and safety, labour turnover, contractual security, compulsory redundancy, grievance procedures, consultation, communication and employee representation. The power of the British trade union movement has certainly been significantly reduced since 1979. While I think that the trade unions were getting too big and powerful and as a result were causing more bad than good in the 1970s, their rapid decline in the 1980s was not a propitious development. This is because employers now do not need to adopt basic recognised fair standards of labour practice because of the lack of legal regulation. This, combined with workplace insecurity and evidence of a squeeze on living standards has made conditions in the labour arket ripe for trade union protection. Workplace conditions and terms of employment will only detriorate further if trade union power and influence, responsibly used, is not allowed to continue. 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 ‘Bads’? The Future of the Trade Unions R. Taylor 1994 The History of Trade Unionism S&B Webb 1922