Summary and bookmarks:
1.The Law and the State (continued)
1.1 Legislation: #legislation
1.2 The 1926 General Strike: #General Strike 1926
2. Unions and the labour movement in the 20th century
2.1 The growth of trade unions: #growth
2.2 Up to mid-century: #the period of the two World Wars
2.3 The Labour victory of 1945: #Labour 1945
2.4 From the 1970s: Heath, Thatcher, the end of the labour movement? #Heath and Thatcher
2.5 The miners’ strike, 1984: #miners
2.6 Unions and the labour movement today: points for discussion. #unions today, discussion
2.7 Conclusion - a final word on the nature of the labour movement. #conclusion
NB. A recent book that seems to cover the period and issues very well: The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910 – 2010, by Selina Todd, John Murray £25.
Review by David Kynaston: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/13/the-people-review-working-class-got-screwed-todd
The main points I wish to make here concern: the struggle that accompanied the rise of the labour movement, and the point that trade unions are special kinds of collective organisation (even the law recognises this now!) and which therefore, in my view, need special regard when applying the law.
1. The law and the state (continued)
- there was a reverse for trade unions in 1901, with the Taff Vale decision, where the Lords said that trade unions could be sued in their registered name and their
funds taken to pay damages for the wrongful acts of their officials.
- This provoked an outcry, and a Royal Commission led to the Trades Disputes Act, in 1906, which restored the intention of the law as it had been with the 1871 Act, and which also reversed the Taff Vale and other anti-union decisions. The point here is that unions had been regarded as associations, i.e. groups of people banding together voluntarily for common objectives, and having no legal identity. Hence it had been very difficult to sue a union, or even the union officials, for the actions of their members (loc cit p 9).
- In 1910 Lords judgement (the Osborne judgement) said that unions could not finance political candidates or pursue political activity! But this was nullified and superseded by the Trade Union Act of 1913, which permitted the setting up of separate political funds. Members could opt out if they wished.
- After the General Strike (see below), legislation was passed (Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927) which restricted union activity yet again, making action to coerce the government, or which harmed the community, illegal. This was repealed by the Labour Government in 1946.
There was a dramatic economic slump after the First World
War (the “Great depression”): by March 1921 there were over 2 million
unemployed workers, and wages were falling. There was briefly a Labour
government (the first, elected in 1924), whose period of office was accompanied
by strikes. The mine-owners decided to cut workers wages, and the miners,
through the Miners Federation, approached the
on ‘Black Friday’
it was agreed by the
mine-owners stood firm, and posted lockout notices to take effect from 30th
April – and on that day the government declared a state of emergency. The
General Strike only lasted 9 days: about 2.5 million workers were on strike. On
12th May the
factors that militated against the strike succeeding were: the tanks patrolling
the streets, troops bivouacked in Kensington Gardens, Churchill’s setting up
the British Gazette, which called for trade union power to be curbed, the
government commandeering the
The miners stayed on strike on their own for 6 months longer, (which they would not have been able to do without the help of other unions), whilst the government legislated to lower their wages and their unemployment benefit. There was so much anger at the behaviour of the mine-owners, however, that the Labour Party determined to nationalise the mines when they were returned to power, and (according to Perkins 2006) the strike changed public opinion to such an extent that Labour (under Ramsay MacDonald) became the biggest party in the 1929 election. In the longer term, too, workers gained improved negotiating machinery, there were fewer strikes for the next two decades, and, despite anti-union legislation after the strike, membership grew and the unions not only regained their influence but increased it, so that they became much more widely accepted.
By 1945, the idea of collective action had become embedded in the national culture, as Perkins puts it, and the Tories had shifted to become more supportive of the state’s involvement in the economy (e.g. through council housing, and the Welfare State). The same year the NUM was formed (Attlee was in government), and the World Federation of Trade Unions set up.
However, the immediate effect of the failure of the General Strike was a loss in members to the trade unions: membership declined until 1934, before beginning to pick up again. But MacIvor (2001) argues that the damage done to the movement by the General Strike has been exaggerated, given the long-term benefits just mentioned.
The rise in union membership from the late 19th to the mid-20th century is impressive:
In 1892 there were 1.6 million trade union members, representing 10.6% of the workforce.
By 1950 there were 9.3 million members, representing 44 - 45% of the workforce.
Historians disagree over the importance of different factors that help to explain this dramatic rise:
The Marxist view:
Marxists stress there are underlying economic factors, and especially changes in technology – i.e. the work process, which are seen as “driving” other changes (making workers more radical and class-conscious as a reaction against the deskilling and alienation that such changes mostly produce). They also stress the importance of economic cycles (booms and slumps) which affect workers’ wages and consequently lead to rises and falls in militancy. Marxists generally tend to see the overall process as having been one of a steady development of a stronger workers’ movement. From such a point of view managers (and workers) are subject to material factors or economic laws, and have little autonomy. Many Marxists also tend to argue that the trade union leadership and bureaucracy are conservative and reformist, in contrast to the naturally more radical rank and file workers (e.g. Braverman, Hinton, Saville – details in MacIvor 2001).
This last point of view is opposed by right-wing theorists, who believe that workers and unions have too much power: their “restrictive practices” undermine productivity, and their activism is designed to push wages up. There is often talk of the “British disease” of industrial conflict and strikes amongst such writers (e.g. Phelps Brown, Corelli Barnett - details in MacIvor 2001).
Non-Marxists stress other factors helping or hindering the growth of the workers’ movement, e.g. the role of the state, and the general political “atmosphere” i.e. public opinion. They would also give both workers and managers a more significant role, less “determined” by economic or technological factors. Thus McIvor identifies bodies set up by employers (The Economic League for example) that gave employers mutual support, and that had a “symbiotic” relationship with workers’ organisations: there was (and still is) an interaction between workers and employers or managers: the relative power of both sides is always shifting and evolving. McIvor also argues that employers attitudes changed over the period, from outright hostility to workers (involving violent strike-breaking and “lockouts” up until the end of the 19th century) to one of accommodation, as employers realise that co-operation with workers can help the business run more smoothly!
Other influences on the development of the workers’ movement in this period include the two world wars: thus not only did war-work tend to increase workers’ sense of solidarity, but during war the state takes a more active, interventionist role in the economy. Bodies such as the Joint Industrial Councils and Wages Boards were established or extended, giving workers rights that safeguarded their wages and conditions (to some extent). It is important to note that up until the 1920s many of the gains made by workers could be reversed if circumstances changed and employers gained sufficient power to take back concessions made before. It is only, MacIvor argues, when workers’ rights become enshrined in legislation – and especially when there are legally established procedures for industrial relations – that progress becomes more or less permanent, with the 1950s marking a watershed. (We have, of course seen, since the 1950s, how government can reverse trade union legislation!).
The Second World War in particular saw an increase in workers’ bargaining power, as so many men were away in the forces that labour was scarce, and employers had to be prepared to make concessions. It is interesting to note, as McIvor does, that two contrasting developments played a part in strengthening the labour movement: the growth of shop stewards and workplace committees (a reaction to the pressures of war-work) and the policies of E. Bevin, Minister of labour, who encouraged collective bargaining procedures.
During the years before and during World War I there was widespread unofficial action – much of it continuing the tradition mentioned earlier - what McIvor calls “primitive democracy” - where guilds and the early craft unions had more extensive powers than unions do today. (Before the war there had been an erosion of real wage levels, and during the war the pressure on workers was increased to meet the war effort). The “unofficial” methods used were however not simply defensive, nor just to improve a group of workers’ conditions, but they had a wider social or political dimension: e.g. output would be restricted in order to spread work (and avoid unemployment). There was also widespread use of the “go slow” or “ca’canny”, a method of direct action to protect workers against management offensive over pay, hours, or whatever.
Having said this, McIvor points out that there is an important distinction between matters concerning the labour contract (wages, hours, overtime, holidays etc) and those directly concerned with the methods of production: workers could have some influence on the former (though it was always possible to reverse this later), but employers have always resisted the influence of workers over the “core” aspects of the work process – that is they want to retain their “managerial prerogative”.
After the First World War great progress had been made by the labour movement, at three levels – industry-wide, workplace, and governmental:
- some 6/7 million workers (40% of the workforce) were covered by collective regulations at industry level, and much of industry had been
granted a 48 hour week (as against over 60 hours some years earlier)
- in mining, there was a nationally agreed 8 hour day and minimum wage
- the Trades Disputes Act of 1926 made strikes and picketing potentially more effective
- shop stewards and workplace committees were widespread – and in engineering in 1919 there was a national Shop Stewards Agreement.
At this stage there emerged what is known as the two systems of industrial relations: formal and informal. The formal system involved national agreements, whereas the informal operated at workplace level.
During the inter-war years, things got much more difficult for workers once more, especially with the build-up to the Depression of the late 20s and early 30s. Legislation was passed (especially after the 1926 General Strike, see below) which was anti-labour, such as the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Act of 1927, limiting unions’ scope for strikes etc. The Economic League, which blacklisted activist workers, was set up in 1926. Still, unions managed to mitigate the worst attempts to cut their wages etc, according to Clegg (1970). Moreover, despite the Depression, legislation was passed in the ‘30s which was beneficial to workers: the Factory Act 1937, Holidays With Pay Act 1939, showing that the labour movement was still having an effect despite worsening circumstances.
The main expansion of the trade union movement occurred during the 1940s – factors contributing being: full employment, more worker-friendly public opinion (and in government, through Bevin), growing “revulsion against management” (MacIvor) during the war – so that there was a growth of joint production committees, and of union membership:
- in 1939 there were 6.3 million members, i.e. 32% of the workforce
- in 1950: 9.3 million, i.e. 45%.
the Labour landslide election victory
of 1945, legislation was enacted which helped the unions, the welfare state provided a “social wage”
(with benefits etc), and the British Employers’ Federation were regarded as
pretty much equal partners with the
Such was the changed atmosphere by 1950 that management now recognised that so-called “restrictive practices” actually could serve useful purposes. For example, in printing there were bans on piecework, in the building industry there was opposition to bonus payments (“merit money”), there were go-slows (“stints”) in mining, and rules about seniority for promotion in the iron and steel industry. These practices could be seen as ways of protecting workers’ skills (against overstrain and managerial favouritism), and regulating the labour market (Zweig 1951). As Zweig put it, in 1951:
“Most employers state that the restrictive spirit harms more than restrictive rules… [and that] the smooth running of industry depends on [workers’] goodwill and the spirit of co-operation.” (Quoted in MacIvor op cit)
All this shows, as MacIvor says:
- that there was a major change in the balance of power between workers and employers over the period;
- that by mid-20th century employers found trade unions useful and wanted to co-operate with them (it is often forgotten that the “closed shop” – 100% union membership in a factory – was often agreed by the employer and could be useful to them, since all workers would be covered by any agreements and “minority trouble-makers” would be less of a problem!);
- the labour movement made significant gains: wages had improved dramatically in real terms (in 1950 wages were three times what they were in 1880);
- given the raised school-leaving age and earlier retirement, workers now spent less of their lives at work;
- the working week had been reduced from 60 hours in mid-19th century to around 45 hours by 1950
- that this had been brought about by the struggles of the labour movement, through a mixture of advances and setbacks;
- that in a sense, workers had contributed to what MacIvor calls a “reformed and humanised capitalism”.
Having said this, it must be remembered, he says, that:
- there were still sectors of work, especially clerical, office and agricultural, where unions had little presence;
- these were often areas where most of the workforce were women, indicating the prevalence of patriarchal attitudes in unions;
- radical workers’ demands for real workers control had not been realised – nationalisation of industry was not accompanied by wide
involvement of workers at board level
(some would argue that most workers were not interested in such powers anyway
e.g. Hinton 1994). Also the
- management still is unwilling to give up its prerogative over central aspects of the labour process;
- most work has become narrower in focus, more closely supervised, and more intense, leading to more mental stress (whilst being safer in terms of accidents etc) – and industrial relations has become depersonalised (no direct contact with the foreman, but instead an increased role for junior/middle managers etc). All of this provided grounds for worker dissatisfaction still, of course!
writers and journalists have declared that the trade union or labour movement
is defunct: especially since the triumph of Thatcherism in the 1970s, the
defeat of the miners in the ‘80s, and the fall of the Soviet Union (1989), and
the disintegration of the communist bloc. More sweepingly it is also said that
socialism is dead. In
In the 1970s, under Harold Wilson, the government was very concerned about the growing militancy of the trade unions, and this became a more serious problem with the economic crisis following the Middle East War of 1973, and the subsequent rise in oil prices. The British economy was in difficulties: the government had to go to the IMF for a loan, and – of course – conditions were attached, including restricting public sector wages and public expenditure generally. Labour MP Barbara Castle is remembered for her plans ‘In Place of Strife’ – which many on the left saw as an attack on the unions – although her proposals were watered down. The Labour government was defeated in 1970, faced by inflation, as well as industrial unrest.
central figure in Labour’s policy on the unions during this time – and into the
‘80s – was Lord Bill McCarthy, whose obituary is in the Guardian
In 1971 the Industrial Relations Act was passed by the Heath government which limited ‘wildcat strikes’, imposed limits on what was defined as a legitimate strike, and which established the National Industrial Relations Court, giving it the power to grant injunctions preventing strikes. The belief that ‘unions have too much power’ was widespread (and reinforced by the media).
fact there is still bitter controversy over the effect of union activism in the
late ‘70s: the unions have retained considerable hostility to both Barbara
Castle and the Heath government. On the other hand, Professor Keith Ewing
(cited by Anne Perkins - author of A Very British Strike, Macmillan 2006 - in
In 1973, three building workers including Ricky Tomlinson (now an actor) were charged with conspiracy, for picketing. They became known as the Shrewsbury Three – they served sentences of up to three years.
From 1974 power workers and miners were on strike, and the Heath government brought in the ‘three day week’ to save on electricity – the government tried to fight an election on the slogan ‘who governs Britain?’, but lost.
Another notable dispute in the ‘70s was at Grunwick, where photo-processors fought for union recognition.
After the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978 – 9) when public sector workers were on strike, resisting the Callaghan government’s restrictions on their wage rises (as a means of controlling inflation), and then the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979, laws were passed which further restricted the unions in their ability to strike: secondary action was outlawed, picketing was restricted, and ballots were established (with – as we have seen recently – stringent conditions attached to what is accepted as a proper ballot). Her government’s aim was to ‘roll back the state’ and increase the extent to which private enterprise played a part in the economy. The unions were seen as a barrier to this, and she had no hesitation in tackling them head-on. It is said that she remembered her predecessor Ted Heath having to give in to the miners and resolved never to do the same.
In 1984 the NUM
called a national strike when Mrs Thatcher announced the closure of
Cortonwood Colliery in
long and bitter dispute ended (in one sense) one year later, with the defeat of
the miners, and the closure of many pits. However, the history of the event is
still disputed! The miners’ leader, Hugh Scargill, was a controversial figure:
seen by some as a potential saviour of the mining industry, and by others as a
manipulative Leninist whose obstinacy and lack of democratic accountability
only prolonged (or even led to the failure of) the dispute. It is argued that
he refused to hold a national ballot, and held regional ones – but then tried
to impose the pro-strike stance on those regions who had voted against (letter,
also argues that there was widespread support from other sectors of the working
class (rail workers who refused to transport coal) – and the threat to whole
communities based on mining drew a good deal of support from the public. But
there was also much hostility from the media... Miners were themselves divided:
a break-away union was set up (the Union of Democratic Mineworkers) which
opposed the strike; some say this was as a result of Scargill’s leadership,
others that the new union was set up by the government of Mrs Thatcher! Either
way, their pits were closed down eventually too! The ‘Battle of Orgreave’, when
a mass picket (10,000 miners, with 8,000 police on duty) was attacked by police
on horseback, is also remembered either as showing how violent the police could
be, or how violent the demonstrating miners were! (See New Statesman,
A final irony of all this is that now (1st decade of the 21st century) we are importing coal into the UK – 4.3 million tonnes in 2007, at a cost of £2 bn – and we have lost out on the opportunity to develop clean coal technology by closing down so many mines.
Another dramatic dispute, that led to defeat and left a legacy of bitterness, took place in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch wanted to reduce the number of printers he employed, by bringing in new technology. He eventually decided to move his four newspapers to Wapping, where computerised equipment would save him many jobs – the dispute was long-running, but in the end the unions could not stop Murdoch. Most observers, and some in the unions, agree that the print unions had become inflexible, over-manned, and resistant to any change (Sean French, New Statesman 11th Sep 2006: ‘The print unions were greedy bullies – I know because I worked with them – and they were forcing the industry to stay in the medieval age’ but - he goes on - when the journalists had the power to stop Murdoch they ‘blew it completely. Now he rules the world’). On the other hand, Murdoch was undoubtedly devious and determined – he divided the journalists against the printers, and he secretly planned his move to Wapping over years.
After these disputes union membership began to fall – from around 13 million to half that figure by the turn of the century. And yet there have been sings more recently of a revival in union activity, especially given that attacks on the public sector (1993 saw the formation of Unison), and the tendency of management, once gain, to believe that it has the right to make workers redundant as it sees fit.
course, (as Anne Perkins says, loc cit) the economic and industrial scene today
is very different to what it was at the beginning of the 20th
century: workers’ pay and standard of living is better, and there are – apart
from the state – hardly any mass employers in the
But of course, many of the issues raised by the labour movement are still alive, especially the “bread and butter issues” such as health and safety, fair pay, differentials, and issues concerning the labour contract.
With regard to recent trade union activity and membership in the UK, although trade unions may have gone into decline in Britain at the end of the twentieth century, there are currently (since 2006) signs of militant activity:
- university lecturers protesting about the way that student numbers have increased, whilst staffing and other resources to teach them have shrunk;
- in the NHS there has been widespread discontent about the constant re-organisation of the Health Service, as well as about creeping privatisation; more recently (2016) an unprecedented strike of junior doctors against the imposition of a contract which changes their terms of service: weekend working with less pay – and the stretching of resources to cover weekends when (doctors argue) more staff are needed.
- railway workers (and others, especially in the public sector) have taken action over inadequate pension schemes;
in April 2006 there was an unofficial walkout at the Vauxhall plant at
- a campaign is launched for a trade-union freedom bill…
the other hand, as Anne Perkins argues: when it was announced that the Peugeot
factory at Ryton, near
The grass-roots labour movement and trade unions certainly seem less powerful today. To take one recent dispute: in 2005, 813 workers at Gate Gourmet (supplying airline meals) were sacked. This was followed by an illegal strike, and when the TGWU did get involved, the dispute ended with only 272 workers re-instated. Moreover, British workers change jobs more often than their European counterparts, and although here are fewer days lost to strikes, there has been an increase in working days lost through absenteeism.
that if we look world-wide, rather than just in
Some commentators argue that any signs of activity in unions these days are in the “old economy” i.e. previously state-owned industries such as the Post Office, Railways and the public sector (e.g. David Cautes of the Work Foundation, cited by Perkins). It is also said that the focus of trade union protest these days has shifted: now it is seen as important to oppose the fragmented, atomised workplaces, and the “flexible workforce” (which means that workers are expected to be “easy-come, easy-go”). Currently (2016) ‘zero-hours’ contracts are the focus of much discontent. Other current issues include more family-friendly working hours and – still! – equal pay. In 2002 Bob Crow argued that rail-workers were trying to counter the inequalities produced by the privatisations of the ‘90s; also, train drivers had become scarce and were therefore able to command higher wages.
figures on the state of the unions show:
there are 66
importantly, according to Prof. David Metcalf (quoted by Polly Toynbee,
it is important to compare British industrial relations laws (especially as
modified by the Blair government) with other countries’ laws, and with
international standards: John Hendy QC, visiting Professor in the
- the Council of Europe declared in November 2002 that “the scope for workers to defend their interests through lawful collective action is ..
circumscribed in the
consequences of taking unlawful action are serious
- the UN has (in 1997) criticised the “failure to incorporate the right to strike into [British] law [which] constitutes a breach of Article 8 of the
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
To re-iterate: the main points I wish to make here concern:
1. the struggle that accompanied the rise of the labour movement, and
2. that trade unions are special kinds of collective organisation (even the law recognises this now!) and which therefore, in my view, need special regard when applying the law.
To clarify this last point: consider the use of the law to outlaw strikes. It is worth going back to the basic meaning of a right to “combine”: surely it is a basic right in a democracy to join with others for common goals? Any law which restricted this activity would have to say why unions are different from any other organisations that people are free to join, such as clubs or religious organisations.
Or, if we think about what is meant by right to “strike”: if I am not allowed under any circumstances to refuse to work for someone, what is the difference between this and slavery? Employers, in my view, already have considerably more power than their employees – the “managerial prerogative”, or “right to manage” means that decisions about the most significant aspect of a business’s activity are not made by the workers. The right to strike is recognised since it gives back some power to the employees, who otherwise would have none!
It also seems wrong to me that even to this day the right to strike in sympathy with other workers is not recognised as lawful: trade unions group workers according to their type of work, but all workers have in common the fact that they are workers! One group of workers may well find themselves in a position of conflict where the power of their employers is such that they can do little to help themselves. Solidarity amongst workers is a basic principle of the labour movement: hence the close association between the labour movement and socialist ideologies. To restrict workers to pursuing only goals that are directly to do with their own work is - I would argue - to try to compel workers to act on the self-interested and competitive principles that underlie the capitalist system.
Two recent newspaper articles that illustrate (i) the totally different world-views of employers and workers, and (ii) the incredible gap that has opened up in earnings between executives and the average worker:
(i) Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, and a former TfL board member said, concerning staff cuts: ‘There is probably scope to reduce the cost of operations at London Underground because it is heavily unionised and has not been subject to competitive pressures.’ How would a union member or official put this? (Quoted by Dan Milmo, Guardian Transport correspondent, Mon 6th Sep 2010).
(ii) (from Andrew Clark, Guardian 1st Sep 2010): a report by the Institute for Policy Studies shows that the average leader of a Standard & Poor 500 company in the US receives 263 times the typical net pay of an American worker (though there has been a decline from $9.4 million in 2008 to $8.4 million in 2009). Moreover, those executives who had shed most jobs often fared the best – in 50 companies that shed the most employees average chief executive compensation was $12 million…