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How the Tories Tried to Make Strikes Impossible

For decades, Tory governments have undermined workers’ right to strike – to build a more equal society, we need to unshackle our trade unions.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) giving a speech 22 May 1980. (Mike Lawn / Evening Standard / Getty Images)

It’s hard to put into context the struggles of the Left—and the wider socialist movement—across the West, without understanding the decline of trade unions. The vanguard of working-class organisation at the start of the twentieth century, and later the bulwark upon which the post-war welfare state was built, trade unions have withered away in recent decades to a shadow of their former selves.

This decline has been seen across the West, but it is more pronounced in Britain than almost anywhere else. Trade union membership today is around half of its 1980s peak of 13 million people, with density falling even more dramatically as the workforce grows. In 2017, the number of workers involved in strike action fell to its lowest level since the 1890s. Whereas the railway strike of the 1960s and the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979 had seen more than 4 million workers on strike, 2017 saw just 33,000, according to the ONS.

As the inflation class war bites, numbers have begun to tick upwards, but they still remain historically low. In terms of membership, density, and militancy, trade unions are not the force in society that they once were. There are, of course, numerous factors that contribute to this reality. Often cited ones include the decline of previously well-organised industries (such as mining, textiles, and manufacturing), the growth of precarious work, and phenomena like zero-hour contracts.

Each of the factors has had its own impact, but nothing has been as impactful as the hatchet taken to British trade unionism by Margaret Thatcher and subsequent Tory governments.

Anti-Union Laws

Thatcher understood all too well that for her political project of neoliberalism to succeed, the trade union movement had to be defeated and working people atomised so as to enable a historic shift of wealth and power to an economic elite. Her government swiftly set about disarming the working class through a project of deindustrialisation and an upward transfer of the ownership of the economy, made possible by legal changes to remove the democratic rights of the working class in favour of capital.

But the most important weapon in her arsenal were anti-union laws. The defanging of the trade union movement began with The Employment Act of 1980 and was followed by a series of Acts under the Thatcher and Major governments to impose further restrictions. Each piece of legislation robbed organised labour of the tools to advance its interests by bringing into law a variety of obstacles to recruiting and organising members, and to taking industrial action.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t only the Tories who embraced this new industrial relations landscape. Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power after making a Faustian bargain that it would not upset Thatcher’s settlement, leaving in place anti-trade union laws and paving the way for subsequent Conservative governments to further tighten the screws.

The restrictions on trade unions range from barriers to contacting workers and accessing workplaces to onerous obstacles and thresholds for delaying and preventing strike action; this allows bosses to put their thumb on the scales to prevent workers winning improved terms and conditions in any dispute. The decline in the proportion of workers covered by collective agreements—where pay and terms and conditions are negotiated collectively through trade unions—both demonstrates the success of this assault and explains the consequent surge in economic inequality. In 1979, collective bargaining coverage put the UK amongst the leading countries in Europe, with a coverage of about 85 percent of the workforce. Today, it stands at about 25 percent, with just 9 percent from the private sector.

A number of studies have demonstrated how the decline in collective bargaining both here and abroad has severed the link between economic growth and wage growth. Even pro-market organisations like the OECD and the IMF have recommended the return of collective bargaining as the antidote to low demand and growth, but despite their rhetoric about ‘levelling up’, the Tories show no inclination to support such a policy.

Secondary Action

Of all the unjust restrictions on the rights of workers, the most egregious has been the ban on their most important tool: solidarity action. Solidarity action, sometimes termed ‘secondary action’ or ‘sympathy strikes’, refers to a situation where workers in one workplace take action in support of others. This is the practice that built trade unions as we know them today, but it is now illegal.

The ban on solidarity action, which is unique to the UK among European nations, means trade unions can only take action against their contractual employer and only on their employment terms, and can only picket at their place of work. This has the obvious effect of fragmenting the trade union movement and breaking the bonds of solidarity among workers. In turn, this means that workers are less likely to see their individual struggles as part of a broader cause, less likely to understand themselves as part of a class, and less able to achieve the primary aim of strikes: shutting down production.

As time has worn on, this ban has become more and more debilitating. The prevalence of outsourcing and subcontracting means that the number of workers who can strike together is severely restricted. For example, two workers who perform identical roles in the same workplace, on identical terms and conditions, would be prevented from taking industrial action together in cases where one is directly employed and the other is outsourced. At the same time, globalisation has meant that companies are larger and more complex, but action against parent companies, suppliers, and financiers is prohibited.

One need only look at some recent examples of abhorrent industrial practices to see how the ban on solidarity action has had an impact. When 700 British Gas engineers went on strike against fire and rehire plans during the pandemic, the company’s bosses and its parent company Centrica—with an annual revenue of £18 billion—knew they could continue to operate their business and wait out the strike because other British Gas workers, and workers in other companies in the sector, would not be able to join any industrial action. Ultimately, British Gas calculated that the savings made by forcing their workforce onto lower pay and worse terms and conditions would outweigh the costs incurred by the strike action—and from the perspective of corporate profiteers, they were right.

Or take the more recent P&O Ferries dispute. The sacking in that instance of an 800-person crew was a calculated breach of the law. P&O bosses knew they would incur some costs for doing it, but they also knew that they couldn’t be legally prevented from doing so by industrial action of workers not directly impacted.

If the right to solidarity action was restored, workers across the sector—dockers, tugboat crews, and so on—could have refused to deal with P&O and their parent company DP World, bringing their operations to a standstill. As it was, workers were unable to make those responsible pay a high enough price without risking severe legal consequence for both themselves and their unions.

And the consequences really are severe. While P&O and major corporations can break laws without much consequence, the same is not true in our economy—and under our anti-union laws—for workers and trade unions. In the 1988 ferries dispute, when striking ferry workers were ruled to have taken illegal solidarity action, their union was met with the full force of the state: the National Union of Seamen’s offices were sequestered and their assets seized.

This contrast shows how the bond of solidarity between the state and capital is strong, while the bonds between workers have been criminalised and broken.

The broader consequences of Thatcher’s economic reforms are well known. In the past 40 years, we have witnessed a record level of wealth inequality: just 10 percent of the population owns half the nation’s wealth while the income gap between the rich and poor has widened, leaving the UK with some of the most severe wage inequalities in the developed world.

Pay and wealth inequality accelerated since the Financial Crash and the following years of austerity. Trades Union Congress research found the UK to be an outlier in the OECD, bucking the international trend with a decline in real pay since 2007: a 0.2 fall in real wages as against an average growth of 0.8 percent.

The worst, though, is still to come. An economy which has seen the longest pay squeeze since Napoleon was marching across Europe has, at time of writing, now encountered inflation of between 9 and 11 percent, depending on your measure. This means that the Office for Budgetary Responsibility is predicting the worst hit to living standards since 1956. In the last issue, Tribune predicted this year would be as bad as the Financial Crash, but it’s shaping up to be far worse than that. At least in 1956, there was some post-war wage growth.

There are signs of a fightback. Trade union membership is growing, albeit slowly, up by 118,000 to 6.6 million in 2020, the fourth year in a row that it has increased. And the most recent figures show that industrial disputes are at their highest level for five years. Over the past 12 months, the TUC logged at least 300 disputes, a fourfold increase from three years ago. In defiance of the Governor of the Bank of England’s demand that workers show ‘restraint’ in the face of rising living costs, working people are beginning to demand pay rises.

This apparent growth in militancy is a welcome sign, but these increases are from a low base and disguise an alarming long-term decline. The expansion of trade union membership has been confined to the public sector—particularly education unions who organised against unsafe returns to the classroom during the pandemic—while membership in the private sector, where work is lower paid and more precarious, plummeted by more than 100,000 to its lowest levels since 1995.

Worse still, the profile of union members is greying: almost 40 percent are aged 50 and above, with just 4 percent under 24. As a consequence, few young people understand what trade unions are and how they might benefit them. By this stage, that phenomenon is multi-generational: most young workers’ parents will have had little engagement with unions, with the level of industrial militancy in the 1990s and 2000s so low.

The stark reality today in Britain is that we are witnessing the slow death of trade unionism; and it is being strangled by the criminalisation of solidarity. Without the ability to engage in solidarity action, workers are denied meaningful resistance to the onslaught they face from big business—and the consequences are permanently low wages and growing inequality.

The demonisation of solidarity action in our media and political culture has cast a long shadow over British politics. The spectre of ‘flying pickets’ (groups of workers travelling to support other workers, used to great effect during the 1972 miners’ strike) is manipulated by our billionaire media. Even under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn—the most pro-trade union leader in the party’s recent past—the issue of solidarity action was evaded, remaining unmentioned in both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos; instead there were vague commitments to repeal anti-union laws.

Keir Starmer’s New Deal for Working people, which retained much of the Corbyn-era’s radical proposals to strengthen trade unions, similarly avoids the issue, though there was an implicit commitment to ‘comply in every respect with the international obligations ratified by the UK’; this, it must be said loudly, would entail removing the ban on solidarity action.

The signs that the Starmer leadership would deliver on this commitment, however, are not good. With each passing month, it lurches further backwards towards Blairism, a project which steadfastly refused to take the state’s boot off the neck of the trade union movement.

The trade union movement itself was once cautious about calling for the return of secondary action, with the issue conspicuously absent from public communications for many years. That tide, however, has begun to turn—and not a moment too soon.

The General Secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, has vowed to operate on ‘the edge of the law’,  when necessary. The CWU’s Dave Ward recently flirted with the idea of a General Strike, the highest expression of solidarity action. Bit by bit, unions are starting to act as if the fight against the criminalisation of solidarity is existential.

The inflation class war set to unfold over the coming months and years presents an opportunity for the trade union movement to demonstrate its worth to working people. Now, more than at any time for decades, the fight for better wages and conditions will reach fever pitch. But unless we organise to overturn the ban on solidarity action, gains will come in dribs and drabs, with the vast majority of workers remaining frustrated. Rather than becoming more class conscious and militant, workers would feel more resentful and atomised than ever.

That kind of a failure would be very difficult to recover from—not just in the years to come, but in the full view of history.