Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Government Has Declared War on Workers — It’s Time to Fight Back.

Forty years ago, the Thatcher government attacked trade union rights. Union members at GCHQ Cheltenham were told to quit their union or be sacked. The trade union movement stood together to defeat this assault. As the Tories introduce new draconian anti-strike laws, it’s time to do it again.

PCS members on strike Credit: Jess Hurd

Forty years ago, fourteen civil servants working in Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) lost their jobs for being members of a trade union. Margaret Thatcher enforced a ban on trade union membership in 1984, claiming that it wasn’t possible for someone to be in a union and be loyal to their country. During a House of Commons debate on the ban, the shadow foreign secretary, Denis Healey, said that Thatcher had forced on GCHQ staff ‘the most damaging conflict of loyalty known to man — loyalty to principle as against loyalty to family.’

But fourteen brave workers stood firm and refused to relinquish this fundamental human right — and their defiance cost them their jobs. What followed was one of the longest and most high-profile disputes in our movement’s history. And it came in the context of a wider anti-trade union agenda.

From day one, the Thatcher government made it a priority to smash the trade union movement by making legal changes to remove the democratic rights of workers to organise and take effective strike action. Her attempts to undermine the effectiveness of unions started with The Employment Act of 1980, which rolled back the right to picket. Ballots before industrial action were later introduced by the Trade Union Act 1984 — the year of the GCHQ ban. As a result of these reforms, the UK has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe.

But despite all this anti-union hostility, several civil service unions, the predecessors to the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), campaigned against the GCHQ ban, inspired by a small group of sacked GCHQ staff, with the late Mike Grindley as their spokesperson.

They organised large rallies in Cheltenham every January, went on roadshows, attended trade conferences across the country, and set up a regular campaign journal called ‘Warning Signal’.

The trade union movement also threw its full weight behind their campaign. Ahead of the 1 March deadline for resigning their union membership or facing the sack, the TUC called a Day of Action. And when the government eventually dismissed the trade unionists at GCHQ, civil servants throughout the country took industrial action. After thirteen years of campaigning across the trade union movement, the ban was finally lifted in 1997.

I’m immensely proud that the GCHQ branch remains an important part of PCS to this day.

Yet four decades on, history is repeating itself with a Tory government hellbent on attacking trade union rights. This time they are seeking to undermine our members’ democratic right to strike through minimum service levels, which may restrict the right to strike for thousands of our members in the Home Office.

If these laws were in place in 2023, our members would have been prevented from taking strike action and winning significant concessions on pay in addition to a cost-of-living payment.

Despite what government ministers may say, minimum service levels have nothing to do with preventing disruption or protecting the services that the public relies on.

Just one look at crumbling schools, an overstretched NHS and a broken rail system puts paid to any notion that this government has the best interests of the public at heart.

This legislation is about one thing and one thing only: restricting the right to strike and our members’ ability to fight back against low pay and bad bosses. And our hard-working members in the Border Force are bracing themselves for what are some of the most severe restrictions of the lot.

At the historic Special Congress on minimum service levels last December, PCS joined unions from across the movement to commit ourselves to campaigning against the vindictive piece of legislation. However, victory in this campaign means more than words written on a page or spoken at a congress.

These are unprecedented times for our movement and that requires us to be radical, bold and innovative. We need also to discuss and share tactics to beat this legislation. Just as we showed at GCHQ all those years ago, our strength is in our collective. That is why trade unionists from all across the UK will march together on 27 January in Cheltenham on the anniversary of the trade union ban at GCHQ.

But we will not only demonstrate to protect the right to strike. We will also pay homage to the annual marches and rallies that took place every January in Cheltenham as part of the inspirational campaign that was led by ordinary trade unionists against the union ban. As we prepare for this massive mobilisation in Cheltenham, we must remind ourselves that our movement has won many battles before — and that we can, and will, win many more again. 

If the campaign to overturn the union ban at GCHQ teaches us anything, it is that a united trade union movement can be a powerful force for change.

So, let’s join together as one to defend our members and our class, in solidarity. See you on the 27th.