Civil Service strike, 1981


In the 1980s and 1990s, the British trade union movement faced several inter-related challenges: high levels of unemployment and the continuing contraction of many well unionised industries; privatisation of most nationalised industries and the increasing use of private contractors in many public services; a Conservative government openly hostile to trade unions and legislating against them; and, feeding off these, a more aggressive attitude from both private and public sector employers and managers to unions and shop stewards defending the terms and conditions of their members.

Unemployment and Union Membership

The deepest economic recession since the 1929-33 slump saw unemployment rise from 1.3 million in late 1979 to 2.4 million in January 1981 and 3 million in April 1982. Officially it remained at this level for several years, though increasing numbers were excluded from the monthly count as the government manipulated the total. While unions and other groups took some initiatives - such as the Right to Work Campaign, the People's March for Jobs and unemployed workers' centres - in organising the unemployed, there was nothing on the scale of the unofficial National Unemployed Workers Movement of the inter-war years.

Union membership in Great Britain had peaked in 1979 at 12.6 million members in employment (this excludes the self-employed) before falling steeply to 10.3 million by 1984. Most of this decline reflected job losses in heavily unionised sectors, so union density (the proportion of the employed workforce in unions) only fell from 55% to just under a half. Yet when unemployment started to drop, the new jobs were in poorly unionised private services rather than in manufacturing. After a sharp recession at the beginning of the 1990s, when the official unemployment total again topped 3 million, the decline in union membership ended in the late 1990s. In 2000, it stood at an estimated 7.35 million employed members (and 7.78 million including unemployed and retired members), a density of just under 30%.

This figure was greater than the inter-war low point because membership had remained relatively high in the public services (national and local government, health and education) throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Total employment in these essential services had generally held up. Union membership, which had expanded dramatically here in the 1970s (particularly in reaction to incomes policies), was needed to cope with the onslaught of changes faced in the 1990s - for example, the battle over contracts in further education, and the creation of civil service executive agencies and NHS trusts.

The Changing Trade Union Movement

The changed distribution of membership between unions resulted partly from the decline of some industries but also from continuing union merger activity. The Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) membership of 2,086,000 in 1979 (making it easily the largest union then) had fallen to 858,000 in 2000. Over the same period, the 253,000 members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had shrunk to 5,000.

Union mergers in the public services were dominated by the creation in 1993 of UNISON (which has remained the largest union since) and the eventual emergence in 1998 of one very large civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), covering all but the top and specialist grades. Yet there remained several teachers' unions, while the various professions in the health service generally maintained their own separate union organisations. The formation of the CWU in post and telecommunications in 1995 crossed the divide between public and private ownership. Most large unions, such as the GMB, continued to absorb smaller ones in the private sector, though there were major mergers with the creation of MSF in 1988 and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) in 1992 (which joined together to form Amicus in 2002) and important consolidating ones with the Graphical Paper and Media Union (GPMU) (1992) in the printing industry and UNIFI (1999) in the finance sector.

As a result, the number of unions affiliated to the TUC declined from 109 in 1980 (representing 12,172,000 members) to 76 in 2000 (representing 6,746,000). By 1995, there had been only 67 affiliates, but unaffiliated unions - such as those separately organising physiotherapists, radiographers, chiropodists and orthoptists, several finance sector bodies, and the Professional Footballers Association - continued to join throughout the period. The only large unions now outside the TUC are the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Medical Association, the doctors' union. The Electrical Electronic Telecommunication and Plumbing Union (EETPU), which merged with the engineers to form the AEEU, was temporarily expelled from the TUC in 1988 for signing single-union deals in workplaces where other unions had a presence.


The whole post-war era is remarkable for the relentless rise of paid female employment, so that, by 2000, women constituted half of the employed labour force (excluding the unemployed and self-employed). Since 1980 particularly, this has reflected the continuing growth of part-time employment (overwhelmingly women) and the increasing numbers of working women with young children.

In 2000, 38.5% of the affiliated membership to the TUC was female. Women numerically dominated many large public service unions with 92% of members in the RCN, 72% in UNISON, 59% in PCS and, in the two largest schoolteachers' unions, 76% in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and 60% in the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). This has not generally translated into leading positions as a survey of 62 unions in 1992 found less than 12% of full-time officers to be women; in that year 24% of TUC delegates were women though this had risen to 35.4% by 2000. There were several female general secretaries in the period, such as Brenda Dean of the print union SOGAT (now the GPMU) and Diane Warwick of the Association of University Teachers. Bill Morris was the first black male general secretary (TGWU 1991-2003) and Beverly Malone of the RCN the first black female one.

The trade union movement, particularly in the 1990s, has been coming to terms with celebrating the diversity of its membership and gradually shedding its traditional white male image. The formation of UNISON in 1993 was accompanied by a bold experiment in pursuing 'proportionality', fair representation and self-organisation in the union's internal government. At the highest institutional level other initiatives have led to formal annual conferences being established through the TUC for black workers (from 1993), for lesbians and gays (1998) and for disabled workers (2001). The annual TUC Women's Conference dates from 1925.

At the 1996 TUC, John Monks (General Secretary 1993-2003) launched the 'New Unionism' initiative, establishing an Organising Academy in 1998, which had trained some 150 new union organisers by the end of 2002.

Dave Lyddon, Centre for Industrial Relations, Keele University