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1960-2000 (Part 1)
Grunwick strikers, 1977
Grunwick Strikers, 1977


In the period 1960-79, the British trade union movement seemed to most observers and active members to be in robust good health. In 1968, the TUC celebrated its centenary with due pomp and ceremony. Its leaders had no doubt that they were an important British public institution. They did not, however, rest on their historical laurels. In common with the rest of Britain, the trade union movement was affected by the currents of cultural and social change which gathered force during the 1960s. They responded with sincere, and often successful, initiatives to adapt the culture of trade unionism to take account of the changes. Examples are shown on the website of how unions were extending their reach towards the second wave of feminism and youth culture. There were also determined attempts to address issues of racism at the workplace and inside trade unions.

Growth in Trade Union Membership

Membership density not only remained at the record peacetime level of the late 1940s, hovering around 44%, during the late 1960s it began to increase steadily. In 1979, union density was 55.4%; there were 13 million union members, in contrast to the 9-10 million members in 1951-60 (1). Non-trade unionists were impressed by the improving wages and working conditions in the traditional centres of trade unionism - manual workers in large factories, shipyards, coalmining and railways. White collar and technical unions were successfully recruiting clerical and technical workers in the offices and drawing offices attached to these industries, where manual workers' lay representatives and officials provided important support to their sister unions' attempts to gain bargaining rights and recognition. Thus, when the National Association of Local Government Officers first affiliated to the TUC in 1964, it became the sixth biggest union; in 1979 it was the fourth largest, followed by NUPE, which had moved from tenth to fifth place.

Women's organisation also improved, from 2 millions in 1960 to just under 4 millions in 1979. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of women members in NUPE increased by 332.5%, from 40,000 to 173,000. In the decade between 1968-78, NUPE's women members increased by 236.3% to 457,500, thus becoming the union with the largest number of women members (followed by NALGO, GMWU, TGWU, each with around 318,000 members, having registered an increase of 141.3%, 59.2% and 63.3% respectively.)(2)

Smaller unions organising manual workers in the National Health Service and local government took advantage of this favourable atmosphere and began to recruit members more energetically. They frequently hired union activists from the engineering industry to be full-time officials, judging that their experience would make them effective agents to propagate the culture and habits of union solidarity and collective bargaining in hospitals and depots. Large professional associations in teaching and local government affiliated to the TUC, e.g. NALGO in 1964 and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in 1970. Previously, their members had considered themselves to be not only superior to manual workers in status, but also in their bargaining position. Now, their union executives and officials sought to revise these pre-conceptions and persuaded their members that lining up alongside manual unions did not diminish their professional prestige (The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing felt strong enough to remain ostentatiously separate). A contributory factor in persuading the leadership of professional associations there were real material advantages to be gained from TUC affiliation was the evolution of a formal, close relationship between it and the Government. Since their membership was overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector, these leaders judged that they would significantly increase their influence by operating inside the TUC.

Law in the Workplace

This period is indeed remarkable for the extent to which successive governments became involved in legislating and regulating terms and conditions of employment. In 1963, under the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, the Contracts of Employment Act was passed, requiring employers to give workers a minimum period of notice when terminating their contracts and to give written particulars of any verbal contract when a written contract was not provided. One of the first pieces of legislation enacted by Harold Wilson's 1964-70 Labour government was the Redundancy Payments Act 1965, requiring employers to consult unions at the workplace in advance of decisions to terminate workers' contracts on account of redundancy. Employees were also given a statutory right to both notice of redundancy and substantial financial compensation.

The Labour government also fulfilled the long-standing ambition of the trade union movement by enacting the Equal Pay Act 1970, requiring employers to pay women the same wage as men for the same work. Though more narrowly drawn than many trade unionists had lobbied for, the Act nevertheless established an important principle, which was supplemented and broadened through collective bargaining and strike action in which women proved notably determined and were well supported by their male colleagues and union officials, e.g. the strikes of women sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham and of workers at Trico's windscreen wiper factory in West London. This Act, together with the Race Relations Act 1968 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, provided the foundation of positive rights for women (and men) workers of all ethnic origins to be treated equally at work, both by employers and their fellow workers.

An additional factor drawing government and trade unions closer was the changing leadership in both. In 1960, the TUC's new general secretary, George Woodcock, was notably more inclined to enter into a public, formal relationship with government than his immediate predecessor, Vincent Tewson. In 1962, Woodcock persuaded the more conservative members of the TUC General Council to take part in the National Economic Development Council (NEDC), a body designed to discuss matters of national economic policy with representatives of interested organisations including the TUC, CBI, nationalised industries, the Bank of England, etc. It was very much Macmillan's initiative, in which he persisted, despite scepticism from the Ministry of Labour, where the established convention was that union leaders preferred to get on with their own jobs free from government hindrance. The General Council firmly declined, however, to co-operate with Macmillan's other initiative, the National Incomes Commission (NIC), despite a strong government campaign to persuade the voting public and trade union movement that their plans to establish a voluntary incomes policy were in good faith, i.e. not a ruse to increase employers' profits and shareholders' dividends at the expense of working people's standard of living. Despite the clear indications that British industry was unable to compete in the world market, the General Council was unwilling to contemplate making what would have been seen as a significant political concession, agreeing publicly with a Conservative government that both employers and unions had good reason to co-operate to maintain Britain's position as a significant exporter of manufactured commodities. The Labour Party leadership encouraged the General Council's perfunctory refusal to be drawn into the NIC. It was Harold Wilson's view (and Hugh Gaitskell's before him) that the TUC should be encouraged in their negative attitude. They considered it an important electoral advantage to claim that incomes policies could only be successfully implemented by a Labour government.

Nevertheless, Labour's grand offensive to launch a prices and incomes policy in 1964 with the establishment of the National Board for Prices and Incomes (1965-1971) proved to be as damp a squib as Macmillan's. Further initiatives to launch a workable incomes policy were undertaken by the succeeding three governments, the Conservative Heath government of 1970-4, the minority Wilson administration of February-October 1974, followed by the Labour government of 1974-9 led briefly by Wilson and then by James Callaghan. They all failed, foundering on similar factors to those which had determined the failure of Macmillan's and Brown's bold plans.

Professor Nina Fishman, Senior Lecturer, History, University of Westminster, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages

(1) J.McIlroy, N.Fishman, A. Campbell, (eds), 'British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics', 1999, vol. 1, p.103, and A. Campbell, N. Fishman and J. McIlroy (eds.), 'British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics', 1999, vol. 2, p.120

(2) Chris Wrigley, 'Women in the Labour Market and in the Unions', Campbell et al, vol. 2, p.66

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