The Union Makes Us Stronger. TUC | History Online logo TUC banner photo
Advanced Search
Home Timeline General Strike Match Workers The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists TUC Reports Feedback Email Us
Timeline 1815-1834 1850-1880 1914-1918 1939-1945 1960-2000
1815-1834 1834-1850 1850-1880 1880-1914 1914-1918 1918-1939 1939-1945 1945-1960 1960-2000
1834-1850 1880-1914 1918-1939 1945-1960 Tutor's Notes link Enlarge timeline
1960-2000 (Part 6) Anti-Union Legislation: 1980-2000
Employment Bill, 1982
Anti-Union Legislation: 1980-2000

Anti-Union Legislation: 1980-2000

Between 1980 and 1993 there were six Acts of Parliament which increasingly restricted unions' ability to undertake lawful industrial action. Secondary action, better known as 'sympathy strikes', was outlawed and picketing was restricted. Ballots were needed for official industrial action from 1984 and these had to be postal from 1993. Although unions have learned to use ballots as part of the negotiating process, they have imposed increasing financial costs, while the requirement to give employers seven days' notice further reduced unions' ability to respond quickly and potentially reduced the effectiveness of any action they took.

Employers could also gain injunctions from the High Court to stop unions undertaking strikes if there was any doubt as to their legality (facilitated by the increasing complexity of strike law). This tactic led to many strikes being abandoned, though if unions persisted they could be charged with contempt of court and fined or even have their assets seized. Injunctions gave employers a more immediate remedy than suing unions for damages - something that became possible again from 1982 (a return to the situation before the 1906 Trade Disputes Act when unions were at the mercy of the courts).

The Conservative government also interfered with the running of unions' internal affairs by compelling certain forms of election for executive committees and general secretaries, irrespective of the traditions of individual unions. It created a so-called Commissioner for the Rights of Trade Union Members (CROTUM, whose functions are now undertaken by the Certification Officer) to encourage members to pursue complaints against their unions.

An attempt to weaken the Labour Party backfired as the new legal requirement on unions to hold Political Fund ballots every ten years (from 1984-85) actually led to an increase in the number of unions holding such funds (though not all of these unions were affiliated to Labour).

The incoming Labour government kept almost every aspect of Conservative trade union law; the new relationship with unions was dubbed 'fairness not favours', as if the right to strike was a favour. The Employment Relations Act 1999 did offer a route to union recognition through applying to the Central Arbitration Committee. As with earlier statutory recognition procedures in the 1970s this has encouraged an increase in voluntary recognition agreements but on a much smaller scale so far compared to that earlier period.

A Chronology of Trade Union Law 1979-2008 is available on the Institute of Employment Rights website:

Dave Lyddon, Centre for Industrial Relations, Keele University
TUC poster - They are to blame Striking nurses
  TUC booklet - Root out racism   Miners' Strike - Orgreave  
  Ford sewing machinists, 1968   Bill Morris  
© London Metropolitan University | Terms & Conditions