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Account for the decline in trade union power, 1964-1990 Essay

Long before Mrs. Thatcher came into power in 1979, Trade Unions were very important for the post war consensus governments. Both, Labour and Conservative party had been, in some way, dependent on Union’s support for their governments. Workers also had public support, which only strengthen their position and influence in the country. But with the time, Trade Unions started to demand more and more, undermining government and having exaggerated opinion about their own power. These led to actions from government that wanted to reduce their power and led to clashes between workers and decision makers.

Soon it led to political crisis’s; energy crisis and loses of support of public by Trade Unions. The refusal for compromise led to a loss of the “war” to Mrs. Thatcher in 1984 and Unions were never as strong as they were in post war consensus era anymore. One of the first modern clashed with trade unions happened during Wilson’s Prime Ministry. Labour was depended on Union’s support, as any other party that would be in charge, and thus in order to keep them happy Wilson appointed trade unionist Frank Cousins minister of technology. Wilson also relied on keeping good relations with the TUC (Trade Union Congress).

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He also proposed Price & Incomes policy. This policy was meant to stop wage rise by negotiating with unions in order to keep inflation down. The policy was a small part of different policies targeted on tackling economic problems in the UK in 1960s. It was a difficult thing to maintain worsened by a long and bitter strike by the National Union of Seamen, which led to sterling crisis in 1966. Next, docks strike, was in 1967 affecting London and Merseyside. These strikes led to fall of previous cosy relationship between government and unions. The big strikes by seamen and the dockers caused huge problems for government.

Also they showed that old bosses of unions are loosing control over their members thus reducing their power and influence on government. A lot of local strikes were known as “wild cat” strikes, strikes that are sudden, unofficial local disputes begun without reference to the national leadership, were started by local activists who would not take orders from the top. Number of strikes had gone up rapidly, being 1937 strikes in 1966 and 3116 in 1969. These persuaded Wilson that actions should be taken. He showed his anger by describing them as “small group of young men determined to endanger British Industry.

He and his new employment minister, Barbara Castle, started planning to use the law to limit unofficial strikes. In January 1969 Castle produced white paper, “In Place of Strife”. As she believed in strong unions but also was convinced of the need for it to act responsibly, in many ways her proposals in the white paper would strengthen unions in dealing with employers. However 3 aspects of her plans, 28 day “cooling off” period before a strike; the government could impose a settlement when unions were in dispute with each other in “demarcation disputes”; strike ballots could imposed, were seen as too radical.

An industrial relations court could punish people who broke the rules. Voters, already angered on unions for strikes, supported this, as they believed unions should be limited and so Labour’s standing in the poles went up. But unions and left Labour hated this. There was a storm of protest from unions and left Labour MPs, including the very powerful National Union of Mineworkers and the Home Secretary, James Callaghan. Wilson had to give in. Barbara Castle was left high and dry. In June 1969 the TUC negotiated a face-saving compromise but everyone knew that this was a really embarrassing for the government.

Reforms of the unions were left to be tackled by future Conservative governments. Although this was a union’s victory, it can be argued that this is the starting point of union’s decline in the future. Government understood that it has to do something and tried to take action ignoring the fact that union’s support is very vital for them. Also it showed that voters disliked the behavior of unions and wanted limit union’s right to strike. Moreover, as history will show, later Conservative reforms were much more damaging to the unions that “In Place of Strife” would have been.

When Conservative PM, Edward Heath, was in power he cancelled the “Price & Incomes Policy”. Instead, in 1971, the government brought Industrial Relations Act. This was very similar to Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife white paper proposals. It set up Industrial Relations Court (IRC) and provided for strike ballots and a “cooling off period” before the strike could officially begin. Workers believed that their rights are restricted as now, strikes could be declared as “unfair industrial practice”.

Also IRC was judging whether strikes are fair or not, meaning that unwanted strike could be cancelled by the Court after consultation with government. All unions need to be on government register. However the policy did not work as expected. None of the unions registered in the government. TUC and CBI were opposed to it. The IRC proved to be ineffective in dealing with disputes. Also it did not prevent strikes, there were 2 major strikes in 1972, by the miners in January and by the railwaymen three months later.

Miners strike lasted six weeks during the time of harsh winter weather. The strike stopped the movement of coal around the country. The energy crisis began which led to a so-called “3 day week” which was introduced in order to conserve energy suppliers. This strike not only angered the government but voters as well. They blamed unions in cut of energy supplies and introduction of the “3 day week”. The NUM leader, Joe Gormley, was a moderate Lancastrian with a good sense of public relations. He negotiated a generous wage settlement accompanied by other concessions.

Although the strike looked like a clear victory against businesses and government it was arguably the main point when unions were doomed to decline in the future. Margaret Thatcher would learn on Heath’s mistake. Also, unions seemed to lose public support. Although miners did hard and dirty job, people could not tolerate the level of impudence unions had which led to emergency situation in the country. However unions were still strong and inspired by big victory and were looking for further actions. Labour returned to power in 1974 and Wilson became PM for the second time.

Tory left a lot of problems unsolved one of them was industrial relations crisis. Wilson acted quickly. Industrial Relations Act was abolished. Unions received clear message that government does not want confrontations. Wilson’s new chancellor, Denis Healey, issued two budgets, first in March and then in July, aiming to deal with the economic crisis without annoying the unions. Just a year later Healey announced that he is going to introduce steep rises in taxation as inflation was growing too fast due to constant wage increases for workers.

This led to party division, as Labour had many very pro union members. Nevertheless, Wilson suddenly resigned. His successor was James Callaghan with long experience and good links to the unions. However the links did not help. Soon industrial unrest gripped Britain in the winter of 1978-79. It was not as serious challenge to the government of the day as the miners’ strike that had happened in 1974, or the one that was to happen in 1984-85. But the psychological effect of the winter of discontent had a devastating impact on the public mood and thus on the fate of Jim Callaghan’s government.

The wave of industrial action included disruption to transport, through strikes by lorry drivers and the train drivers’ union ASLEF. There was also shock and outrage in reaction to strikes by public sector workers, such as hospital porters and clerical staff in local councils and, above all, by dustmen and grave-diggers. People responded furiously to the sight of mountains of uncollected rubbish, of funerals being postponed, of doctors pleading with hospital staff to move sick patients from ambulances into the hospital. These images dominated the media and the press for weeks on end.

It was not only the Conservatives and the middle classes who reacted strongly against the winter of discontent. Many skilled and unskilled workers began to switch away from their traditional loyalty to Labour and to consider voting Conservatives. This showed that unions were loosing their support and future government was aware that it will have to face the union problem again and thus were making preparations right at the beginning. Although it was seen as unions were winning the “war”, the final battle that would be lost by Trade Union, was yet to come.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher wins a surprising victory against Labour Callaghan. At first she did not want to confront them and had been pro union Prime Minister. However she secretly commanded to store coal in order to prevent next energy crisis that could occur if miners would go on national strike again; and they did. Thatcher’s government decided not to help declining coal industry, as she believed it was waste of money. This angered the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill, called National Strike in 1984 that would last until 1985.

Although Arthur Scargill was a charismatic leader he did not gain total support for the strike. His refusal to hold a strike ballot weakened his case and he failed to overcome the historic regional divisions among the miners. The Nottinghamshire miners formed a breakaway union, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). Miners who disapproved of Scargill’s radical tactics started drifting back to work. One key factor was the role of the police. The urban disturbances in 1981 had given the police a crash course in containing violent protests.

They now had new equipment, more experience of riot control and better tactics. The key factor in the defeat of the NUM was probably Arthur Scargill himself. Scargill alienated moderates; he never got the support of the Labour Party leadership. Many people felt sympathy for the mining communities and many disapproved of Margaret Thatcher’s description of the strikers as “the enemy within” but it was easy for Thatcher and her allies in the press to demonise Scargill as a dangerous revolutionary challenging the democratically elected government.

Scargill’s all-or-nothing tactics almost certainly made the final defeat of the NUM worse; pit closures would have happened anyway but more pits were closed than would have been the case if the NUM had negotiated with the National Coal Boar (NCB), rather than gamble on a politically motivated strike. The results of the miner’s strike went far beyond the coal industry. The power of the unions was dramatically reduced. By 1990 total union membership was only two-thirds of what it had been in 1979. Other state industries such as British Steel and British Airways were reorganized with massive job loses.

The ability of the unions to intimidate governments was gone for good. Previous Union victories played big roles in this. Although they were benefiting for themselves they angered public as their actions led to disastrous consequences for the country. Also Thatcher government new it is going to face challenge from Unions and thus prepared by storing coal which was used during the NUM strike 1984-1985. Union’s uncompromised position to “In Place of Strife” and any other attempt of negotiation led to their loss at the end as they had too many enemies being against them.

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