The 1970’s are of key significance when understanding how the role of contemporary trade unions has come to be. The documents discussed in this blog have been chosen as collectively they represent a watershed moment in British industrial relations and together work to emphasise the slow decline in voluntarist collective bargaining which has permanently changed the way Trade unions worked and came to operate in today’s current climate. The 1970’s were host to the trade unions prime of power, prestige and membership, and yet the end of the decade can also be categorised as the moment their prestige was inevitably brought into decline and they were made subservient to legislation for the first time in history.
TheWhite paper‘In Place of Strife’was a document produced by Barbara Castle (the Labour secretary of state for employment and productivity at the time). The Paper can be understood as a reaction to the 1968 Donovan report which had outlined the criticisms of the current state of industrial relations and its associated necessary reform in order to increase productivity and boost the economy. The White paper can arguably be seen as a significant departure away from traditional labour legislation in the post-war period, offering a distinctive break away from the established laissez-faire system of governance. However, this belief is often combatted against those who believe that the white paper, more than any significance it holds, is more accurately regarded for its example as a missed opportunity. ‘In Place of Strife’ held the potential to open up a conversation between trade unions and the state to help lay foundations for economic reform which would have promoted full employment, low inflation and secured better internal industrial relations to limit striking. The White Paper can be understood as a document which heavily promoted the involvement of the state in industrial relations, something that was radical in its own right. However, it was the failure of Castle to convince the TUC (Trade union Congress) and key industrial leaders of its necessity which saw the White Paper fail and never be written into legislation. Despite ‘In Place of Strife’ falling short of any success parliament, it represents the beginning of the decline in voluntarism and the eventual politicization of industrial relations, encompassed later by the Introduction of the industrial relations bill in 1970.
In 1970 the Heath government went on the charm offensive against the Unions, in what was an unprecedented attempt to curb their control and set stricter parameters to Trade Union action. Unlike Labour, who initiated a conversation that was cut short by the General Election of 1970, the new Conservative government sought to use legislation to reduce strikes, by forcing both the Unions and management into a more structured conversation. This is where the government saw that its responsibility ended: the Industrial Relations Bill(IRB) clearly stated that, whilst it would provide a legislative framework, the remedy to strikes was “primarily the responsibility of management”. This was a markedly ‘laissez faire’ policy, by a government who quickly abandoned such ideals as it continued into its time in power. The Heath government, through the IRB sought to achieve a more ‘arms length’ relationship between state and market, and looked to achieve this by greater state regulation of industrial relations. The Bill illustrated the vulnerability of government and its attempts to impose controls over both the unions and management. As we know, this attempt quickly failed, and the legislation was repealed as soon as the Wilson government retook power in 1974, after experiencing continued opposition from the unions themselves.
The Liaison Committee was first established in 1971, as part of the Labour campaign against the Industrial Relations Bill, and it continued as a forum of discussion between the TUC and the Parliamentary Labour Party. The origins of the Social Contract lay in this statement made by the Committee on ‘Economic Policy and the Cost of Living’, in February 1973. Although not strictly a piece of industrial relations legislation, this statement was extremely significant in revealing the direction of the Labour Party and what they expected of trade unions once Labour next came to power. This Committee meeting was attended by many prominent figures in the Labour Party such as Wilson, Callaghan, and Healey alongside many well-known TUC representatives such as Lord Cooper, Sir Sidney Green and Jack Jones. Under the subtitle ‘Industrial Democracy and Economic Democracy’, the Committee expresses its support for the collective bargaining process, indicating the desire of both the TUC and the Labour Party for workers and management to negotiate and cooperate in order to overcome conflicts. They then clarify that within the field of collective bargaining, recommendations can only be incorporated in voluntary, collective agreements reached through negotiation. They also advise the movement of bargaining in many industries from national to plant level, extending levels of negotiation to the workers. Fundamentally, their broader aim, as set out in this this statement, was to generate mutual feelings of confidence in order to reach ‘the wide-ranging agreement which is necessary to control inflation and achieve sustained growth in the standard of living’.
The Social contractwas constructed under Wilson’s Labour leadership in Britain. After a series of complaints from the Trade Unions about the restrictions of the 1971 Industrial Relations act, the Social Contract was constructed as a deal between the government and unions. The contract was a two way agreement between the two groups: repeal of the Industrial relations act, thus more individualised look at wage settlements, in return for Trade Union co-operation with the government (and thus hopefully less strikes). Other aspects of the Social Contract included a rise in public ownership of industry. This was outlined in the 1974 White Paper and the Industry Act of 1975. The National Enterprise board was set up as a result of this ideology. Unlike other aspects of industrial relations legislation in the 1970s, the Social Contract was more of an ideology than a singular legislation. In terms of its effectiveness, few, in hindsight, would praise the policy. Taylor, for example, states that it was a “flawed, one sided arrangement that gave the unions too much power”. Even politicians and Barons that took part in the process see little benefit in hindsight. Joel Barnett, a labour politician, argues that the government submitted too much to Trade Union power under the social contract, and that this resulted in inflation and unemployment. On the other hand, Len Murray, the Trade Union General Secretary, argues that the government put too much pressure on the Trade Unions to co-operate when in fact, Trade Unions work best when they are autonomous from the state as a separate entity.