Evaluating the position of British Trade Unions in the 1970s based on government legislation

When trying to understand the role of Trade Unions in modern Britain, the 1970s are a decade of key importance. The documents analysed below have been chosen as they represent key turning points in industrial relations, and show the gradual decline of collective bargaining, which has changed the way Trade Unions function today. The 1970s are remembered as a decade of Trade Union pre-eminence, before the onslaught of the Thatcherite legislation of the 1980s, but this legislation shows the cracks that were forming, and that governments were taking steps to bring the unions under their control. The 1970s therefore were not necessarily the high point for Trade Unions, as their great power put them at odds with their membership and the governments, and made them the great enemy of the country, leading to their eventual decline.

By the late 1960s relations between the Trade Unions and the government were strained. The White Paper, In Place of Strife, was a document produced in 1969 by Barbara Castle, the Labour Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, in an attempt to move away from the defence of sectional interests and towards corporate responsibility for national economic and social development. It aimed to reduce the power of trade unions through plans to force unions to call a ballot before a strike was held, and through the establishment of an Industrial Board to enforce settlements in industrial disputes. The Paper however was never passed into law. It was met with immediate outrage from the Party left, with the resignations of Fred Peart, Leader of the House of Commons, and of Richard Crossman, the Secretary of State for Social Services, the very next day after the Paper was proposed. However, it was the failure of Castle to convince the TUC and key industrial leaders of its necessity which saw the White Paper fail and never be written into legislation. For the TUC the element of ‘unofficial disputes’ was non-negotiable. In Place of Strife, for all its shortcomings, does however represent the beginning of the decline in voluntarism and the eventual politicisation of industrial relations.

The Industrial Relations Bill, produced in 1971, was commissioned by Robert Carr and provided for voluntary membership of a Register of Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations. Its ultimate aim was to improve industrial relations between employers and employees and offer a channel for negotiation within these associations. The bill marks the legal imposition of collective agreements and enforced recognition of unions which had members seeking representation. However, there was strong opposition from the unions since various forms of strikes would lose legal immunity through this new proposed industrial relations court system. The bill was significantly undermined because it was dependent on voluntary membership and agreements were only made legally enforceable if included in the terms. The weakness of the bill is demonstrative of the dependency of the government on co-operation with the unions in the 1970s. Post-war government policy of employment at all costs had shifted the bargaining power of workers and thus government action became difficult and largely ineffective when tackling industrial relations problems. Trade Unionist, Clive Jenkins aptly summarises the prominence of the unions at the turn of the decade in a BBC interview. ‘This is a trade union country’, he remarks. Indeed, the unions did appear a powerful outfit, with many denouncing the validity and expressing concern with the bill. In February 1971, 140,000 people attended a trade unions rally in Trafalgar square protesting the act. Furthermore, resistance was emulated in January 1972 when a miners’ strike, led by Arthur Scargill forced police to suspend deliveries to the Saltley Coal depot in Birmingham. The persistence and solidarity of unions ultimately destabilised Heath’s government and eventually led to its collapse in 1974. The conservative exodus and the consequential reinstatement of the labour party oversaw the repeal of the industrial relations bill in the same year.

The Liaison Committee was first established in 1971 within a campaign against the Industrial Relations Bill. It acted as a forum of discussion between the Trades Union Congress, the Labour Parliamentary Party and the Party’s National Executive Committee. At the end of January 1973, the Committee agreed a joint statement entitled ‘Economic Policy and the Cost of Living’, of which contained the origins of the Social Contract. This primarily contained a heavy criticism of the government, particularly concerning the unequal distribution of wealth amongst high income earners, levels of unemployment and conflict with the labour movement. In order to combat inflation, the Committee proposed an alternative strategy involving direct statutory action on prices within a system of price controls; this would precipitate a large-scale redistribution of income and wealth amongst the lesser privileged in society. More importantly, it also addressed the government’s introduction of drastic legislation without consent from the trade union movement. The Committee thus proposed the introduction of an economic and industrial democracy; this would grant the trade union movement greater bargaining power through joint control over investment and closure decisions. This was significant, as it enabled collective agreements to be reached through negotiation rather than compulsion, whilst also giving greater public accountability for decision-making within the economic realm.

The Social Contract is an agreement between the state and the people, those who rule and those who are ruled over. This contract brings government actions into account, ensuring they do not invade individual privacy and encroach on the people’s rights and liberties. At the same time, the people are given a set of laws and rules they must abide by and respect in order for social cohesion to be sustained. The British Social Contract was formed in 1970 by Wilson’s Labour government, in reaction to Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, which controversially only permitted workers to join registered trade unions, and only registered trade unions were granted legal rights. The Social Contract aimed to form an agreement between the Labour government and the trade unions – by promising legislation on prices and a ‘social wage’, the unions would in return offer their cooperation with the Party on wage control and implementing improved social welfare. The Social Contract laid out policies enabling employers to treat individual groups separately in wage negotiations. 12-month intervals between wage settlements would be put in place to prevent repeated wage demands, and to allow the state some level of predictability in future wage expenses. The Contract has been described as a ‘flawed, one-sided arrangement’, arguably giving too much power to the trade unions. But it was ultimately perceived as a temporary but necessary means to save the economy from complete failure (Seldon and Hickson).

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