In Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech the new Conservative Government announced its intention to introduce a Trade Union Bill in the next parliament to reform strike ballots and introduce new voting thresholds. The TUC has claimed that, if implemented, the reforms will make strike action almost impossible.
How did the TUC and the unions campaign to oppose changes to strike action in the past?
In 1971 Ted Heath’s Conservative Government introduced an Industrial Relations Bill, seeking to implement proposals in the 1970 Conservative manifesto. The Bill sought to reform collective bargaining procedures, limit wildcat strikes and place restrictions on official strikes. The Bill also proposed the establishment of a National Industrial Relations Court to settle labour disputes and have the power to grant injunctions against industrial action.
The Bill was fiercely opposed by unions and the TUC mounted a campaign called “Kill the Bill”. The TUC held a day of action in February 1971 in which an estimated 140,000 people marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. Demonstrators held banners with signs such as “Hands Off the Trade Unions”.
Despite the opposition the Bill received Royal Assent later in the year and passed into law. The TUC then voted to require its members not to comply with the Act’s provisions. In 1972 five trade unionists were arrested for contempt of court when they refused to attend the newly established National Industrial Relations Court following a picketing dispute. They were imprisoned and became known as the ‘Pentonville Five‘. Following huge public opposition to their imprisonment thousands marched to Pentonville Prison and the TUC called for a nationwide general strike on 31st July 1972. The Official Solicitor intervened and the five were released on 26 July.
Following the return of a Labour government in 1974 the Industrial Relations Act was subsequently repealed.
Major legislative reforms to strike action were not attempted again until the Thatcher governments of the 1980s. In 1980 an Employment Act was passed, restricting the definition of picketing and requiring ballots for the continuation of the closed shop. Demonstrations took place in opposition to the Bill (see image on our website here) as part of the TUC’s wider Campaign for Economic and Social Advance in 1980 (you can see an earlier blog post on this campaign here).
Another Employment Act was passed in 1982, further restricting the right to take strike action and allowing employers to dismiss strikers. The Act also undermined union membership agreements and allowed unions to be sued for huge damages.