This chapter will explain:
- The growth and development of trade unions in Great Britain during the nineteenth century and the impact of trade union legislation on union growth
- The factors leading to the establishment of the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party
- The implications of the Taff Vale case and Osborne judgement for British trade unions
- The main features of trade unionism in Great Britain during the post–Second World War period
- The structure and functions of the Trades Union Congress and its relationship with its affiliates and with the Labour Party
- The problems facing the trade unions in the United Kingdom today
- The main features of laws concerning trade unions in the United Kingdom and their implications
Changing Status of British Trade Union
The British trade union movement, the oldest one in the modern era, has struggled hard to acquire the position and status it enjoys today. Having earlier faced all kinds of oppositions from employers, government and courts, it has emerged as a real force in the economic, political and social life of Great Britain.
Their role in the economic and political life of the country continued to grow after they were accorded legal recognition. The main method adopted by British trade unions to ameliorate the working and living conditions of their members have been collective bargaining, and they have resorted to strikes and other forms of industrial action, many of which had wider repercussions for the community at large.
Having suffered much at the hands of Conservative governments, the trade unions realized the importance of political power, and they, in collaboration with socialist organizations, succeeded in establishing the Labour Party in 1906. The Conservative government often adopted harsh anti-union legislative and other measures on grounds of protecting the interests of the community and the economy of the nation. Many of these measures, which also served the interests of the employers, led to widespread protests from trade unions, but in vain.
Prior to 1997, when the Conservative government fell and the Labour government came into power, the trade unions succeeded in influencing the Labour government in getting the more deleterious clauses of the trade union and labour relations laws either repealed or modified and secured many cherished concessions from the government. However, under the changed economic and industrial conditions prevailing in the country since 1990, it was not possible for the Labour government to accommodate all the views of the trade unions in its policies. The national interests demanded severe curtailment of the privileges so far enjoyed by the trade unions and forced them to adopt a cooperative attitude towards employers and government. Many areas of concern of trade unions and labour relations such as collective bargaining, strikes, rights of workers, settlement of disputes, dismissals, and recognition of trade unions have come to be regulated by comprehensive laws such as Trade Union and Labour Relations Acts, Employment and Employment Relations Acts, Race Relations Acts and so on.
At the moment, trade unions in Great Britain are faced with several kinds of problems in relation to their own organization: fall in membership numbers, recognition, collective bargaining, industrial action, job-protection of their members, and above all their relationship with the government.
The main features of the British trade union movement prior to 1830 were: (i) creation of sporadic, spontaneous, loose organizations following the emergence of the factory system, especially in the textile industry, (ii) suppression of these organizations by the state by declaring them illegal, mass arrests and severe punishment of trade unionists, and (iii) revolts, breaking of machines and violence by the working class.
As the Industrial Revolution advanced, new types of industries grew and an industrial working class recruited from the dispossessed peasantry started taking shape. The new class of workers started forming new types of working class organizations in the textile and mining industries in the north of England—different from the earlier guilds and clubs. The ruling classes, unnerved by the French Revolution and anxious to preserve their political power, did all they could to suppress the rise of the new organizations. The judges tended increasingly to regard all workers’ combinations as criminal conspiracies under the common law, and the two Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 specifically declared all forms of trade unionism illegal and repression was let loose. G. D. H. Cole remarks:
Overawed by military force, ceaselessly spied and reported upon by the agents of the government or the local magistrates, liable to serve sentences for conspiracy under Common Law or for the violation of the Combination Acts, if they attempted any concerted action, it is not surprising that for a long time the factory workers and miners failed to create any stable combinations. It is more surprising that they managed to combine at all.1
However, in spite of these repressive measures, a few trade unions continued to function, frequently by converting themselves into friendly societies or social clubs, often by going underground, occasionally by openly defying the laws, sometimes by directing their anger against the machines competing with human labour and at others by taking the form of the ‘Luddite Movement’. The Luddite Movement, which began in 1811 among the framework knitters, was a movement of machine-breaking. The movement was an organized affair, skillfully directed by leaders who, working in secrecy, successfully instigated manual workers to destroy textile machinery and sometimes to wreck factories. A number of machine-breakers were sentenced to transportation for the offence, but the employers were ultimately compelled by the movement to raise wages and concede to some of their other demands. Strikes continued to take place and trade unionism grew apace despite the Combination Acts. ‘The working class movement began to take shape in a great outburst of activities under the leadership of political reformers’.2
A workers’ movement in England in the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was characterized by machine-breaking and wrecking of textile factories
On conditions of labour in England following industrial revolution
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robe ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears;
Sow seeds—but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth—let no imposter heap;
Weave robes—let not idle wear;
Forge arms—in your defense to bear
P. B. Shelley
It has been said that the 5 years from 1815 to 1820 were a season of blind, desperate reactions to the intolerable distress and the decade from 1820 to 1830 was the seeding time of working class ideas and organizations. The Act of 1824 replaced the earlier Combination Acts and legalized combinations, but the Act of 1825 imposed such severe limitations on the functioning of trade unions as to make it very difficult for them to take effective actions without incurring legal penalties. However, trade unions continued to grow and function openly. The Steam Engine Makers’ Society and the London Shipwrights Association of 1824, the Northumberland and Durham Colliers Union of 1825, the Journeymen Steam Engine Makers of 1826, and the Friendly Society of Carpenters and Joiners of 1827 are a few of the trade unions that were established or reconstituted after the repeal of the early Combination Acts.
THE PERIOD 1830–49
Trades Unionism versus Trade Unionism
During the 1830s, the British trade unions came under the general influence of middle class leadership, became closely associated with the Reform and the Chartist Movements and were dominated by the magnetic personality of Robert Owen—a great visionary and philanthropist. The Webbs have called the period between 1829 and 1842, the Revolutionary Period.3 The main contribution of this period to the growth of trade unionism in England lies in the attempts at creating ‘One Big Union’ to include all workers—skilled and unskilled—engaged in all trades as distinct from the individual trades clubs and trade societies which were mostly confined to particular localities. Such a union which sought to include all workers engaged in all trades went by the name of the ‘trades union’ different from the ‘trade union’ which was a combination of members of only one trade. In 1830, the National Association for the Protection of Labour consisting of delegates from more than 30 trades was established with the patronage of Robert Owen. The National Association was replaced by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834 as representing a general union of productive classes. Under the inspiration of the Grand National, ‘a positive mania for trade unionism set in’4 and a number of strikes by the gas-stokers of London, the tailors, and the builders took place, almost all ending in failure. What with the unmanageable and premature aims of establishing a new social order, what with the repressive measures of the government and what with the failures in the battle fields of strikes, the Grand National collapsed before it could celebrate its first birth anniversary. It had a meteoric rise and fall.
Trades Unionism (1830–49)
Organizing all categories of workers employed in different trades occupations in contrast to organizing workers belonging to a particular trade.
The rise and fall of this unionism of 1830–34, that is, the ‘trades unionism’ led the Webbs to comment on the gap between the ideas and tactics of the workers prevailing at the time. In this regard, they said:
In council they are idealists, dreaming a new heaven and a new earth; humanitarians, educationalists, socialists, moralists; in battle they are still struggling, half emancipated serf of 1825, armed only with the rude weapon of strike and boycott sometimes feared and hated by the propertied classes; sometimes merely despised; always oppressed, and miserably poor.5
Meanwhile, the working class closely associated itself with the Reform Movement which ultimately led to the enactment of the Reform Act of 1832. It has been said that the Reform Act was carried chiefly by the workers’ agitation, and by the threat of revolution in which they would have played a leading part.6 The Reform Act, however, left the workers voteless, angry and disillusioned; they could win the battle but got none of the fruits of victory.
The ideas of Robert Owen, who fully realized the dangers of unbridled competition to the workers’ standard of living, took hold of the working class for a while and gave birth to the workers’ cooperative movement. Robert Owen attempted to control the evils of the rising capitalism through industrial democracy but here too, the Owenite ideas could not maintain their spell for long and further disillusionment set in.
The Chartist Movement
Similarly, the workers wholeheartedly dedicated their time and energy in the Chartist Movement, which was essentially an economic movement but with a purely political programme. The support of the workers caused the rapid growth of the Chartist Movement. The working class leaders supporting the Chartist Movement looked upon further reforms of Parliament as a necessary means to economic changes which alone could alleviate the workers’ suffering. The demand for universal suffrage kindled new hopes in them. The People’s Charter of 1838 demanded the following:
- Manhood suffrage
- Vote by ballot
- Annual parliaments—annually elected
- Abolition of the property qualifications for the MPs
- Payment to members6. Equal electoral districts—rearranged after each decennial census.
Gradually, the Chartist Movement also died down without bringing any solid gains to the workers. Thus, it is seen that the 1830s were both a revolutionary period and a period of disillusionment for the working class. It was a period of revolution because new ideas such as ‘trades unionism’ indicating the need for a unified labour movement, the realization of the importance of political reforms and the control of the machinery of of the state as a necessary means of economic changes, the Owenite ideas of industrial democracy and workers’ cooperation were experimented with, and a period of disillusionment because each such experiment left the working class more and more disillusioned. The workers were disillusioned with the Reform Act, with the Grand National, with the Owenite ideas and finally with Chartism. If trade unions were to succeed, firmer foundations had to be laid and new bases had to be searched for in keeping with the economic and political power of the capitalist class. This task was completed in the 1850s.
THE PERIOD 1850–79
New Model Unionism
Gradually, the workers realized the futility of organizing all the workers irrespective of their skill and trade under one union. They further realized that it would not be possible to overthrow capitalism at that state of capitalist economic development and they had to a accept it and operate within its framework. Now that some of the rigours of anti-trade union laws had been relaxed, trade unions could function openly if they accepted the capitalist mode of production. What was needed then was that the trade union organizations should become stable, gather strength and seek to better the working conditions and the workers’ standard of living within the system of individual enterprise and free competition. The industrial expansion of England after 1850 also facilitated the growth of this attitude amongst the workers, especially the skilled ones.
New Model Unionism (1850–79)
A type of unionism that emerged in England, during 1850–79 which concentrated on organizing workers on craft basis. The model was set by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers established in 1850.
It was the skilled workers that took upon themselves the task of re-oganizing the trade union movement. The establishment of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1850 was the first step in the direction of organizing workers on craft basis. The Society created the ‘new model’ followed by a spate of such societies in almost all other important trades. The main features of the ‘new model unions’ were: (i) a close combination of trade and friendly activities, (ii) high initiation and membership fees, (iii) membership open to only skilled men bound together by common craftsmanship, (iv) centeralized control and (v) reliance on their organizational strength to secure shorter working hours, higher wages, and other improvements in working and living conditions. Such unions were trade unions and friendly societies in an equal measure. Political and open struggle were looked upon with disfavour. They relied more on controlling the supply of skilled labour through long apprenticeship and providing all sorts of benefits to their members in times to distress, for instance, unemployment, sickness or death. Such societies dominated the trade union scene in England for a period of about 40 years.
Though occasional attempts were made to unite the individual union into a movement and combine them under a central organization, the trade union movement essentially remained disjointed and sectional. In 1860, the London Trades Council was formed in order to keep a watch over the general interests of labour—political and social—both in and out of Parliament and to use its influence in supporting any measure likely to benefit trade unions. A group of leaders drawn from the engineers, carpenters, iron founders, bricklayers whom the Webbs called the Junta began to dominate the trade union movement through the Council. The Council sought to help every union on strike by securing financial aid from other unions. The Council became, as a matter of fact, a central organization for the trade union movement as a whole.
The establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association under Karl Marx in 1864 injected an element of revolutionary fervour into the British trade union movement. During the 1860s, the trade unions also joined the Reform Movement for the extension of the franchise. Between 1864 and 1874, the trade unions further concentrated on securing amendments to the existing trade union laws. The Nine-Hour Movement also gained momentum during this period. The period between 1850 and 1875 was a period of economic expansion and prosperity for Great Britain and coincided with the achievement of stability in the trade union field. This period also gave birth to the British Trades Union Congress.
Attempts at Forming a National Organization
By the 1860s, trades councils covering more than one trade had been set up in almost all leading industrial towns. Besides, the trade unions had also built a tradition of helping each other financially during strikes and lock-outs. In London itself, the London Trades Council had been set up under the leadership of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters, the Operative Bricklayers, and the Friendly Society of Iron Founders.
A group of labour leaders from London who dominated the trade union movement of Great Britain during the middle of the nineteenth century. They included Allan of the Engineers, Applegrath of the Carpenters, Daniel Guile of the Iron-founders, Edwin Coulson of the Brick-layers, and George Odger of the London Trades Council. They occupied an extraordinary strong strategic position.
Cole, G, D. H. A Short History of The British Working Class Movement (1789–1947)
The trade unions by now had developed a method of establishing organizations covering more than one trade at the local level. But as yet, no national organization had come into existence. On particular occasions and at the initiative of a few of the local trades’ councils, a national conference of delegates would be called to discuss specific issues.
At the initiative of the Wolverhampton Trades Council, the Sheffield Association of Organised Trades decided to call such a conference to establish a national organization among the trades of the United Kingdom for the purpose of effectively resisting all lock-outs. The conference was held in 1866 at Sheffield consisting of 138 delegates representing about 2,80,000 organized workers. The delegates decided to establish a permanent organization to be known as the United Kingdom Alliance of Organised Trades. Its aim was to build up a central fund for aiding the members of unions locked-up by the employers. The Alliance held the second conference in September, 1867, but it soon disappeared from the scene primarily because of lack of interest shown by the Junta of the London Trades Council.
The second important event in this process of the consolidation of trade unions at the national level was the formation of a private conference of amalgamated trades convened by the leading members of the London Trades Council to undertake the defence of the trade unions from the decision of Hornby vs. Close. The implications of the decision may be summarized in the words of B. C. Roberts:
The court held that because a trade union was at common law a body in restraint of trade it was an unlawful organization, and therefore, could not secure the protection of its funds. The unions had previously enjoyed this protection under the Friendly Societies Act, by depositing their rules with the Registrar of Friendly Societies, but it was now held that the unions were not covered by this Act. The effect of the decision was not only to deny to the trade unions the right to use the law courts to recover their members’ money from a defaulting official; it meant they could not, apart from the existence of a statute ‘invoke the aid of the law for any purpose whatever’.7
The appointment of a Royal Commission in 1867 provided another occasion for the conference of the trades councils convened by George Potter on 5 March 1867. The conference set up a committee to watch over trade union interests in the proceedings of the Royal Commission. Before the Royal Commission could finish its work and make its recommendations, the Manchester and Strafford Trades Councils decided to call a conference of the trades in 1868. The main idea behind inviting the trades’ congress was the establishment of an annual congress of unions rather than a special conference along the lines of those that had been summoned in previous years. ‘Their aim was to found a Congress at which unionists would meet annually and discuss those questions which were of outstanding importance to the trade union movement, thus clarifying their own minds and, at the same time, through the publicity which they hoped their deliberations would receive, enlighten the public as to the objects of trade unions and the intelligence and respectability of their leaders’.8
Birth of the Trades Union Congress
The Trades Union Congress assembled at Manchester on 2 June 1868 and continued its deliberations for a week. The Congress heard and discussed papers under various titles, for example, ‘Trade Unions an Absolute Necessity’, ‘Trade Unions and Political Economy’, ‘The Effects of Trade Unions on Foreign Competition’, ‘Technical Education’, ‘Courts of Arbitration and Conciliation’, ‘Cooperation’ and so on. The delegates to the first Congress decided that the gathering should be an annual event and agreed that the next Congress should be held in Birmingham and organized by the Trades Council of that town. This was the first Trade Union Congress (TUC) set up which has subsequently come to be known as the British Trades Union Congress.
Trade Union Participation in Political Elections
The experience of the British workers with the functioning of the parliament during the period 1865–74 consisted of contradictory elements. While amendments to the trade union laws legalized the trade unions and helped them grow, the criminal law amendments enacted in the teeth of workers’ opposition and agitation, made it all the more difficult for them to function and engage in trade union activities. The workers and their unions, disappointed even with the Liberal Party, gradually drifted towards independent participation in election activities in order to send labour representatives to the parliament. The Labour Representation League was formed and independent labour candidates were set up.
Thus, in this period two seeds were sown the fruits of which have since then dominated the British trade union scene: (i) the birth of the Trades Union Congress which came into existence as the representative parliament of the trade union world to mobilize the workers’ agitation against unfavourable labour laws and (ii) the growth of labour’s interests in the parliamentary elections, which ultimately gave birth to the British Labour Party.
The closing years of the 1880s saw the emergence of a new type of unions which were socialist in intent and purpose, which believed in building up working class solidarity and organizing the unskilled workers also, concentrated on collection of funds for use during strikes and lock-outs, dispensed with friendly benefits and aimed at the replacement of the capitalist system itself. The London Dock Strike of 1889 supported by all sections of workers was the turning point in the rise of the ‘new unions’ as distinct from the ‘new model unions’ which had dominated the scene from the 1850s.
New Unionism (1880–99)
A type of unionism emerging in Great Britain during the 1880s which was socialist in intent and purpose and which aimed at building working class solidarity, organizing unskilled workers also, removing capitalist system and insisting on wider state intervention for protecting workers’ interests and taking recourse to industrial struggles and political action.
For a while, there was a struggle between the ‘new unions’ and the ‘old unions’ (‘new model unions’ which were called ‘old unions’ by now) to dominate the Trades Unions Congress. Ultimately, the struggle ended in the success of the former not by the elimination of the latter but by their gradual conversion to socialist ideas. The ‘new unions’, while not minimizing the struggle for the day-to-day issues, concentrated more and more on state action and legislation. The ‘new unions’ built up a Labour Party. Hence forward, the British Trades Union Congress was dominated by ideas of state action, nationalization, socialization and the development of a Labour Party which was to become a vehicle for the control of political power and for the realization of these ideals.
THE PERIOD 1880–99
Birth of the Labour Party
The general spread and the gradual permeation of socialist ideas in the trade union ranks through the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. The ‘new unionists’ supported by the leaders of socialist thought continued in their attempts to urge the trade unions themselves and the Trades Union Congress to form an independent working class party. The individual trade unions, where they could, had been supporting and setting up candidates at the parliamentary and municipal elections. The Trades Union Congress, as a whole, was still reluctant to go in for a national party closely allied to the trade union movement. However, the annual conference of the Congress in 1899, under the pressure and influence of the socialist leaders, passed a resolution for a special conference of representatives from cooperating socialist trade unions and other working class organizations in order to devise ways and means for securing an increased number of labour members in the Parliament. As a result of this resolution, a conference was convened in February, 1900, consisting of representatives from the Trades Union Congress, the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian Society and other working class organizations. The Conference led to the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, which ultimately converted itself into the Labour Party in 1906.
The end of the trade boom by 1891 brought a new ferment amongst the trade unions as unemployment increased and trade union membership recorded a heavy decline. It was the ‘new unions’ which suffered most in this decline of membership. The deepening economic crisis resulted in a series of strikes in the cotton textiles, coal mining, docks, railways and other industries. The acute economic crisis of the 1890s gradually influenced the ‘old unions’ also in favour of socialist ideas, which further led to the disappearance of their differences with ‘new unions’ and to the process of political consolidation.
Thus, by 1900 the trade union movement succeeded in securing a lawful standing, consolidating its ranks, and in accepting socialist ideals of reorganizing the economic and social system of Great Britain. The trade union movement in England was betrothed to the socialist ideas during the 1880s, the process of marriage was completed during the 1890s and the marriage gave birth in 1906, to the famous child—the Labour Party.
TRADE UNIONS DURING EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
The trade union movement, as a whole, had won new allies and had become politically strong by now. However, the first decade of the twentieth century found the trade unions once again struggling for the preservation of their hard won, legitimate right and for the protection of their legitimate child—the Labour Party—from a premature death.
Taff Vale Case
In 1903, the railway men employed by the Taff Vale Company in New South Wales went on a strike, though without any authority from their society. The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants supported the strike action by granting strike pay to the strikers. The company succeeded in securing an injunction restraining the society and its officers from committing acts calculated to damage the company and its interests. It also succeeded in securing court orders for damages against the society for losses suffered by the company because of the strike action. The House of Lords, after a series of appeals, upheld the award of damages. The injunction order and the award of damages for losses resulting from the strike action struck a dangerous blow to the trade unions and their activities. The prevailing belief, that such actions as the Taff Vale Railway Company had now successfully brought were barred by the existing Trade Union Acts, received a rude shock. Under the impact of the two judgements, the trade unions were prevented from conducting strikes and picketing which were essential to the conduct of trade disputes. There could never be a strike which would not inflict any losses on the employers. The very purpose of a strike is to cause economic losses to the employer in order to force him to concede to the workers’ demands. If the trade unions are forced to pay damages every time they go on strike, they would virtually cease to exist. Thus, this judgement practically negated all the gains that the trade unions had secured over the course of a century. Their very existence was once again threatened. One can very well imagine the anger and the frustration that set through the trade unions. Demands were made for parliamentary legislation and protection. Ultimately, the Trades Union Congress, the Labour Party, and their allies got the situation reversed when the Trades Disputes Act, 1906, granted the trade unions immunity from such civil actions. The Act was a source of great relief to the trade union movement.
The Osborne Judgement
A threat to the political activities of trade unions and to the continued existence of the newly formed Labour Party which was mostly financed by the trade unions came from the Osborne Judgement. W. V. Osborne was a branch secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants who sought to restrain it from incurring any expenditure on political activities because he maintained that such an expenditure was ultra vires. The House of Lords ultimately upheld his contention. As a result of this judgement, one union after another was restrained by legal injunctions from contributing to the Labour Party’s fund. The Labour Party faced a complete disappearance of the sources of its income. In order that the trade unions could pursue their political activities, contribute to the Labour Party or any other political party and finance the election of candidates to the Parliament, they had to be freed from the legal obligations of the Osborne Judgement. This could be done only by a legislative measure authorizing political activities by the trade unions and expenditure of funds for the same. Agitations were held demanding such a legislation, which ultimately came in 1913. The Trade Union Act of that year authorized political action by trade unions. However, certain restrictions were imposed on the exercise of this right. No trade union could engage in such activities unless so authorized by a ballot among members wherein a majority of these voting favoured it. A trade union could create a separate political fund for carrying on political activities. The union could require its members to make a separate contribution to the ‘political fund’ as distinct from its ‘general fund’. However, any member who objected to contributing to the political fund had, on his signing on an approved form, to be exempted from all payments towards it without losing any of his rights as a member of the union. This meant that every member of a trade union had to make contribution to the political fund if so required by the union, unless he secured an exemption. After the general strike of 1926, the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, reversed the position by providing that no member could be required to make contribution to the political fund unless he, in writing, undertook to make such a contribution. The repeal in 1946 of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, reversed the position once again.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR PERIOD
During the First World War, trade unions gained in respect, recognition and strength because of the importance of the working class in war efforts. The war-time full employment also improved their bargaining position considerably. The outbreak of hostilities witnessed a close cooperation between the government and the trade unions, which had voluntarily entered into an industrial truce to cope with the situation. However, the more radical-minded trade unionists did not favour the policy of cooperation, especially in view of uncontrolled profiteering, rise in prices and wages lagging behind, and strongly agitated against the hardships facing the working class. By and large, dissatisfaction with the wartime conditions led to vigorous trade union activities in many industries which often resulted in unofficial work-stoppages. There was an immense increase in the trade union membership, particularly that of the TUC, which claimed 65,00,000 members in 1920 as compared to 22,50,000 in 1913. The First World War also saw the emergence of the Shop Steward Movement and the Whitley Councils. The end of the war found the trade union movement more closely wedded to socialism and schemes of nationalization.
THE INTER-WAR PERIOD
The end of the First World War was soon followed by a period of rising prices, economic prosperity and increasing trade union membership. The working class, conscious of its importance, engaged in struggles not only to secure improvements in their working conditions but also to change the economic structure itself. However, the economic prosperity did not last long. By 1921, trade slumped, wages fell, and financial deflation was resorted to. This was a time when the employers were on the offensive and the trade unions were forced to take a defensive position. Although industrial unrest and conflict were widespread, trade union lost many important battles, for instance, strikes called by the Triple Alliance in 1921 and the TUC in 1925 in support of the miners ended in utter failure. Many strikes, particularly those in industries owned by the government, assumed a political colour and the government, on its part, took a direct part in several combats. In 1924, the Labour Party came to power with the support of the Liberals, but before it could do anything concrete for alleviating the suffering of the working class, it was defeated in the general election at the end of the year.
The General Strike, 1926
Depression continued to persist during the few years immediately following, which ultimately caused further hardships to the workers. Occasional failures of some of important strikes during the preceding years did not deter the trade unions from agitating for improvement in living and working conditions. The miners, in particular stuck to their earlier demands for nationalization of coal mines and a national wage agreement. The General Council of the TUC also came forward in support of the miners’ demand for a national minimum wage, and ultimately, the government announced in 1925 that mine-owners would receive a subsidy to enable them to pay a national minimum wage. However, the mine-owners received subsidy only temporarily. On the report of a Royal Commission headed by Sir Herbert Samuel, it was proposed to make certain reductions in wages as essential to making the industry profitable. The miners, extremely dissatisfied with the proposal, served strike notices, but the TUC started negotiations with the government to get the issue resolved. While negotiations were in progress, the printers at Daily Mail refused to print a leading article against the miners, which resulted in the adoption of a somewhat rigid attitude on the part of the government. The General Council of the TUC, which was anxious to promote a settlement of the miners’ demands, continued its negotiations with the government up to the last minute, but in the meantime, it had also decided to prepare for struggle and set up a committee for strike action. Ultimately, negotiations broke down on 3 May 1926 and just the next day, the general strike began.
In contrast to a particular strike, a general strike has a wide coverage involving workers of a number of industries, employments and areas, but the degree of generality and coverage vary considerably. The general strike, 1926 of the United Kingdom is a typical example.
The general strike received widespread support of the working class. It was joined in the first instance by the miners; dockers; road transport, bus and tram workers; printers; railway-men; and some building workers. The engineering and shipbuilding workers were called out after a week but workers in the textile and distributive trades and post offices were allowed to continue at work. The workmen displayed a strong feeling of solidarity throughout the strike which lasted for 9 days.
The government had also been making careful preparations since July 1925 to meet the situation resulting from the apprehended strike. In order to secure the maintenance of essential supplies, the government used troops, police, special constables and volunteers. Although the strike was for the most part peacefully conducted, there were occasional clashes between the strike pickets and the ‘black leg’ labour. Divergent views were, however, expressed regarding the legality of the strike. The General Council, finding that nothing tangible was forthcoming, wanted to resume talks with the cabinet. Ultimately, negotiations took place and an agreed formula evolved, but the miners who did not participate in the negotiations rejected the memorandum of settlement outright. Subsequently, the negotiating committee, while again hopeful of reaching settlement by negotiations, persuaded the General Council to call off the strike. The strike ultimately ended in a humiliating defeat of the strikers. However, the miners stayed on strike with a feeling of having been betrayed.
Although the general strike ended in failure, it demonstrated the feeling of solidarity among the organized workers. It also led to the realization of the futility of the syndicalists’ emphasis on direct action. The government, on its part, adopted a retaliatory attitude by passing the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, which made sympathetic strikes or lock-outs designed or calculated to coerce the government illegal, and imposed additional restrictions on trade unions’ political activities and their conduct of trade disputes.
Consolidation After the General Strike
Immediately after the general strike, the trade unions faced the problems of wage reductions, victimization, and a substantial strain on their resources. The employers also realized that strained relationship with their workmen had resulted in considerable downswing in business and loss in world markets. There was a strong clamour for industrial peace, the need for which was also realized by the government. In 1928, series of conferences were held between the TUC and the employers. The only concrete result of these conferences was the development of a cooperative approach to industrial relations.
In the years that followed, many important trade unions formed amalgamations and replaced loose federations by compact bodies. Several large unions of today were established during this period. The trade unions, disappointed with industrial action, swung to greater reliance on political action. Despite the deleterious clauses of the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, they played an important role in the general elections of 1929 and saw the Labour Party once again coming to power with the support of the Liberals.
Unfortunately, the electoral triumph coincided with the greatest depression in the history of capitalism resulting in mass unemployment, and wages tumbling down. The Labour government headed by Ramsay MacDonald could not do much for the working class on account of the acute economic crisis facing the country. There were occasional disagreements between the government and the TUC on certain pertinent issues, for example, unemployment insurance, policy of deflation and cut in government expenditure. The question of effecting heavy cuts in expenditure aroused considerable controversies which ultimately led to the resignation of Macdonald in 1931. When he again formed the national government with the support of the Conservative and Liberal parties, the great bulk of the supporters within the party were expelled by the national executive of the Labour Party. A general election was again held in October 1931, in which the Labour Party candidates were badly defeated. Although the electoral defeat of 1931 resulted in a serious setback to the Labour Party and the TUC, it also produced a salutary influence on the trade union movement. The political and industrial wings of the trade union movement came into closer relationship, which was more or less absent during the short regime of MacDonald’s ministry. Besides, the trade unions started concentrating more on a constructive policy in place of ‘somewhat propaganda slogans of the past’.9 By and large, the Labour Party and the TUC developed a sound understanding of each other’s points of view.
The year 1934 saw a gradual recovery of the economy. As a result, the hardships facing the working class began to ease. The trade union membership, which had reached its lowest point in 1933–34, again started rising with the recovery of trade and increasing money wages. Trade unions in different industries also amalgamated and formed national organizations. This led to a greater centralization in trade union affairs.
As the unions grew in strength, ‘so did the number of disputes among officials about demarcation of their respective areas of recruitment’.10 Thus, jurisdictional disputes became more frequent. Many such cases came for decision before the General Council of the TUC which generally held that ‘no union should attempt to organize workers at any industrial establishment where another union already represented and negotiated on behalf of a majority of the workers’.11 The application of the principle, no doubt, curtailed the individual worker’s freedom of choice and made it difficult for a number of small trade unions to compete with large ones; but at the same time, it prevented multiplication of bargaining agents which would have weakened their collective influence.
The years just preceding the outbreak of the Second World War saw the TUC acquiring substantial prestige not only in relation to its affiliates and the Labour Party but also in the eyes of the government which consulted the latter on many pertinent issues concerning labour.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR PERIOD
The Second World War increased the influence of trade unions further as they subordinated their sectional interests to the interests of the nation as a whole and offered their cooperation in the mobilization for the successful conclusion of the war. The end of the Second World War and the victory of the Labour Party in 1945 saddled the trade union movement with new responsibilities and obligations. With the Labour Party in power, to the development of which the trade unions had contributed so much, the British trade union world had to face a new situation altogether. The trade unions in Great Britain had been accustomed to opposing the government and the employers throughout their whole course of existence. Important industries were now nationalized for which they had been clamouring for years. What should be the policy of trade unions in nationalized industries? What should be their reaction to the policies pursued by the national government under the Labour Party? What should be their wage policy in a full-employment and semi-planned economy? To what extent a national wage policy should be allowed to supersede industry-wide collective bargaining on wages and other allied matters? These were the questions which the trade unions had to answer immediately after the end of the Second World War and some of these questions still loom large before them.
THE POST–SECOND WORLD WAR PERIOD
Socially and politically, the trade unions continued to acquire a status and influencewhich have to be reckoned with, in the formulation of national polices in almost all fields. As a result of collective bargaining with employers and their organizations, the British trade unionism has shared with them the responsibility for an elaborate system of industrial codes for regulating working conditions, wages, hours of work, discipline, promotion and other related matters. Politically, it has helped in shaping the political, economic and social policy of the nation. The trade unions are consulted by the government on many important questions of policy and legislative proposals in the fields of foreign relations and financial, social and industrial affairs. In addition to influencing new legislation, they have also secured a place in the administration of existing legislation and their representatives sit on a wide range of statutory boards, tribunals, wages councils and other bodies. They have secured special representation in the administration of nationalized industries.
Organizationally, though individual trade unions maintain a strong craft bias, yet frequent amalgamations and establishment of federations have succeeded in creating trade union organizations on an industrial basis. Thus, each industry has a leading trade union organization. The existence of the scheme of trade groups for the purposes of representation to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress has further succeeded in bringing different unions together.
MEMBERSHIP, SIZE AND DENSITY
Table 3.1 contains figures of the total number of trade unions in Great Britain, their total membership and average membership per union between 1939 and 2009.
Note: The figures of 1931–2001 are as on 31 December.
The figures of 2002–09 are as on 31 March.
The average membership has been calculated from the figures in the table.
Table 3.1 shows that in 1939, the number of trade unions was more than 1,000 with average membership per union more than 62,000. Since then, there has been a regular decline in the number of trade unions, while the average membership declined only up to 1981. The decline in the number of trade unions has been significant from 1991 onwards. This decline has mainly been due to the mergers and amalgamations of unions and formation of big unions. As a consequence of mergers and amalgamations, the average membership per union has also continued to increase. The average membership per union, which was about 13,000 in 1950 increased to about 42,000 that is more than three-fold in 2009. Another notable trend available from the table is that there has been a substantial decline in the total trade union membership. In 1981, the total trade union membership was as high as 12.3 million, which declined to less than 8 million in 1995 and since then, it has been less than 8 million in all the subsequent years.
CHART 3.A: Average Membership per Trad Union in Great Britain (1941–2009), (See Table 3.1)
CHART 3.B: Numbre of Trade Unions in Great Britain (1941–2009), (See Table 3.1)
Another significant feature of the trade union movement in Great Britain has been a gradual decline in the percentage of workers organized into trade unions. During the late 1970s over half of the work-force belonged to unions. In 1995, the rate of union membership, also referred to as ‘union density’ stood at 32.6 per cent. The rate declined to 29 per cent in 2003 and 2005, and again dropped to 28.4 per cent in 2006.12 The decline in the trade union membership is rather surprising, especially in view of expansion of employment and increase in the size of labour force in the country.
The rate of union membership in relation to total number of employees generally expressed in percentage
The gradual decline in the union membership since 1981 is attributed to the following main factors:
- A fall in the number of jobs in the manufacturing industries where union membership had been traditionally high.
- A fall in the traditional full-time employment and an increase in the part-time and temporary workers who are less likely to join unions.
- A regular increase in the proportion of the work-force by small companies where it is often difficult for workers to organize.
- An increasing number of persons seeking jobs.
- Hostile trade union legislation making it more difficult for unions to operate and maintain union membership.13
- Greater attempts by management to deal with employees on an individual basis and to move away from collective bargaining.14
- Increased participation of women in the economy, growth of the service sector and of part-time and temporary work-force; these are not traditionally strongly unionized sectors and unions have found it hard to recruit within them.15
According to the Workplace Employment Relations Survey 2004, two-thirds of workplaces in Great Britain had no union members, while in the private sector this figure stood as high as 77 per cent and in the public sector it remained at about 33 per cent.16
In view of the continuously declining number of union members, the TUC and many big unions not affiliated to it started making special efforts to bring employees in the union fold, especially in the private sector. These efforts include: (i) pouring more resources for developing new approaches to train and equip young activists, (ii) starting specific campaigns for organizing more women, black minority ethnic, and migrant and younger workers, and (iii) taking recourse to mergers and amalgamations for achieving institutional economy of scale. However, in spite of these special measures, the British unions have been losing as many members as they have been gaining.17
A notable feature of trade union movement in Great Britain is that bulk of the membership is concentrated in a few big unions. This is evident from the figures of Table 3.2.
Source: For figures of the year 1989: U.K. DTI Analysis of Annual Reports (AR215), and for figures of the years 2002 and 2009 Annual Reports of the Certification Officer. (http:#www.certoffice.org)
Note: The figures of 1989 are as on 31 December, and of 2002 and 2009 as on 31 March.
Table 3.2 shows that bulk of union membership in Great Britain has been concentrated in big-sized unions. In 1989, the unions each having a membership of over 100,000 accounted only for about 7 per cent of the total number of unions in the country, but had a concentration of about 81 per cent of the total union membership. In 2002 and 2009, although the percentage of unions to the total number of remained some-what unchanged, the concentration of membership increased to over 82 per cent in 2002 and nearly 86 per cent in 2009. The number of unions having a membership between 5,000 and 99,999 each accounted for about 21 per cent in all the 3 years, but the concentration of membership stood at about 19 per cent in 1989, and then declined to 16 per cent in 2002 and a little over 12 per cent in 2009. In sharp contrast, the small-sized unions having a membership of less than 5,000 accounted for about 66 per cent in 1989, 67 per cent in 2002 and 71 per cent in 2009, but had a membership of 2.3 per cent in 1989, 2 per cent in 2002 and only 1.7 per cent in 2009.
CHART 3.C: Concentration of Trade Union Membership in Great Britain (1989), (See Table 3.2)
CHART 3.D: Concentration of Trade Union Membership in Great Britain (2009), (See Table 3.2)
THE TRADES UNION CONGRESS
The Trades Union Congress is at the apex of the British trade union movement to which most of the important trade unions are affiliated. Founded in 1868, the Trades Union Congress has grown in influence from year to year and is today a unifying force for the British trade unionism. Unlike the national centres of trade unions in many countries, its position is unrivalled and is the only central confederation of trade unions for Great Britain as whole. At the end of 2006, trade unions 65 in number representing about 7 million members were affiliated to the Trades Union Congress.18
The functions of the Trades Union Congress, in general, are to promote the interests of its affiliated organizations and to improve the economic and social conditions of the workers. In order to achieve these purposes, the Congress supports public ownership of public resources and services especially the nationalization of land, minerals and railways. It also advocates the expansion of state and municipal enterprises for the provision of social necessities and services, and participation of the workers in the operation of public services and industries. In the field of working conditions and wages, it demands a working week of 40 hours, a legal minimum wage for each industrial occupation, and payment for holidays and so on. In the field of social security it asks for unemployment benefit, training facilities for both juveniles and unemployed adults, adequate housing, compensation for industrial accidents and diseases, pension for the old and the invalid, widowed mother and the dependent children. In the field of education, it works for raising the school leaving age to 16, adequate maintenance allowances, and state educational facilities from the elementary schools to the universities. In the international field, it is a member of the ICFTU and represents the British trade unions at the ILO.
Structure of the Trades Union Congress
The Trades Union Congress has 65 affiliated organizations at present. These affiliates are themselves amalgamations or federations, each uniting a number of unions which are individually enumerated in the Department of Trade and Industry. The affiliates are divided into a number of industrial groups including: (i) mining and quarrying, (ii) railways, (iii) transport (other than railways), (iv) ship building, (v) engineering, founding and vehicle building, (vi) iron, steel and minor metal trades, (vii) building, wood working and furnishing, (viii) printing and paper, (ix) electricity, (x) textiles, (xi) clothing, (xii) leather, boot and shoe, (xiii) glass, pottery, chemicals, food, drink, tobacco, brush-making and distribution, and others, (xiv) agriculture, (xv) public employees, (xvi) civil servants, (xvii) technical engineering and scientific, (xviii) professional, clerical and entertainment, and (xix) general workers.
The Annual Congress is the main policy making body. Affiliated unions are entitled to representation at the Congress on the basis of one delegate for every 5,000 members or part thereof, though many of the larger unions do not send their full quota. Still these larger unions are in a position to dominate the proceedings of the Congress because of the system of a card vote whereby each delegation casts its entire vote (based on the union’s membership in thousands) as a block—one way or another. The Congress discusses the report presented by the General Council and motions submitted by the affiliates. The Congress also elects the officers and the members of the General Council.
The General Council is the executive body of the British Trades Union Congress and consists of representatives elected by the Annual Congress. These representatives are allotted to the trade groups, the number varying from one to four for each one of them. Seats are reserved for women workers. The members of the General Council, except the General Secretary, serve the Trades Union Congress in a part-time capacity only. Most of them are full-time officers of their own unions. The General Secretary who is elected by the Congress has the full-time responsibility for furthering the interests of the Trades Union Congress and the trade union movement as a whole. To assist the General Secretary there is a permanent administrative staff consisting of an Assistant General Secretary, an Assistant Secretary and a number of officers in the specialized departments.
Each year at its first post-Congress meeting the General Council also appoints Executive Committee from amongst its own members. The Executive Committee, which meets at regular intervals, develops and implements policies, manages the financial affairs and deals with urgent business. In the same session, the General Council also elects the President of the ensuing Annual Congress. During more recent years, the General Council has been setting up task-groups for dealing with specific areas of policy and has also been constituting permanent committees for specific purposes.
Relationship with Affiliates
The Trades Union Congress is, as a matter of fact, a very loose organization—the affiliates retaining autonomy in most areas of policy and action. Congress resolutions and policies are not generally binding on them. The Congress and the Council have little authority to enforce their decisions; they generally influence the affiliates by counsel and consent.19 A rule of the constitution of the TUC empowers the General Council to suspend and the Congress to expel any affiliated organization persisting in conduct detrimental to the interest of trade union movement or contrary to the declared principle or policy of the Congress. But this power has sparingly been used, for example, against the National Union of Seamen in 1928. Under another rule, the affiliates are required to keep the General Council informed about major industrial disputes but the General Council has no powers to intervene in the dispute except offering advice with the object of promoting a settlement.
The individual trade unions affiliated to the TUC take their own internal decision to affiliate to the Labour Party or not. If a union wants to affiliate to the Labour Party, it must have a political fund to do so. There are, however, a number of trade unions affiliated to the TUC and having political funds that do not affiliate to the Labour Party.
It is the area relating to disputes between affiliated unions that the General Council has achieved a measure of success. The awards of the Disputes Committee of the General Council are in practice almost always accepted.
However, the strength and influence of the Trades Union Congress do not lie in the formal powers of the General Council over the affiliates. It is the demands of the complex economy and the increasingly important role of the government in the economic life of Great Britain that has conferred considerable authority and responsibility on the Trades Union Congress. The first source of strength of the TUC lies in the unrivalled position and the tradition of solidarity of the British trade union movement. The second source of its strength is the capacity of its leadership which understands the movement, traditions, methods and the requirements of the changing economy. Finally, it is the continuous need of representing and associating the trade union movement as a whole with the government and the central employers’ organizations that has made the Trades Union Congress the principal spokesman of the British trade union movement.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TUC AND THE LABOUR PARTY
As said earlier in the chapter, it was the Trades Union Congress that played the main role in establishing the Labour Party in 1900, although for the first 6 years of its establishment, it was known by Labour Representation Committee. The Labour Representation Committee was set up by the combined efforts of the trade unions and cooperative and socialist organizations with the immediate objective of securing an increased number of Labour Members in the Parliament.20
The Labour Party has twofold structural relationship with the trade union movement, that is, (i) with the individual trade unions and (ii) with the Trades Union Congress.
From the inception of the Labour Party, the bulk of its membership has been provided by the trade unions, which has generally been to the tune of over 80 per cent. Similarly, the major portion of the Labour Party funds has been coming from the contributions by the trade unionists. Between 1944 and 1958, the contributions by the trade unionists to the Central Labour Party funds were about 75 per cent of the total funds.
However, not all the unions which are affiliated to the TUC are also affiliated to the Labour Party at the national level. As stated earlier, the individual trade unions affiliated to the TUC take their internal decision to affiliate to the Labour Party or not. Even the TUC is not formally affiliated to the Labour Party. In practice, many Labour MPs and Ministers have been shop stewards or office-bearers of trade unions at various levels. For them, the trade union movement has provided a ‘springboard into organized politics’.
Apart from the unions affiliated to the Labour Party at the national level, many local branches of trade unions have also affiliated themselves to the local and constituency Labour Parties. In the larger towns and cities having many constituencies, a number of trade union branches are affiliated to the city, borough or central labour parties also. For the Labour Party, its affiliated unions and their branches ensure that it is rooted in the workplaces, especially when it wants to broaden its electoral appeal on a wider and diverse basis. The Labour Party has also established Regional Councils of Labour providing an intermediate link between the National Executive Committee and affiliated organizations including constituency parties and trade unions. Thus, politically affiliated unions are in a position to influence the Labour Party’s policies and activities at three or four levels from the local or constituency party to the annual party conference.
The Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Committee was set up in 1994 with a view to coordinating support for the Labour Party during elections and also for providing a platform for dialogue between trade unions and the Labour Party. It has mainly been due to the active support of trade unions and the TUC at various levels that the Labour Party came out victorious in three consecutive parliamentary elections beginning in 1997.
At the Labour Party’s annual conference, affiliated trade unions are represented by one delegate for specified number of members who have paid affiliation fees for the preceding year. There is one voting card for a set of members. As the bulk of trade union membership is concentrated in bigger unions, the latter are in a position to influence the decisions at the party’s annual conference. The system of card vote has, however, been occasionally criticized, particularly by the political wing of the party, as the system has enabled the trade unions to form ‘blocks’ and dominate over the deliberations of the annual conference.
The annual conference elects the party’s National Executive Committee for the ensuing year. The National Executive Committee consists of elected and nominated members representing various groups such as affiliated unions, constituency parties, co-operatives, professional organizations, women and so on. The National Executive Committee is responsible for providing a strategic direction to the party as a whole, and for maintaining and developing party activity in all areas and at all levels.
Thus, it is seen that the trade unions provide the Labour Party with the bulk of its membership and finance and are in a position to influence the deliberations of the party at various levels. The political influence of trade unions is, however, most commonly associated with their support of parliamentary candidates. In the beginning, an overwhelming majority of the Labour Party’s candidates for parliamentary elections were trade union nominees, but during the course of time, the proportion gradually decreased. The proportion of trade union sponsored candidates elected to the Parliament to the total Labour MPs has also gradually gone down.
However, about half of the trade unions affiliated to the TUC do not have any link with the Labour Party, but their membership in relation to the total affiliated membership of the party is relatively small. So far as the relationship between individual trade unions and the Labour Party is concerned, the TUC is not directly involved, but it may issue directives to the affiliates.
The Trades Union Congress has its direct relationship with the Labour Party. By its constitution, the TUC is pledged to extend assistance to any other organization with similar objects including the public ownership and control of natural resources and services. In many respects, the objectives of the TUC and the Labour Party are similar. The constitution of the Labour Party also provides for cooperation with the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in joint political or other action.
Organizationally, the most significant link between the TUC and the Labour Party is provided by the National Council of Labour. The Council consists of the Chairman and equal number of members representing the TUC, the Labour Party and the Cooperative Unions. The secretaries of the three bodies are the joint secretaries of the National Council of Labour. The National Council holds its regular meetings which are presided over by the chairman of the three bodies in turn. The Council considers all questions affecting the labour and cooperative movements as a whole. It seeks to promote joint action, whether by legislation or otherwise, on all questions affecting the workers as producers, consumers and citizens. Contacts between the Council and the Labour government have been maintained through a Liaison Committee. Besides, ministers concerned with particular policy matters attend the Council’s meeting from time to time for exchange of views and information.
Divergent views are often expressed regarding the nature of relationship between the individual trade unions and the TUC, on the one hand, and the Labour Party, on the other. More frequently, the relationship has been said to be very close and intimate, but sometimes, there is said to exist only a formal link between the two, particularly on non-industrial matters. However, since the mid-1990s the Labour Party has loosened its traditional links with the trade unions.
As said earlier, the constitution of the Labour Party enables the trade unions to have a complete control over the Labour Party, but in practice, the Labour Party has never been the political expression of trade unionism alone. Many issues which are not of direct concern to the trade unions are left to the political leadership of the party for initiation and processing. In general, the trade unions have rarely succeeded in forcing their views on the party on non-industrial issues, owing mainly to divisions among their own ranks. Such divisions among the trade unionists have been noticed on many recent political and economic issues. ‘The use of union power within the party has never really amounted to outright dictation or consistently intolerable pressure’.21 The trade unions have generally sought to take the discussions of issues directly affecting them out of the conference and the parliamentary party, so that they can be raised directly with the party leadership.
The main trade union pressure on the Labour Party comes from the TUC, which is independent of the Labour Party, and which draws ‘much of its strength in negotiating with labour from that independence’.22 If the unions disagree with the party or want it to adopt a new course, their influence is normally exerted through talks between the party and the General Council and the interested trade unions’. ‘The Labour Party is bound to the unions not just by cash and card votes, but by the personalities and doctrines, common experience and sentiment and mutual advantage’.23
Although there have occasionally been sharp differences between the TUC and the Labour Party, the relationship between the two has generally been characterized by ties of cooperation. ‘The trade unions and the Labour Party were believed by most until recently to have a relationship that went together like fish and chips or bread and butter; organic, symmetrical and everlasting in the slow pursuit of progressive common goals’.24 In both good fortune and misfortune, the two organizations have stood together, particularly during parliamentary elections and during the periods when Labour Party has been in opposition.
However, the Trades Union Congress has been taking its own independent stand on many issues during the periods of the Labour government. During such periods, the relationships between the two organizations have been a mixture of cooperation, tolerance and even hostile opposition depending on the exigencies of the situation. On the other hand, the Labour government, although desirous of accommodating the views of the TUC in its own policies and programmes, has often been forced to make harsh decisions contrary to the declared policies of the TUC.
During more recent years, such a situation has emerged mainly on account of the Labour government’s concern for protecting and promoting the country’s economic and political interests for which ignoring the TUC’s stand often becomes inevitable. Under the Conservative government headed by Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major, Great Britain witnessed the adoption and implementation of ‘the most stringest anti-union legislation in the world’.25 Some of the clauses of the legislation vehemently opposed by the TUC and many other big unions included:
- Empowering companies to sue trade unions for losses incurred during strikes,
- Prohibiting sympathetic or solidarity action by any section of workers not directly involved in an industrial dispute,
- Introducing compulsory ballot at least 4 weeks preceding strike, and
- Sueing trade unions for not repudiating action by individual officials or members in the event of wild-cat strikes.26
Wild Cat Strike
A strike called by affiliated trade unions without authorization by the competent authority of the union or in contravention of the directive of such competent authority
A government report that gives information about something and explains government plans before a new measure is introduced.
Fairness at Work
A white paper issued by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998, which contained provisions relating to government’s plans in regard to trade unions, rights of employees and labour and employment relations.
With the defeat of the Conservative government in the general election in 1997 after 18 years of rule, and the formation of the Labour government headed by Tony Blair, the Trades Union Congress and other big unions affiliated to the Labour Party had expected that the more repressive clauses of the anti-union laws would either be repealed or modified. Taking into account the expectations of the TUC and affiliated unions and also the compulsions of the economy and business, needs of industrial and social developments and the obligations towards partners of European Union, Tony Blair issued a white paper titled ‘Fairness at Work’. The paper intended to ‘move away from the open union-busting of the previous Tony government towards encouraging union-management collaboration’.27 However, in the foreword to the paper, Tony Blair made it clear, ‘There will be no going back. The days of strikes without ballots, mass-picketing, closed shops and secondary action are over’.
Instead of insisting on the repeal or modification of the deleterious clauses of the anti-union laws during years immediately following the formation of Labour government in 1997, the TUC and the affiliates preferred to remain silent. In practice, many trade unions used the anti-union laws as a weapon against their own members. The provisions of law could be invoked to refrain union members from engaging in action not to the liking of the union bosses. They could refuse to take up cases of sacked or striking workers on the pretext that it could be in violation of anti-union laws. The anti-union laws enacted during the tenure of the Conservative government remained in operation even after the Labour government came into power. As a result, the trade unions continued to remain on the defensive and they faced one defeat after another in legal battles. The trade union membership also continued to slump on a regular basis.28
Many employers were able to encourage the formation of rival unions offering ‘no-strike’ deals and promising industrial peace. Tony Blair also issued documents which tried to convince the employers that unions were ‘good for business’. Efforts were made to persuade big business houses to understand that union-busting was not always the appropriate course to pursue for imposing job-reduction and speed-ups. The employers reluctant to accept unions were told that collective representation could help achieve important business objectives and that union representatives respected by employees could help employers to explain the company’s circumstances and the need for change.
ON ‘FAIRNESS AT WORK’
The Labour government’s new white paper (1998), ‘Fairness at Work’, represents a significant shift in industrial relations strategy in Britain. It is a move away from the open union-busting of the previous Tory Government towards encouraging union–management collaboration. In line with the measures commonly employed in Europe, British employers are being encouraged to rely on the trade unions to increase profits and attack workers’ living standards.
James, Steve, ‘What is Fairness of Work Really About?’, International Committee of the Fourth International, 5 June 1998 (http://www.wsws.org/nrws/1998/uk-j5.shtml)
On its part, the TUC realized the impending compulsions of competitive economy and business, and limitations of the Labour government in bringing about radical changes on labour front. It tried to accommodate itself to the fast changing economy and business. In 1997, the TUC’s pre-election statement called for a new government ‘to create a greater spirit of national common purpose which will help the government take tough decisions which will understatedly be needed’. The TUC also expressed the view that there was a need to minimize industrial disputes, which would help employers and trade unions provide the basis for steady and sound economic growth by limiting any damage to other sectors of the economy. The proposal of establishing ‘factory committees’ as resolved in the Mastricht Treaty of European Union was welcome by the TUC as it would require incorporation in law the right to join a union; for the unions to be recognized by the employers and would also establish the ‘check-off’ system on a wider scale.
In spite of the accommodative posture displayed by the TUC on quite a number of measures initiated by the Labour government, there remained many issues which continued to vex the TUC and other big unions affiliated to the Labour Party. Finding that the TUC did not prove effective in counteracting many anti-union measures of the Labour government, quite a number of big unions not affiliated to the TUC29 went to the extent of viewing ‘the TUC as insufficiently robust in its dealings with the government and too ideologically entrenched in the perspective of social partnership’.30
Efforts of the employers to break trade unions and discourage their employees from joining unions generally through inducements or punishments.
A person who continues to work when the people they work with are on strike or a person who is employed to work instead of those who are on strike.
Finding that some of the measures adopted by the Labour government during more recent years have not been to the expectations of the affiliated unions, they entered into an agreement with the Labour Party in 2004 at Warwick so that the Labour government would remain bound by the commitments made in the agreement.
The Warwick Agreement, which set the tone of Labour’s programme for the third term contains new commitments by the Labour government. Notable among a very wide range of commitments include: (i) repeal of anti-union laws, (ii) greater fairness at work, (iii) additional family-friendly employment rights, (iv) repeal of laws prohibiting unions from engaging in sympathetic or secondary action, (v) ending private sector initiatives in the education, health and local government sectors, (vi) a break on plans to cut numbers in the public sector, (vii) withdrawal of proposal to raise retirement age of public sectors from 60 to 65, and (viii) greater government intervention is support of British manufacturing where many jobs had disappeared.
The Labour government in its third term has been trying to pursue its programme in keeping with the terms of commitments made under the agreement. There are instances to show that the government had to withdraw or modify some of the measures which were contrary to the spirit of the agreement. However, action on many of the commitments made is still awaited. As membership of trade unions has continuously been falling, and there exists numerous union-free workplaces in the country, much of the energy and resources of the TUC and other big unions continues to be concentrated on strengthening unionization, persuading government to repeal or modify anti-union laws and putting pressure on the employers to refrain from anti-labour practices. Under the existing economic and business situation prevailing in the country, the trade unions including the TUC will have to adopt a policy of cooperation rather than confrontation and may have to take a position having elements of defence rather than aggression.
SALIENT FEATURES OF LEGISLATION RELATING TO TRADE UNIONS AND LABOUR RELATIONS
The review of the history and growth of British trade union movement will be incomplete without a reference to the spirit of legislation relating to trade unions and labour and employment relations in the country. During the end of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth centuries, there was an open conflict between the objectives, policies and practices of the workers’ organizations or combinations and the then prevailing concepts of the ‘interests of the community’ which were synonymous with those of the employers. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, and 1824 and 1825 (a reference of which has already been made at the beginning of the chapter) bear testimony to this phenomenon. The conflict of interests was inevitable in the framework of the expanding capitalist economy of the British empire and the dominance of pro-employer politicians.
During the course of time, with the growth and strengthening of workers’ organizations and spread of the ideas of socialism, collectivism, democracy and welfare state, trade unions came to receive legal recognition and were accorded many rights such as immunities from civil and criminal liabilities. The rights of trade unions continued to expand with the enactment of new laws, but at the same time, their activities had to be controlled with a view to safeguarding and promoting the existing interests of the community. Prior to the enactment of Industrial Relation Act, 1971, the trade union legislation adopted from time-to-time included: Trade Union Act, 1871, Trade Union Act Amendment Act, 1876, Trade Disputes Act, 1905, Trade Union Act, 1913, Trade Union (Amalgamation) Act, 1917, Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, Societies (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1940, Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1946, Trade Unions (Amalgamation, etc.) Act, 1964, and Trade Disputes Act, 1965. The provisions of these laws were related to registration of trade unions, rights and liabilities of registered unions, amalgamations, political programmes of unions, industrial action including strikes and picketing, and other related matters. The trade unions in Great Britain continued to operate within the framework of these acts till the enactment of Industrial Relations Act, 1971.
Industrial Relations Act, 1971
The Industrial Act, 1971, was the first comprehensive trade union and industrial relations legislation in Great Britain. The Act was the outcome of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Organizations appointed in 1965 under the Chairmanship of Baro Donovan. The Act also incorporated certain suggestions of Andrew Shonfield, a member of the Commission from his note of reservation and some other suggestions. The Act repealed the whole of Trade Union Act, 1871, Trade Union Act Amendment Act, 1876, Trade Disputes Act, 1906 and Trade Disputes Act, 1965. The Act also partially repealed and amended certain provisions of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, 1875, Friendly Societies Act, 1896, Trade Unions Act, 1913 and the Trade Union (Amalgamation, etc.) Act, 1964. It consolidated majority of the existing laws pertaining to trade unions with or without amendments. The main provisions of the Act related to various aspects of trade unionism and industrial relations including general principles in the sphere of industrial relations, registration of organizations of workers and employers, collective bargaining, rights of individual workers, unfair industrial practices, industrial courts, legal proceedings and emergency procedures.
The introductory part of the Act frequently referred to the ‘general interests of the community’ as one of the guiding principles for the promotion of industrial relations. This shows that the then existing industrial relations and trade union practices were not able to accommodate the community’s interests and were carried on primarily from the point of view of sectional interests of either or both of the working class or the employing class. As economic, political and social situations change, the ‘interests of the community’ also change and as such trade union and industrial and employment relations legislation had to be modified in keeping with the demands of the new situations. It was on this premise that during the years that followed the existing trade union and industrial and employment relations laws were modified and new ones enacted. A brief description of the main features of these subsequent laws is given below.
Trade Unions and Labour Relations Act, 1974
The Industrial Relations Act, 1971, was passed by the Conservative government even in face of bitter opposition by the trade union movement and the Labour Party. When the Labour government was formed in 1973, it took the earliest opportunity to modifying the Act of 1971 and passed a new Act known as Trade Unions and Labour Relations Act, 1974. The new legislation repealed those provisions of the Act of 1971 which had been vehemently opposed by the trade unions, particularly in respect of the status of trade unions, their rights and liabilities, restrictions on pre-entry ‘closed shop’, collective bargaining and emergency procedures.
The power of trade unions was greatly curtailed by restrictions imposed by the Margaret Thatcher governments under the Employments Acts, 1980, 1982 and 1988. These restrictions related primarily to secondary picketing, closed shop and unfair disciplining of members. The Trade Union Act, 1984, made secret ballot before a strike compulsory. Subsequently, the laws relating to the regulation of trade unions were codified in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992.
Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992
Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992, covers a wide range of aspects pertaining to trade unions such as enlistment of trade unions, certification as independent trade union, status and property of trade unions, trade union administration, election for specified positions, rights of trade union members, application of funds for political objects, amalgamations and change of name, assistance for legal proceedings, and special provisions relating to employers’ associations. Some of the features of existing regulations of trade unions in Great Britain are discussed below.
Rights of Employees to Belong or Not to Belong to Trade Union
Individual employees have the basic right to belong to a trade union. This right involves: (i) the right not to be dismissed by the employer for belonging to or intending to join a union, (ii) the right not to be penalized at work for belonging to a union (e.g. being ignored for training and promotion, and so on), and (iii) the right not to be chosen for redundancy on account of union membership. Similar rights not to be discriminated against apply to union members taking part in trade union activities.
Employees equally have the right not to join or remain a member of a trade union. They have the right (i) not to be dismissed for not belonging to a trade union or for refusing to join one, (ii) not to have other action taken against them by their employer to compel them to be or become members of a trade union, and (iii) not to be chosen for redundancy because they are not members of a trade union. The employees also have the right (i) not to be dismissed for refusing to make a payment in lieu of union membership or for objecting to their employer deducting a sum of money from their wages to make such payment and (ii) not to have other action taken by their employer to compel them to make such a payment.
Individual employees can complain about infringement of their rights to an employment tribunal. If they have been dismissed, their complaint is one of unfair dismissal. Wrongful deduction from wages for union subscription is a case of unlawful deduction of union subscription. If they consider that they have been subjected to a detriment short of dismissal by an act, or deliberate failure to act, by their employer for the purpose of preventing them from being a union member or compelling them to join a union, the complaint is that of detriment. If they consider that they have been unlawfully excluded or expelled from a trade union, their complaint is against the union.
The remedies which an employment tribunal can provide, if it upholds a complaint, vary, depending upon the nature of complaint made. Employees complaining of unfair dismissal on grounds relating to trade union membership and activities or non-membership can ask the tribunal for an order of interim relief. The order of the tribunal may require the employer to continue the employee’s contract of employment or to re-employ him until the tribunal has given its final decision. In case a worker is dismissed or chosen for redundancy for (i) trade union non-membership, (ii) trade union membership or (iii) taking part in trade union activities, the tribunal will declare it a case of unfair dismissal, and can offer a number of remedies such as reinstatement in the same job, re-employment in a similar job or payment of compensation by the employer.
Trade union members having complaints against their union or employer in relation to their trade union membership may appeal to the commissioner for the rights of trade union members. The complaints may relate to breaches of members’ rights under trade union legislation, union’s rules or the misuse of union funds or property.
Employers may make deductions from wages of union members only when they have received written consent from them and the consent has not been subsequently withdrawn. No increase in subscription is to take effect unless the members are notified at least 1month before the increase is to come into operation. Workers wishing to withdraw their consent to check-off, must inform their employer in writing, allowing a reasonable time for the deduction to stop.
All members of the governing body or executive must be elected by the union’s members at least once in every 5 years. This requirement covers the general secretary and president and other office-bearers who normally attend the union’s executive meetings and are entitled to speak in the meetings. However, there are exceptions in some cases. For example, general secretaries and presidents with purely short-term ceremonial role need not be elected. A new trade union can initially appoint rather than elect its leaders, but it is required to follow the general rules after 1year. A federation of unions which does not have members as individuals is not required to elect its leaders. In the case of merger of unions, leaders of the old unions can sit on the new executive committee for as long as their old term of office allows.
Every member of a trade union is entitled to vote in elections for leadership of the union. However, certain categories of members such as (i) unemployed members, (ii) defaulters of union dues, (iii) trainees, apprentices and students, (iv) new members and (v) overseas members may be excluded from vote, if it is in conformity with the union’s rules.
Recognition of Trade Unions
The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992, and the Employment Relations Act, 1999, provide the legal rules for the recognition and derecognition of trade unions for the purpose of collective bargaining. The law requires an employer to give a union applying for recognition reasonable access to workers to explain to them the point of ballot and to persuade them to vote for union recognition. The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992, empowers the Secretary of State to issue codes of practice containing practical guidance for improving industrial relations and about reasonable access during recognition ballots. The codes themselves are not law, but their relevant provisions are significant in proceedings before courts, tribunals and central arbitration committee.
In case the employer and the trade union fail to reach an agreement on recognition voluntarily, the union may apply to the central arbitration committee to decide the question of recognition for the purpose of collective bargaining. In some cases, the central arbitration committee may award recognition or dismiss the application. In other cases, the committee is required to hold secret ballot of members of the bargaining unit to determine the issue. The ballot is to be conducted by a qualified independent person appointed by the central arbitration committee.
Where an employer or his workers intend to end recognition arrangement with a union, the central arbitration committee can also call a derecognition ballot. The employer is under the obligation to give the recognized union reasonable access to workers where ballot on derecognition is being held.
Trade Union Funds and Property
The trustees of a trade union are required to use the union funds and property lawfully. A union member is entitled to start legal action against the trustees if he believes that the funds or properties are being used unlawfully. In case the court is satisfied that there is misuse, it can order the trustees to remedy the situation, appoint a receiver of the union’s property or remove the trustees from their positions. If the trustees fail to comply with the court’s order, they may be punished with fines or the union’s assets may be seized.
The trade unions are required to keep proper accounting records. The union account should be kept open to inspection. The union must also give its members an annual statement of its financial situation.
A trade union member does not have to contribute to a union’s political fund. If such a fund is set up, the union must tell the members that they have the right to ‘contract out’ of contributing. When a member ‘contracts out’ within 1month of the establishment of the political fund, the exemption has an immediate effect. In other cases, it comes into force from the beginning of the next calendar year. In the event of the denial of the right to ‘contract out’, an aggrieved member may complain to the certification officer.
In order to set up a political fund, the trade union must first ballot its members to adopt, ‘political objects’ as a union objective. The rules for conducting the ballot must be approved by the certification officer for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations. The certification officer will approve the conduct of the ballot if the political fund ballot rules meet certain requirements, for instance, the entitlement to vote must be given to every member of the union; the ballot must be held by post; and the ballot must be conducted and supervised by an independent scrutinizer. The political fund ballot rules must safeguard certain rights of members. The rules must permit individual members to ‘contract out’ of contributing to the political fund. No member who contracts out is to be discriminated against for his refusal to contribute to the political fund. The rules must also provide that contributing to the political fund is not to be made a condition for admission to the union. The trade unions are required to re-ballot their members every 10 years to keep the political fund in operation.
The political fund can be spent only on specified political activities. These include: (i) making contributions to the funds of a political party or payment of expenses incurred by it, (ii) spending on the provision of a service or property for use by a political party, (iii) spending on registration of electors, or selection of candidates in connection with election to specified political offices, (iv) spending on the maintenance of persons holding political offices, (v) spending on holding conferences or meetings by a political party and (vi) spending on the production, publication or distribution of literature, documents, films and so on, the main purpose of which is to persuade people to vote or not to vote for a political party or candidate.
Prohibition of ‘Closed Shop’
‘Closed shop’ arrangements now stand prohibited. It is no longer possible to require appointees to join a union.
The law requires holding of secret ballots before strike action can be taken. Traditionally, the British trade unions were protected against liability for calling a strike. This immunity has now been removed. The circumstances in which trade unions can legitimately organize a strike are now tightly circumscribed. Many employers have shown a new willingness to dismiss strikers or to threaten to do so. There had been a sharp decline in the number of strikes, workers involved and man days lost in Great Britain during the period 1965–98. The average number of strikes which stood at 2,397 during 1965–69, 2,917 during 1970–74, 2,345 during 1975–79, declined to 1,363 during 1980–84, 895 during 1985–9 and only 274 during 1990–9. Similarly, the average number of workers involved in the strikes exceeded 1,200,000 during all the periods prior to 1985–9, but it declined to about 7,80,000 during 1985–89 and to only 2,20,000 during 1990–99. The number of man days lost, which was on the average about 3.93 million during 1965–69, 14.08 million during 1970–74, 11.66 million during 1975–79, and 10.49 million during 1980–84, declined to about 3.94 million during 1985–89 and to only 8.2 million during 1999.31
The foregoing shows that there has been a decline in the influence of the British trade unions during more recent years and their traditional freedoms severely curtailed. Their role in regard to collective bargaining, settlement of disputes, management of trade union affairs, industrial actions, governmental policies and programmes, relationships with Labour Party and union members has appreciably changed. John Monks, the General Secretary of the TUC, while taking note of the change remarked that ‘the partnership approach to industrial relations is now the dominant mode’.32
Employment and Employment Relations Acts
As economic, political and social situations continued to change, the ‘interests of the community’ also changed and trade union and industrial and employment relations legislation had to be modified in keeping with the demands of the changed situation. It was on this premise that employment and employment relations acts came to be enacted. A reference to the Employment Acts of 1980, 1982 and 1988, enacted during the tenure of the Conservative government has already been made. Subsequently, a few enactments dealing with employment relations came to be enacted. These included: Employment Tribunals Act, 1996, Employment Rights Act, 1996, Employment Relations Act, 1999 and Employment Relations Act, 2004. Presently the Employment Relations Act, 1999, as amended by the Act of 2004 is in operation. A brief description of the main provisions of these two Acts is given below.
Employment Relations Act, 1999
The Act contains important provisions relating to recognition of trade unions for the purpose of collective bargaining, detriment related to union membership, recognition ballots, unfair dismissal connected with recognition, leave for family and domestic reasons, disciplinary and grievance hearings, unfair dismissal for participation in strikes, detriment and dismissal related to collective bargaining and administrative arrangements. The salient features of the Act include:
- Introduction of a new statutory procedure for the recognition and derecognition of trade unions by employers.
- Preventing employers from discriminating on the ground of union membership.
- Introducing changes in the law on industrial action especially in relation to requirements of ballot and notice and the right of dismissed strikers to complain of unfair dismissal.
- Incorporating new rights and changes in family-related employment rights.
- Introducing new rights for workers to be accompanied in certain disciplinary and grievance hearings.
- Introducing other changes in the employment rights of individuals.33
Employment Relations Act, 2004
In line with the commitments made in the White Paper ‘Fairness at Work’ (1998) (referred to earlier in the chapter), the government reviewed the operation of the 1999 Act. The review was conducted with close involvement of the interested parties, and included a full public consultation on its draft conclusions and recommendations. The review concluded that the Employment Relations Act, 1999, was working well, but ‘it identified a number of areas where recognition procedures could be improved and trade union law could be modernized’.34 The Employment Relations Act, 2004, received Royal Assent on 16 September 2004, and its provisions came into force in phases.
The object of the Act states, ‘An Act to amend the law relating to the recognition of trade unions and taking of industrial action; to make provision about means of voting in ballots under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992; to amend provisions of that Act relating to rights of members and non-members of trade unions and to make other provision about rights of trade union members, employees and workers; to make further provision concerning the enforcement of legislation relating to minimum wages; to make further provision about proceedings before and appeals from Certification Officer; to make further provision about amalgamation of trade unions; to make provision facilitating the administration of trade unions and the carrying out by them of their functions; and other connected purposes’.
The Employment Relations Act, 2004, comprehensively amends the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992, and repeals quite a number of its clauses. The Act also introduces amendments and modification in the Employment Relations Act, 1999, Employment Tribunals Act, 1996, Employment Rights Act, 1996 and Employment Act, 2002.
The salient features of the Act are as follows:
- The Act confers on workers statutory protection against being offered inducements by their employer not to be or to be a member of a trade union, not to take part in its activities or not to make use of its services and not to have their terms and conditions of employment determined by collective agreement negotiated by their union.
- It protects workers against dismissal or detriment for making use of the services of their trade union or for refusing to accept any of the inducements offered by their employer.
- The Act also extends protection against dismissal for workers taking official, lawfully organized industrial action from 8 to 12 weeks and exempts lock-out days from the 12-week protected period.
- It has made the law clearer to ensure that dismissal on grounds of trade union membership or activities is unlawful regardless of length of service or age.
- The Act expands the role of work–colleague or union official allowed to accompany at disciplinary or grievance hearings. The Act provides that the employer must permit the worker’s companion to address the hearing in order to put the worker’s case and allow him to confer with the worker during the hearing. The companion has also been given protection against detriment and dismissal for having carried out his role.
- The Act entitles trade unions to exclude or expel individuals for political activity contrary to the union’s rules or objectives.
- The Act has made comprehensive amendments in the existing statutory procedure by which trade unions can obtain recognition for collective bargaining purposes and the corresponding procedure by which they can be derecognized. The stages in the procedure include: writing to the employer by trade union for recognition, application to central arbitration committee (CAC), agreement or determination of bargaining unit, determining the need to award recognition, recognition ballot, and method of collective bargaining. The Act also clarifies the manner in which the appropriate bargaining unit is to be determined by the CAC.35
- The Act prohibits improper campaigning activity by employers and unions during recognition and derecognition ballots and clarifies the access that unions can have to workers in the relevant bargaining unit.
- The Act allows unions to communicate with workers covered by recognition claims at an earlier stage in the process.
- The Act empowers the government to add pension-related issues to the current topics of pay, hours and holidays for collective bargaining under a statutory recognition award at a future stage.
- The Act simplifies the legal requirements concerning industrial action ballots.
- It empowers the government to widen the means of voting that are to be available in statutory union elections and ballots.
- The Act removes the requirement for union presidents to be elected by postal ballot of the entire membership provided they are already elected members of the union executive.
- The Act enables the government to make funds available to trade unions and their federations to modernize their operations.
- The Act empowers the government to make regulations to implement the European Union Directive on ‘Information and Consultation at National Level’. The directive confers upon employees the right to be informed and consulted on management decisions affecting their future.
The Act has been welcome by the Trades Union Congress and also other big unions unaffiliated to the TUC. According to the Trades Union Congress, the Act contains ‘significant union victories’.36 The main clauses of the Act welcome by trade unions relate to: workers’ right to information and consultation on major changes in business, empowering trade unions to recruit members in an environment free from underhand union-busting activities of employers, power of trade unions to exclude or expel members for political activity contrary to the union’s rules or objectives, and provision of union modernization fund which will enable trade unions to modernize their operations. The existing legislative framework relating to trade unions and labour and employment relations is expected to strengthen the trade union movement in the country which, during more recent years, have been worried about falling membership and anti-union clauses of legislation. Besides, it has to accommodate itself to the fast-changing economic environment in which it has to accept certain constraints arising out of government’s obligation towards the protection and promotion of the ‘interests of the community’ or the ‘national common purpose’.
- In their modern form, trade unions began to be formed in England during the second half of the eighteenth century. Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, the main features of the movement in the country were: establishment of spontaneous and loose organizations, their suppression under the common law and special statutes, mass arrests and severe punishments of unionists, and revolts, breaking of machines and violence by workers. The period also saw the emergence of trades unionism and the Chartist movement.
- The main features of the movement during the period 1850–79 included: emergence of new model unionism, efforts at the formation of national organizations, birth of the Trades Union Congress and increasing participation of trade union leaders in political elections. The skilled workers took the initiative in forming new model unions on craft basis. The period also witnessed the formation of national organizations of different categories of craftsmen. The Trades Union Congress, which has been the biggest federation of trade unions in the country was founded in 1868. The trade unions also started participating in parliamentary elections independently. This ultimately resulted in the formation of the Labour Party.
- The main events relating to the movement in the country during 1880–99 were: growth of new unionism and the birth of the Labour Party. The new unionism, which was socialist in character, believed in building up working class solidarity and organizing the unskilled workers. The spread of socialist ideas amongst the trade union ranks through Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society led to the formation of Independent Labour Party in 1893. Initially, the TUC was reluctant to join it. However, in 1990, a conference jointly convened by the TUC, Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society resolved to form the Labour Representation Committee, which converted itself into the Labour Party in 1906.
- The important events relevant to the trade union movement in Great Britain between the advent of the twentieth century and the Second World War were: impact of the Taff Vale and Osborne judgements for the movement, the General Strike of 1926 and the impact of the world wars.
Under the Taff Vale Company case, the court issued an injunction restraining the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants and its office-bearers from committing acts calculated to damage the company and awarded compensation for losses suffered by the company because of the strike action. The House of Lords also upheld the award of damages. This had serious repercussions on industrial action by trade unions.
In the Osborne case, the House of Lords restrained the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants from incurring any expenditure on political activities as this was in violation of the existing trade union law. As a result, a number of trade unions were restrained by legal injunctions from contributing to the Labour Party’s fund. Contribution to political fund of trade unions has been a controversial issue in the country. The Conservative government generally restricted it, while the Labour government allowed it.
During both the First and the Second World Wars, trade unions in the country gained in respect, recognition and strength and there existed a close cooperation between the government and trade unions.
In 1926, the country witnessed the General Strike which engulfed a number of industries, employments and essential services. The strike ended in a failure. It led to the enactment of Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act, 1927, which made sympathetic strikes or lock-outs designed to coerce government illegal and imposed additional restrictions on trade unions’ political activities and conduct of trade disputes.
- The post–Second World War period witnessed a number of significant events having a potent bearing on the trade union movement of the country. Notable among these have been: coming into power of the Labour Party at some intervals, adoption of somewhat harsh anti-trade union measures by the Conservative government, increasing globalization, liberalization and privatization of the economy and greater governmental intervention in the fields of industrial and labour relations and trade unions.
- From 1981 onwards, there has been a gradual decline in both the number and membership of trade unions. However, the average membership per union has generally been on increase. Some of the notable factors responsible for the decline in union membership have been: (i) fall in the number of jobs in the manufacturing industries, (ii) a fall in the traditional full-time employment, (iii) increase in the proportion of work-force in small companies where it is often difficult for workers to organize, (iv) hostile trade union legislation during Conservative rule, (v) attempts by managements to deal with employees on an individual basis rather than based on collective bargaining and (vi) increase in the participation of women in economic activities.
- Bulk of union membership in Great Britain has continued to be concentrated in very big unions. In 1989, 2002 and 2009, the unions having a membership of 100,000 and above constituted about 7 per cent of total number of trade unions in the country, but accounted for about 81, 82 and 86 per cent, respectively of total union membership. On the other hand, trade unions having a membership of less than 5,000 accounted for about 66 to 71 per cent of the total number of unions in the country, but they had generally less than 2 per cent of the total union membership.
- The Trades Unions Congress continued to have a close and intimate relationship with the Labour Party. Bulk of the membership of the Labour Party and its funds has continued to be provided by the TUC. Organizationally, the most significant link between the two organizations has been the National Council of Labour and Liaison Committees set up from time-to-time for specific purposes, particularly during parliamentary elections. Although there has been sharp difference between them, their relationship has generally been characterized by ties of cooperation. In both good fortune and misfortune, the two organizations have stood together, particularly during parliamentary elections and during the periods the Labour Party has been in opposition.
- In spite of the close and intimate relationship, there has occasionally been sharp differences between the two organizations on specific issues. This has become glaring during more recent years. The TUC and other big unions had expected from the Labour government, which came to be formed for three consecutive terms since 1997, the repeal of more repressive clauses of the anti-union laws enacted during the preceding Conservative rule and some other relaxations to the trade unions. However, in practice, it was not possible for the Labour government to fulfil most of the expectations of trade unions. In a white paper issued in 1997, Tony Blair intended to move away from the open union-busting of the Tony government towards encouraging union–management collaboration. However, he made it clear that there would be no going back and the days of strikes without ballots, mass-picketing, closed shops and secondary action were over. Being dissatisfied with the steps taken by the Labour government, the TUC and other big unions entered into an agreement with the Labour Party in 2004 known as Warwick Agreement laying down a number of commitments from the Labour Party. The Labour government, on its part, has been trying to abide by the commitments, but has been encountering many difficulties on the way.
- The Labour government has repealed many deleterious clauses of labour laws enacted during the period of the Conservative government and enacted new Employment Relations Acts to partially satisfy the TUC and regulate employment relations for the smooth sailing of economy and business.
The more notable trade union and labour and employment relations and employment laws in operation in the country today are: Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992 with amendments, Employment Relations Act, 1999 and 2004. These laws comprehensively deal with a variety of subjects including rights of employees to belong or not to belong to trade union, check-off, leadership elections, recognition of representative union, trade union funds including political fund, strike ballot, discrimination, industrial action, wrongful dismissals, exclusion or expulsion of members of trade unions, unfair practices and inducements. The provisions of these are in detail and exhaustive.
QUESTIONS FOR REVIEW
- Give an account of the growth of labour organizations in England during early years of the nineteenth century and the legal handicaps faced by them.
- Compare the main features of the New Unionism with those of New Model Unionism which emerged in England during the second half of the nineteenth century.
- Explain the implications of the Taff Vale case and Osborne Judgement for the British trade unions.
- Discuss the main features of British trade union movement from the end of the Second World War and onwards.
- Explain the problems facing the British trade unions today.
- Describe the structure and functions of the Trades Union Congress and its relationship with the affiliates.
- Explain the relationship between the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party with particular reference to the developments during more recent years.
- Describe the main features of Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992.
- Briefly describe the provisions of the Employment Relations Acts in operation in Great Britain.
New model unionism
Wild cat strike
Fairness at work
Case Study 1
Are trade unions liable to pay for the damages done to the employer due to strike action?
In 1901, the railway men employed by the Taff Vale Company of England went on a strike, which was supported by the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the only registered trade union in operation in the company. The company offered some concessions to the railway men to end the work-stoppage, but the offer was rejected and the strike continued. In view of the continuing losses suffered and finding no way out to end the strike, the company approached the court of law for relief. The court issued injunctions restraining the society and its office-bearers from committing acts calculated to damage the company and its interests. The court also ordered the society to pay for the losses suffered by the company because of the strike action. After a series of appeals, the House of Lords upheld the award for damages and held that a trade union could be sued in its registered name, and that the funds held by its trustees could be made to answer for the wrongful acts of its agents and officers.
Was it illegal for the railway men to go on strike in support of their demands?
On what considerations did the court issue injunctions restraining railway men from continuing their strike?
What are the implications of the decision of the House of Lords in the Taff Vale case?
Case Study 2
Can a registered trade union use its funds for political purposes?
During early years of the formation of the Labour Party, a few powerful trade unions went ahead with securing greater representation of labour interests in Parliament. For this purpose, they began to make a levy on their members and started using the funds so raised for running parliamentary candidates and maintaining members when elected. In many cases, this levy was compulsory. Mr. Osborne, a branch secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants was not in favour of the levy and resolved to test its validity. Ultimately, the matter came before the House of Lords which, in 1910, decided that it was not within the powers of registered trade unions to maintain out of their funds Members of Parliament for the support of their interests. Subsequently, the Trade Union Act, 1913 authorized political activities of trade unions, but no trade union could engage in such activities unless so authorized by a ballot among members, wherein the majority of those voting favoured it. A trade union could create a separate political fund for carrying on political activities.
Should trade unions be allowed to spend money out of their general funds for political purposes?
What would have been the effect of the decision of the House of Lords on the funds of the Labour Party?
How will you justify the creation of a separate fund by trade unions to pursue their political objectives?
Case Study 3
What type of relationship exists between the trades union congress and the labour party?
The Labour Party in Great Britain was formed in 1906, on the initiative of the Social Democratic Federation, the earlier Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Trades Union Congress. From its very inception, a very close and intimate relationship existed between the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress which has continued to provide bulk of the membership and funds of the party even till today. However, there have been differences between the two organizations especially when the Labour Party has been in power. Such differences became more glaring during recent years when the Labour Party came to power for three consecutive terms.
When the Labour Party came into power in 1997 elections, the TUC had expected that the more repressive clauses of the anti-union laws enacted during the preceding Conservative government would either be repealed or modified. In a white paper titled ‘Fairness at Work’, Tony Blair assured to move away from the open union-busting of the previous Tory government towards encouraging union–management collaboration. However, he made it clear that the days of strikes without ballots, mass-picketing, closed shop and secondary action were over. Finding that the Labour government did not do much, the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party including the TUC entered into an agreement with the party known as ‘Warwick Agreement’ in 2004 in which the Labour Party made a number of commitments to be implemented during its regime. The Labour government has been trying to implement some of the important commitments, but has been facing many difficulties even in implementing these.
What prompted the Trades Union Congress to establish a close relationship with the Labour Party?
According to you, what could be the reasons for differences between the Trades Union Congress and the Labour government?
Why is the Labour government not able to implement all the commitments made under the Warwick Agreement?
Why was the Conservative government hostile to the Trades Union Congress?
Why did Tony Blair declare that days of strikes without ballots, mass-picketing, closed shops and secondary action were over?