The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Trade Unions

Category: Politics

In nearly all industries and occupations some workers (and in some industries nearly all workers) are organized into trade unions. They have grown up gradually and independently over many years and, consequently, their form and organization vary considerably, as do their traditions. Trade unions may be organized either by occupation (for example, they may recruit clerks or fitters wherever employed) or by industry. Some are based on a combination of both principles.

In the past in some firms membership of the relevant trade union was required by agreement between the employer and union (‘closed shops’). This principle was abolished by the Conservative government. The total membership of British trade unions is 11.1 million. There are about 480 unions, but nearly 80 per cent of all trade unionists were in the 26 largest unions, each with a membership of 100,000 or over, while only 0.6 per cent were in the 263 smallest unions with under 1,000 members each. In Britain the national centre of the trade union movement is the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was founded in 1868. The TUC’s objects are to promote the interests of the affiliated organizations and to improve the economic and social conditions of working people. Its affiliated membership comprises 108 trade unions which together represent about 10 mln work-people. The TUC deals with all general questions which concern trade unions both nationally and internationally and gives assistance on questions relating to particular trades or industries. The annual Congress convenes in September to discuss matters of concern to trade unionists and to employees in general. It elects a General Council which represents it between Congresses and is responsible for carrying out Congress decisions watching economic and social developments, providing educational and advisory services to unions and presenting to the government the trade union viewpoint on economic, social and industrial issues.

When the Conservative party came to power in 1979 it, in full conformity with the interests of ‘big business’ began to carry out an anti-working class policy aimed at neutralizing trade union activities. Within this context the Conservative government passed through Parliament two employment acts in 1980 and 1982 and in 1984 the anti-trades union act. These acts were an open challenge to the whole trade union movement.

According to the first two acts political strikes were banned, as well as solidarity strikes. Picketing was also limited. The ‘closed shop’ principle which required that all workers at a plant or enterprise should be trade union members was also abolished. The latter was intended to hinder trade union activity. The 1984 Trades Union Act gave the government a free hand to intervene in the internal life of trade unions. The Act demanded a secret ballot by mail of every trade unionist on matters related to starting or prolonging a strike. Such a move was intended to break up trade union solidarity and nullify decisions taken by general meetings of trade unionists. Another act was set to deprive the workers of elementary labour rights, in particular, it entails prohibiting financial support rendered by one union to another involved in a labour dispute. The 119th Trades Union Congress held in 1987 unanimously condemned the moves of the Tory government stating that with their adoption labour conditions in Britain would become inferior to those existing in other West-European countries. Despite such adverse conditions aggravated by a hostile political, economic and psychological climate created by the capitalist mass media and mass unemployment the trade unions vigorously reject government policies and are bent to challenge the onslaught of the monopolies and the Tory government.

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