Trade union organisation

Jobs for Youth


By Roger Undy, University of Oxford


Between 1945 and 1995 the British trade union movement experienced a series of "highs and lows"; membership grew and declined, and there were associated shifts in unions` bargaining power vis a vis employers and in the influence exercised over Governments. These changes in unions` fortunes will be discussed by reference to three distinct periods:

- 1946 to 1969: Relative Stability;
- 1969 to 1979: Radical Growth and Strikes;
- 1979 to 1995: Radical Decline and Re-Organization.

Three themes will be explored in each period:

- Changes in Unions` Job Territories;
- Key Changes in the British Unions` Context;
- Unions` Organizational and Internal reforms.

Throughout all three periods, but not examined in any detail, unions continued to meet their individual members` "bread and butter" interests by:

- supporting members in disciplinary hearings;
- processing members` grievances;
- protecting members against discrimination;
- providing, legal aid and representation at Industrial Tribunals;
- offering a wide range of Educational Services via the individual union and the TUC;
- providing a range of friendly benefits.

In addition most unions sought to exercise political influence over such issues as labour legislation and economic policy through affiliation to the TUC and in many, but not all cases, affiliation to the Labour Party.




In 1946 British union membership stood just under 9million and the percentage (or density) of those eligible to join trade unions was 43%. This was a significant rise in density compared to 39% in 1945 reflecting male workers leaving the armed forces and entering employment following the end of the Second World War.

The 9million members recorded in 1946 was significantly higher than the pre-war figure of almost 6million members. After 1946 membership grew steadily to almost 10 million in 1969, but because the total workforce was also expanding, union density only increased by 1% over 23 years (44% 1969).

An important shift in unions` gender mix started in the 1950s; in this period there was significant growth in female unionisation. In 1946 some 1.6 million members were unionised (density 24%) but by 1969 this had risen to 2.5 million and 29% density. Further, at the same time, the unionisation of white collar workers started to increase gradually reaching some 34% in 1969.

Unions` job territories, during this period, were normally defined by reference to a union being either a craft, industrial or general union. However, such boundaries were not static. Over time changes in labour markets, occupations, technological change and other external factors reshaped unions territories and blurred union boundaries. The result was to encourage former craft and general unions, in particular, to recruit competitively for members, sometimes without much regard for other unions` job boundaries.


The TUC had almost 7million members in 1945 and over 9million in 1969. The number of unions affiliated to the TUC fell over the period from 188 in 1947 to 142 in 1969. The latter change was largely caused by the closing or merging of many very small unions and was largely driven by a loss of members and associated financial difficulties. Also there were in the early years a small number of amalgamations brokered by the TUC in an attempt to rationalise union structure around its "industrial unionism" model.

Ideally, if the TUC could have persuaded its affiliated unions to adopt fully the industrial union model, its members would have been re-allocated to a small number of industrial unions; each of which would have been responsible for recruiting and representing all workers in their designated industry. However, changes in the labour market in the 1940s and 1950s raised serious questions regarding such a proposition as the former craft unions (particularly the Engineers) and the two leading general worker unions increased their share of the TUC`s members. Moreover, by 1969, when the new white collar unions had also established a strong presence in the private sector, alongside the Engineers and the two large general workers, the TUC`s industrial unions were becoming less influential. Hence, conversion to the industrial union model was no longer a feasible prospect and the trend towards a concentration of the TUC`s members into a small number of very large and competing unions was established.

Ironically, at the start of the period when the TUC was asked to help resurrect Germany's trade unions, it successfully promoted and helped implement the same industrial union model. This restructuring stood the test of time and was frequently and favourably compared, in the period to 1995, with Britain's more complex union structure.



Britain's deteriorating economic position, including a series of balance of payments crises, caused both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to address the associated issues of inflation and union bargaining power. But, crucially at this stage, such issues were not addressed in a spirit of anti-unionism; the leaders of both parties accepted that trade unions were an essential part of Britain's social fabric. Furthermore, both parties were still committed to maintaining full employment.

As the economic problems worsened, however, both parties were by the mid 1960s, ready to abandon their laissez faire approach to collective bargaining in order to restrain wage cost inflation. At this point, following minor attempts at pay restraint in the 1940s and early 1960s, incomes policy became the policy of choice. The Labour Government in 1965 introduced the most comprehensive approach so far to the problem of wage based inflation with its "Prices and Incomes Policy". The TUC`s General Council initially fully endorsed this policy, but in 1969, after several of its affiliated unions found serious fault with some of the Prices and Incomes Boards decisions and called for a return to free collective bargaining, the TUC itself called for the repeal of the Prices and Incomes Act.


As regards union bargaining power and associated strike action; the Labour Government in 1965 established a "Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers Associations" which produced a seminal study "The Donovan Report" in 1968. This helped inform the Labour Government's 1969 White Paper, "In Place of Strife". This extremely controversial paper sought to solve the rapidly growing problem of inter-union disputes and the rise in strikes by largely procedural means. For example, it sought to impose cooling off periods if strikes were not called according to the relevant procedures. However, it also included a number of penalty clauses including threatening to fine unions for not complying with the proposed Act.

The combined highly vocal opposition of trade unions and back bench Labour MPs was such that the Bill was radically amended to make it more acceptable to the trade unions. A compromise agreement was also struck with the TUC`s General Council for it to police inter-union disputes and unconstitutional strikes. But the new, more union friendly, Bill never made it into law as Labour lost the 1970 General Election.



The TUC had a "good war". It emerged from the conflict as a national and political force. Such was its standing that it appeared, at least for the immediate future, to be assured of a central role in the re-building of Britain's economy. Its political influence was, of course, particularly strong in the post war Labour Government.

The nationalisation of major industries under the Labour Government also led to trade unions being given new representative and bargaining rights. Questions regarding "industrial democracy" and a stronger role for unions in the remaining private sector were also explored. What was termed the "Junta", a small group of leading and moderate trade union leaders, played the leading role in determining TUC policy and in building and maintaining close and positive working relationships with the new Labour Government. To some extent the Junta also prevented the more militant wing of the labour movement, which was coming under the influence of the Communist Party, from gaining ground within their own unions and within the TUC.

As well as walking the corridors of power between 1945 and 1969 the TUC was also concerned with internal reforms. In particular as regards organizing issues it was for most of this period looking to reduce in an orderly fashion the number of unions. This was, in turn, expected to reduce inter-union disputes over job territory, particularly if a reduction in numbers was achieved via mergers of competing unions.

In 1964 it successful persuaded the new Labour Government to ease the legal restrictions on union mergers. As a result unions could from then on merge by a transfer rather than, as in the previous years, be required to negotiate a full scale amalgamation. The key difference between transfer and amalgamation was that in a transfer only the minor transferring union had to ballot its members, whereas in an amalgamation both sets of members had to be balloted and, usually, come to an agreement on a completely new rule book.

Thus, prior to 1964, the effort and cost of amalgamating could be quite prohibitive for the larger or transferee union. After 1964 the larger unions` administrative and political costs of merging were minimised should a minor union agree to merge via a transfer rather than require an amalgamation. As for the smaller transferring union; this often had no more than a few hundred members and it usually found the minor expenditure involved in balloting its members well worth the price of securing entry to a much more powerful and relatively wealthier union. The result was that a minor legal change contributed significantly over the next four decades to a marked increase in union mergers.

The relaxation of merger restrictions did not however noticeably reduce the number of inter-union disputes. In 1969 the TUC dealt with 62 such disputes, almost six times the disputes it had reported to it in 1946. Also, occasionally such inter-union problems resulted in strike action. Governments of both parties took such internal union squabbles as further evidence that they should find new means of regulating union behaviour.


Individual unions` internal systems of governance had some common features; they all had rule books which described the kind of workers they sought to represent and how the union was managed internally. Normally, they each had an Executive Council and held either Annual or Biennial Conferences. In practice, beyond such common structures, the smaller TUC affiliated unions (92 had 20,000 or less members in 1969), were usually run by a small number of full time officials who dealt with both general policy making and collective bargaining with members` employers.

In contrast most large unions (20 had over 100,000 members in 1969) organized their general policy making and collective bargaining activities into two separate and vertical structures. As for the general policy making structure and processes; these usually functioned in similar fashion to other kinds of representative democracies with, at the top, an elected National Executive (occasionally full time posts but mainly lay members) and a National Conference with elected lay delegates.

However, beyond the common commitment to such democratic national processes unions often varied widely in respect of other formal and informal processes. For example, some elected and some appointed the leading full time officials. In more traditional unions candidates for office had to be existing members of the union. In contrast some of the newer white collar unions appointed their leading officials and invited applications from non-members.

The degree of centralisation of general policy making also varied widely. What was dealt with in one union by national officials might in another be delegated to the regional or district officials. Furthermore, in some unions full time officials at all levels had high degrees of discretion in determining policy issues, while in others such questions were referred to lay committees.

Last, as regards governance, unions` informal decision making processes in the 1960s were also likely to vary. It was not uncommon, for example in the former craft unions, for unofficial factions or caucuses, generally divided on political lines between those close to the Communist Party and the Labour Party, to influence policy making and elections. In contrast, some of the big general worker unions were more accustomed to full time national officials dominating policy debates at National Conferences and playing the central role in determining their successors, often free of any meaningful opposition.

The decision making processes in the collective bargaining channel were becoming both more complex and more devolved in the larger unions in this period. Whitley Councils in the public sector and the notion of "Whitleyism", ie, that each private industry should have a joint industrial council composed of employers and workpeople, was still seen as relevant.

But the trend in the private sector was for British Employers` Associations or Federations, based on different industries, to agree set minimum pay rates and associated dispute procedures with the relevant unions, but not set actual pay rates. Nevertheless, in the 1960s such national agreements still covered a very high proportion of manual workers and about half non-manual workers.

In the private sector there was also underway in the 1960s a critical shift towards more devolved pay bargaining. In this process negotiations by local officials and shop stewards became the norm in large parts of manufacturing industry. The use of piece work payment systems was also prevalent in some parts of manufacturing and it played an important role in determining actual earnings. In part the devolution of pay determination was caused by management searching for an advantage in response to very tight local labour markets, but in a period of incomes policy, it also helped both local unions and employers escape the restrictions which incomes policy sought to impose on pay settlements.

But more significantly, for internal union decision making, devolution resonated with some national union leaders bent on encouraging and empowering the growing shop steward movement. Unfortunately, from the Government's perspective, it also led to more localised disputes over pay. It therefore also contributed significantly to the growth in short and sharp strikes initiated on the shop floor and legitimated by a show of hands vote. As a consequence, just as the TUC found it difficult to hold the incomes policy line with its affiliated unions, so the leaders of its bigger unions eventually found they could not themselves guarantee that the newly enfranchised shop stewards would moderate their own wage claims.


At the start of this period the TUC and the larger unions enjoyed the benefits of a benign if not advantageous environment. This included dealing with Governments of both parties whose leaders still saw trade unions as an essential part of Britain's social fabric. But the failure to restructure unions` job territories and to exercise more influence over its affiliated unions, while not a significant problem in the early part of the period, did start to surface as a problem for the TUC in the mid and late 1960s.

Moreover, there were also signs in the late 1960s that many of the TUC`s larger unions, even if they committed themselves to supporting the TUC`s policy, were also becoming less capable of delivering on their promises. Indeed, as shop steward power became the order of the day, pay negotiations in the private sector started to move out of the reach of the successors of the very union leaders who, at the start of the period, were seen as all powerful union bosses.




Union membership between 1970 and 1979 rose rapidly from almost 11million to nearly 13million or from 47% density to 54% density; record figures for British unions. Moreover, female membership hit 40% density and white collar density 44%.

The Public Sector's disparate organizations, from Health to Education, registered high levels of membership. In 1979 National and Local Government recorded over 70% union density, and in the nationalised industries Coal Mining approached 100% membership.

The Private Sector tended, on average, to have much lower levels of unionisation, apart from such traditionally highly unionised areas as cotton manufacturing and newspaper printing, the latter had close to 100% membership. In sharp contrast in private services union density was only 17% in 1979.


The TUC increased its membership to 12 million members in 1979, a 21% gain in just 10 years. The number of affiliated unions moved in the other direction and fell from 142 in 1969 to 109 in 1979. Thus despite a very marked increase in members between 1969 and 1979 the number of TUC affiliated unions continued to fall at an accelerating rate losing 23% in 10 years as against a fall of 24% over the previous 22 year period (ie 1947 to 1969).

The increase in the TUC`s membership to over 50% was politically very significant and symbolic. The TUC now had a new legitimacy as it represented a majority of the total workforce. Further, as membership expanded into new areas and occupations the job boundaries of long established former exclusive craft unions were changed by new technology. This did nothing to help rationalise unions` job territories and the former craft unions and the general unions continued to compete energetically for their share of a growing unionised workforce. Further, the emergence of strong white collar unions competing against more established private sector unions, added to the number of inter union disputes; in 1979 the number of disputes referred to the TUC was close to 100.

The more growth oriented unions could also enter a new job territory, and avoid clashing with more established unions, via a well targeted merger. This was normally accomplished by the smaller union joining one of the TUC`s largest unions via a transfer which, as noted above, was a new cheaper and more convenient way of merging first introduced in 1964.

As for the continuing fall in the number of TUC affiliated unions (noted above): the reduction was again generally accounted for by the demise, or transfer, of many small unions. Between 1969 and 1979 the number of TUC unions with 20,000 or fewer members fell from 91 to 47. Most of these were specialist unions, often organizing in a specific geographic area or recruiting a particular and rather esoteric trade. Exposed to adverse changes in technology and the local labour market many did not have the financial reserves needed to ride out even short term difficulties.

It was, in contrast, the larger general worker unions which gained most from the overall expansion of membership. In 1979 the two largest general worker unions, mainly recruiting in the Private Sector, accounted in total for some 3million union members, or 25% of the TUC`s total membership. Another 23 relatively large unions, a mixture of ex-craft, public sector, white collar and industrial unions, each had over 100,000 members. Hence the concentration of union members into a relatively small number of unions gathered pace in this period.



Economic and related political factors caused Governments (Conservatives, from 1970 to February 1974, and Labour Party 1974 to 1979) to continue soliciting the TUC`s help in trying to solve the central economic problem of inflation.

In the case of the Conservative Government, which fell in 1974, it largely owed its defeat to its failure to deal effectively with what the electorate saw as an ever more powerful trade union movement.

In brief, the Conservative's incomes policy, in its latter stages, encountered difficulties across several parts of the economy. However, these problems intensified when, faced with a miners` strike which affected the electricity industry, the Conservative Government imposed a three day working week in order to conserve the energy supply. Mr Heath (Prime Minister) then called an election, held in February 1974, and fought it on the issue of who should run the country: the Conservative Government or the trade unions? The electorate answered by electing, albeit by a narrow margin, a Labour Government (which subsequently increased its majority in another election in November 1974).

The incoming Labour Government jettisoned the Conservative's incomes policy, only to replace it in 1975 with the Social Contract: another incomes policy but with a new corporatist label and again negotiated with the TUC. The TUC initially agreed to limit its members` wage increases to the level needed to compensate for the increase in inflation, and to restrict its unions to one wage claim per year.

Various phases of the Social Contract followed, some more testing than others. However, the pressure exerted on living standards became extreme in the late 1970s as inflation at times exceeded 20%. In these dire economic circumstances the TUC found it lacked the authority needed to enforce pay restraint across all its diverse unions. This was not surprising as several of its leading unions similarly found it impossible to impose limits on their own members` pay claims.

Hence, the Social Contract, which in its early phases probably marked the high point of corporatist policies, eventually suffered the same fate as previous incomes policies. In the third year the TUC`s affiliated trade unions withdrew their formal support and called for another return to "free collective bargaining". In the fourth year in 1978-79, the Government, this time without the TUC`s formal support, attempted unsuccessfully to cap wage increases at 5%.


Changes in incomes policies also ran parallel with number of key political initiatives intended to regulate the conduct of industrial relations; first there was the Commission on Industrial Relations, headed by a former TUC General Secretary (George Woodcock); established by the Labour Government just prior to it losing the 1970 General Election. This body, inter alia, and somewhat ambitiously given what was to happen under incomes policy, reasserted the Government's commitment to free collective bargaining as the best method of regulating terms and conditions of employment, including pay.

Further, numerous changes were made to the legislative framework used to regulate industrial relations, including, in summary, the Conservatives` Industrial Relations Act, 1971 (much objected to by the trade unions) and repealed by Labour in 1974. Between 1974 and 1979 Labour then introduced, in contrast to the Conservatives, a series of new trade union and worker rights and created such tripartite bodies as the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service. It also intended, prior to its losing the 1979 election, to introduce legislation to encourage industrial democracy, another high point in the history of corporatism.

Hence, despite major economic and industrial relations problems Governments formed by both Parties from 1969 up to Labour's defeat in 1979 did not diminish the TUC`s role as a social partner or seek to impose a free market solution to its economic and industrial relations problems. Indeed, both shades of Government, but most obviously Labour, brought the TUC and the leading unions into a very close corporatist relationship with Government. This led one commentator and journalist (Robert Taylor) to note that the TUC and its trade unions had become the Fifth Estate, ie, a legitimate member of the body politic and a leading actor influencing the process of Government.



Not surprisingly, given the failure of Governments and unions to agree and implement a successful incomes policy, both Labour and Conservative Governments started to question the efficacy of unions` collective bargaining activities, internal structures and processes of governance. This focus on unions` decision making processes, rather than those of the TUC, was the logical choice. For, it was not that the TUC initially failed to agree a common approach to incomes policy, but that it was incapable of guaranteeing the compliance of its affiliated unions.

At the start of this period there was, in answer to the above problem, an interest in giving agents of the Government a role in determining the means whereby unions called industrial action. For example, in 1969 Labour's "In Place of Strife" recommended that the Secretary of State should have the right to call a ballot of union members in strikes affecting the national interest. Concerns over the procedures used for calling official and unofficial strikes, and the management of inter-union disputes, were also expressed in this period.

As the decade came towards its end, however, the Conservatives` new leaders became less interested in intervening directly in the regulation of industrial action; they may be said to have been persuaded against such an approach by memories of Mr Heath's election defeat following his clash with the coal miners union in 1974. They therefore preferred, in reforming unions` internal processes, to be at arms length from enforcing any such new processes. Their interest therefore switched to regulating union procedures through a framework of law which would moderate union behaviour but be enforced by employers or union members.


The leaders of TUC`s larger unions, at least initially, willingly co-operated with the TUC in the implementation of the Social Contract. Indeed the first phase of the Social Contract was instigated by Jack Jones, the General Secretary of the biggest general workers union. But the direction in which organic, not planned, reform of union structure and decision making had recently taken was inimical to such centrally directed incomes policy decisions. The leadership in the largest general and former craft unions no longer had a monopoly over many such pay claims. It was instead the union's local activists, including shop steward committees, which frequently led the negotiations free of any centrally directed limits on the size of the claim or its timing.

The unions most in favour of the above devolution of powers tended to organize in the private sector. This in itself also had its advantages as they were free of direct Government controls over pay settlements. Perhaps, most importantly, they also negotiated with workplace or firm level managers who were also looking to maintain the kind of pay rates which would help them recruit and retain employees in what were still mainly tight local labour markets. In contrast public sector unions and managers were directly pressured by Government to hold to the limits set by incomes policies whether or not they had been agreed with the TUC.

Regardless of sector, workers saw unions in this period vigorously and successfully defending their members` living standards. Thus, if workers wished to maintain their living standards in such difficult economic times the message was clear: join a union. Further, as union successes in private sector negotiations became ascribed to such factors as; the decentralisation of bargaining; the role played in local negotiations by the thriving shop steward movement; local solidarity; and the concomitant side-lining of full time officials, some union activists, and a number of national union leaders, sought to reform their previously highly centralized unions along similar lines.
On the other hand, the aggressive and successful collective bargaining which delivered pay increases which met or exceeded inflation and radically increased union membership had significant economic and political costs. Most noticeably there was a major economic cost associated with the resulting increase in strikes. Few parts of the economy were spared from strike action between 1974 and 1979. But it was in 1978 and even more so in 1979 that big national and official disputes in the public and private sectors, including national strikes in engineering, damaged the economy. There were also many unofficial strikes in both the private and public sectors. These all added to the total number of strikes but it was the enormous rise in working days lost which was most remarkable. For in 1979, 29 million working days were lost through strikes (the peak number of days lost between 1970 and 1979 was seven million days).

As for political damage it was the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978 to 1979 and in particular two unofficial strikes that exposed both the Labour Government and the trade unions to very adverse press publicity and public outcry.

The first of these was a strike at Ford Motor Company which threatened on its own to destroy the latest 5% phase of incomes policy. It also raised serious questions in both the Labour Government and the Conservative opposition regarding the manner in which the Ford shop stewards called the strikes and organized the show of hands votes; both Parties questioned the democratic nature of such votes.

The second was perhaps even more damaging for both the Government, and subsequently for the trade union movement itself. This was a much smaller and localised unofficial dispute in a local authority. But it became notorious as it was widely reported that trade unions were preventing people from burying their dead.

Following the "Winter of Discontent", the pollsters revealed a growing and substantial majority of the electorate believed trade unions had too much power.


Unfortunately for the trade unions the rise in strike action and the change in the electorates' views of union power coincided with the Labour Government losing a confidence vote in March 1979. Shortly before this, and ominously for the trade unions, Sir Keith Joseph, one of Mrs Thatcher's most influential advisors and leading advocate of "free market" economic policy gave an address to the Bow Group titled "Solving the union problem is the key to Britain's economic recovery".

Thus, Jim Callaghan, Labour's Prime Minister, in not calling an autumn 1978 election, went to the country in 1979, in similar circumstances to his predecessor Ted Heath, ie, with a failed incomes policy, with industrial relation issues centre stage and with strikes fresh in the electorates` mind.




In direct contrast to the rapid growth enjoyed by unions between 1969 and 1979 union membership slumped dramatically between 1979 and 1995. It dropped from a high of 13 million (54% density) in 1979 to 8 million (30% density) in 1995; a fall in membership of 39%.

Female membership which had reached 40% density in 1979 declined to 30% density in 1995. White Collar density also declined (non-manual workers 32% density in 1995).

As for the public sector as a whole it had a density of some 80% in 1979, but had dropped to 62% in 1995. The private sector also declined to 22% density by 1995.


The TUC`s membership declined rather more sharply than aggregated membership dropping from 12 million members in 1979 to seven million members in 1995, a loss of 42%. As membership shrank affiliated unions continued to compete for members, including launching competitive bids to enter previously non-union areas. This generated some inter-union disputes but at a lower level than in the previous period.

The number of unions affiliated to the TUC continued its rapid decline; dropping from 112 in 1979 to 67 in 1995, a 40% fall. This was again mainly due a marked reduction in the number of very small unions affiliated to the TUC. As noted before, such unions were adversely affected by changes in local labour markets and associated financial problems, but in this period such difficulties were exacerbated by the radical and general slump in union membership.

The overall effect on the TUC was to maintain the concentration of the TUC`s members into its largest affiliated unions: in 1995, 13 of the TUC`s 112 unions (one with over a million members, three with more than 500,000 members and eight with more than 100,000 members) accounted for almost 6million or 50% of the TUC`s membership.


The drop in union membership, the associated loss of bargaining power vis a vis employers, and the marked decline in the TUC`s role and influence as the voice of organized labour can be largely explained by reference to the following contextual factors:

- economic and social (including shifts in the labour market);
- political (including labour legislation);
- technological.

It should, however, be noted that the above factors did not affect all unions in the same way. Unions` responses to the new environment varied, inter alia, according to their existing job territories, the initiatives taken by their leaders, their financial resources and the system of internal governance.

For example, unions organizing in the most hostile environment could be forced into quite radical cost cutting exercises and a search for a merger with a more financially secure union. In contrast a union in a more sheltered job territory (probably public sector) could take adopt, at least in the short term, a "business as usual" position and make whatever marginal economies were necessary out of its own resources.


Mrs Thatcher, following her election victory in 1979, turned her back on incomes policies and embraced new liberalism, monetary policy and the deregulation of market forces. Maintaining full employment was hence no longer a high priority.

Such policy changes contributed significantly to an economic recession, rated the worst since 1945. Unemployment reached 3 million in 1984, dropped for a short period only to reach 3 million again in the early 1990s. But this did have the desired effect of helping squeeze high inflation out of the system; by the mid 1990s inflation had settled at one or two percentage points around the target figure of 2.5%.

The above changes in economic policy also interacted with both cyclical and secular shifts in the labour market to compound the unions` problems. These developments particularly disadvantaged trade unions which predominantly recruited male employees; manual workers` jobs in the most heavily unionised parts of manufacturing industry were hit disproportionately hard by the cyclical contractions of the two recessions noted above. Further, secular trends added to the loss of unionised jobs in manufacturing as the "deindustrialisation" of the British economy caused manufacturing to lose jobs at the rate of 3% per annum during all the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

In contrast, between 1990 and 1995, employment in the largely non-unionised private service sector expanded. In short, private services hired more sales assistants, receptionists and hairdressers. Unions had no record of effective recognition in this sector, outside of a few leading employers including the Co-op. Also unions` recruitment of women in general left much to be desired. Thus, as total employment expanded, largely due to women becoming more economically active, so male activity rates declined. By 1990 (similar to 1995) 30% of women were unionised (38% in 1978) and in 1990 male density was 36%, as against 63% in 1978.

Globalisation and increased international competition also contributed to a world wide decline in union membership. In such a changing world it became the norm for Governments concerned with the outflow of jobs to adopt free market ideologies, employ supply side policies and reject corporatism. This, in turn, encouraged employers to threaten to move production to more "flexible" and cheaper countries if faced by industrial action or high wage claims. Unions in Britain and the USA were among the most adversely affected by such world wide economic trends.


Most obviously and critically the Conservative Party won four consecutive general elections between 1979 and 1995. Further, the "Winter of Discontent" gave the incoming Thatcher Government the ideal political platform from which to attack union bargaining power by deregulating the economy (as noted above) and regulating trade unions.

The actions taken by the four Conservative Governments included:

- rejecting corporatism and tripartism;
- traducing trade unions ("the enemy within");
- rejecting the union closed shop;
- restricting picketing;
- banning secondary action;
- imposing postal ballots for the election of union leaders and for the calling of industrial action;
- restricting use of the "check-off" (deduction of union subscriptions by employers).

Most of the above changes were introduced incrementally via seven pieces of legislation passed between 1980 and 1993. These Acts gradually established and then reinforced a new framework of law intended to control and moderate union behaviour.

As regards corporatism; this had since the Second World War and even more so in the 1970s, given the TUC an ever more influential voice in shaping crucial parts of economic policy. The Conservatives, under Mrs Thatcher, strongly objected to giving unions such a role in Government and they moved decisively to restore, as they saw it, the primacy of Parliament.

Over the next 15 years the Conservatives systematically removed the TUC and other trade union representatives from Government bodies and quangos and abolished most related tripartite bodies. By the end of this period the only bodies of any significance which still had any union representation were ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive and Commission.

The TUC, the voice of organized labour, was thus removed from the upper reaches of Government and related bodies. Mrs Thatcher, having previously traduced the trade unions as the "enemy within", had therefore succeeded by the 1990s in dispatching them to the periphery of political life.

The relative effects of the other changes listed above on union membership and influence is open to debate. However, as the legislation stared to bite, the demise of the closed shop and the restrictions on check-off clearly adversely affected unions` abilities to retain and recruit members. Members who lapsed could become free riders, ie, they could continue to benefit from collective agreements without paying union subscriptions; this in turn diminished union income, which in many cases even at the start of this period was already exceeded by union expenditure.

In the mid 1980s and into the 1990s, the laws which restricted unions` bargaining power also encouraged private sector employers to move towards a more individualised form of industrial relations. This including by-passing unions and dealing instead with non-unionised workers` representatives and, in extreme cases, formally derecognising unions. The number of workplaces covered by collective bargaining also shrank radically in the period.

The mass of workers who generally join unions for instrumental reasons, such as individual protection and improvements in terms and conditions of employment, therefore saw unions` bargaining power reduced. Also, employees` pay was no longer in need of union protection against ever rising inflation rates. Hence, employees without any moral or political attachment to unionisation had grounds for re-assessing the costs and benefits of their union subscriptions, and, if found negative, for letting their subscriptions lapse. But, it was probably still the radical economic changes which initially accounted for the marked decline in private sector unionisation.

Finally, the Government as an Employer also made life uncomfortable for unions in the public sector. The civil service handbook was changed to remove a reference that encouraged union membership. The private sector was promoted as the model against which employment practices should be assessed. Moves were also made to emulate private sector human resource practices. But, despite such efforts, the public sector continued to register a relatively high level of union membership; 62% in 1995, well over the private sector's 22% union density.


Changes in technology also helped restructure unions` job territories. For example, over the longer term in engineering, the workforces` division into distinctly different craft unions, ie, electrical, mechanical, foundry, boilermakers and draughtsmen, was difficult, and finally impossible to sustain, as technology changed job boundaries.

In the shorter term there was another more noteworthy and dramatic event, linked to technological change. This occurred in printing between1986 and 1987. It was in this period that News International took advantage of advances in technology, and the competitive nature of British unionism, to break the printing unions` traditional hold over its newspaper production. This was achieved by misleading the print unions as to the purpose of the new printing plant built at Wapping and, when it was finished, by engaging a competitor union, the Electricians to operate critical parts of the new plant. This one event resulted in the dismissal of some 6,500 printing union members in 1986.

Thus technological change contributed to a re-structuring, in particular of craft unions` boundaries, and in the longer run helped push both the engineering and printing unions into mergers.


Under the combined pressure of: the above unexpected and major loss of members; Mrs Thatcher's new radical approach to economic policy and industrial relations; and the associated death of corporatism, this period produced the most notable planned reforms of union organization between 1945 and 1995 including:

- Reforming the TUC;
- Reforming Union Structure and Organization;
- Developing Strategies for Growth.


Immediately after Mrs Thatcher's election victory the TUC launched in 1979 a review of its organization, structure and services; including examining the prospects for trade union membership. This was the first of several reviews. Others followed:

- 1984, "TUC Strategy";
- 1987 to 1989, "The Special Review Body";
- 1994, "Campaigning for Change: A New Era for the TUC".

Prior to the 1983 general election, which gave Mrs Thatcher her second period in office, the TUC and its leading unions appeared to be doing little more than waiting for another Labour Government to be elected. This, it was assumed, would see the TUC restored to its previous status as the accepted and privileged voice of labour. It was only when they realised that their worst fears of Mrs Thatcher's promised regulation of unions were to be enacted that unions started to explore seriously what they could realistically do to survive, if not thrive, under such a regime.

Post the 1983 election, and Labour's poor performance, the TUC`s General Secretary, Len Murray, spelt out in his "New Realism" speech what he saw as the TUC`s new role in the changed political and economic environment. This was the start of a serious re-assessment of the TUC`s future relationship with Government and of unions` organizing policies.

One of the first moves made by the leadership of the TUC was to initiate internal structural reforms. This resulted in the revision of the long standing practice of organising its member unions into trade groups. In 1983 many of the trade groups were no longer coterminous with unions` actual job boundaries. Also, the associated concentration of a high proportion of its members into a few relatively large unions was recognised in an associated internal re-balancing of powers.

The resulting changes allocated seats on the General Council according to the size of the affiliated unions` membership; this restructuring also had the effect of increasing the influence, inside the TUC, of the TUC`s more politically moderate union leaders. This it can be assumed was intended at a time of "New Realism" to help the TUC`s General Secretary carry the General Council with him in pushing through other planned reforms.

Subsequently, looking outwards, the TUC also worked to help restore the unions` standing with the voting public. Politically, with a capital P, it also took its case to the more trade union friendly European Union and Commission. Last, it did not totally give up all hope of a Labour Party victory at some future election. Although not affiliated to the Party itself, it tried to reassure Labour, which was itself becoming wary of being seen as an adjunct of the trade unions, that they still shared common political interests, not least in removing the Conservatives from office at the earliest opportunity.



Rationalising union structure or job boundaries was not something that was readily open to TUC directions or influence. Moreover, after the TUC dropped its long standing commitment to industrial unionism there was no commonly accepted model of union structure which unions could be advised to replicate. Nevertheless, the TUC, as discussed above, was successful in changing the law on mergers in 1964. As a result mergers gathered pace and had a major impact on unions` job territories. Between 1979 and 1995 there were 130 mergers (114 transfers and 16 amalgamations).

Among the 114 transfers were many non-TUC unions. Some of these were partly attracted to such mergers because it brought them within the TUC`s sphere of influence and gave them access to the educational and other services offered by the TUC to its affiliated unions. But these were usually secondary considerations. In the main transferring unions tended to prioritise, in the search for a merger partner, financial security and a high degree of autonomy inside the larger union. They generally gave a lower priority to joining a union located in their own job territory.

In contrast the larger transferee unions frequently gave territorial considerations a higher priority. But this was not necessarily intended to increase the larger union's presence in an existing territory; indeed some of the larger general worker unions and the ex-craft unions dominating these mergers, frequently looked to use incoming transfers to break out into new job territories. The effect of mergers on union structure was thus to extend general unionism.

Thus, union structure in 1995 remained as "unreformed" as it was in 1945. But with a much higher proportion of the TUC`s members concentrated in the large general unions.


Many unions developed an interest in the mid 1980s and 1990s in reforming unions` internal organization or governance. But at the start of the period there was considerable resistance to the Government's legislation including, specifically, opposition to the proposals to impose postal ballots for the calling of strikes and union elections, restrictions on picketing and the outlawing of secondary action.

This early resistance was however broken and the authority of the Government and Courts asserted by the mid-1980s. Two disputes in particular served to demonstrate that the sanctions available to the Courts and Government, including the sequestration of union assets, the use of the criminal law and heavy policing of disputes, would be fully employed to enforce both the law and related Government policy.

The first of these disputes involved the printing unions and the Messenger Newspaper Group. This dispute finished up in the Courts in 1984 after bringing into question just about all the key parts of the new regulations including: strikes; secondary action; violent picketing; and attempts to enforce the closed shop. It also produced the first Court order to sequestrate union funds. The end came when the TUC withdrew its support from what was an unlawful strike and the union purged its contempt.

This dispute clearly signalled to all unions that the new laws would be enforced and sanctions effectively applied if unions did not themselves first comply with the legislation. Further, and perhaps more importantly, it also showed that the TUC would not be organizing any "general strikes" in support of illegal industrial action.

The second key dispute to demonstrate the length the new Government would go to defeat militant unionism was the miners` strike of 1984 to 1985. The leader of the mine workers, Arthur Scargill, in opposing the National Coal Board's programme of pit closures (obviously agreed by the Board with the Conservative Government) attempted to apply similar tactics as those used to defeat Mr Heath's Government in the early 1970s, ie, strikes supported by mass picketing.

In 1984 and 1985, however, the context in which the dispute was played out was significantly different to that of 1974. As regards the political and industrial context: Mrs Thatcher's Government, unlike Mr Heath's in 1974, had just won an election, stock piled reserves of coal and was well prepared to sit out a long dispute. This alone raised questions about the choice of the same negotiating strategy.

In addition the union was not united. The Nottinghamshire miners were not balloted on strike action and continued to work throughout the dispute.

Another major negotiating flaw emerged as the strike became a war of attrition; this was that there appeared to be no willingness on the part of the miners` national leadership to compromise at any stage of the strike; it was to be all out victory or nothing. Hence, the strike became a win -lose dispute, and one which the Government, if its industrial relations policy was not to be destroyed, had to win.

Eventually, after a strike which cost 26million working days and divided mining communities, the miners returned to work and the pit closure programme was subsequently implemented.

As well being a very costly defeat for the mine workers` union it also signalled to all other unions and their members that if the miners, the "vanguard of the proletariat", could not mount a successful strike then other unions had even less chance of winning such disputes.

It was therefore not surprising, following the above two disputes, that unions complied with the legislative changes introduced by the Conservatives. This did not happen over night but by 1995 most if not all unions had adjusted their internal decision making processes to accommodate strike ballots and extended their national leaders` control over the balloting processes.

In effect the legislation bureaucratised and centralised unions` internal decision making, particularly as regards collective bargaining processes. It therefore tended to reverse the trend established in 1969 and 1979 towards the devolution of such decisions to shop stewards and local officials. Amongst other things it stopped shop stewards calling strikes after organizing a show of hands votes at mass meetings and reasserted the national full time official's role in determining strike action.

Following the growth in merger by transfer the larger transferee unions also adopted similar internal governance structures. This resulted in the larger unions organizing members internally into different sectors, occupations, trades, industries or sometimes employer groups. These sections or groups normally gave the incoming or transferring union the degree of autonomy it demanded in pre-merger negotiations. Once established the section could also be expanded to accommodate subsequent incoming unions should they organized in the same job territory.

In 1995 therefore the larger unions had more in common as regards the form of internal structure and processes of decision making than at any other period. This was the result of:

- the new legislative framework;
- the growth of a new union bureaucracy;
- union mergers and particularly transfers;
- the need, in times of financial difficulty, to ensure union efficiency.

It also coincided with a retreat from the more militant days of the 1970s and contributed to a marked reduction in strike activity in the later 1980s and 1990s.


Unions started to realise in the 1980s, and even more so in the 1990s, that no one other than themselves would take action to increase union membership. Moreover, the larger unions had a turnover of around 20% of membership per year. Just standing still therefore required a major recruitment exercise. As most of them also had financial problems any new strategies for growth also needed to be cost effective.

In looking to stem and if possible reverse what looked like an inexorable decline in membership, they developed the following strategies:

- the business union model;
- the partnership model;
- the servicing model;
- the organizing model.

On a continuum from moderate to militant the "business model" had most appeal for the more moderate unions and the "organizing model" for more militant unions. But they were not exclusive. Most unions were pragmatic when it came to recruiting and retaining members and were to some extent influenced by the context in which they operated. No one strategy was therefore rejected out of hand, but some unions did have reservations regarding the use of certain models which ran against their political or ideological preferences.

Associated Narratives: Trade union organisation 2