How British Workers Toppled the Anti-Union Industrial Relations Act

Britain saw a massive wave of collective action in the 1970s as trade unionists opposed a law that limited the right to strike. Revisiting this history provides a blueprint for fighting back against the Tories' anti-union legislation today.

Workers protesting against the Industrial Relations Act in London, 1973. (PA Images via Getty Images)

The postwar story of industrial relations is one of change. Trade union membership was high in the 1950s, and a significant number of those members were Tory voters. When Winston Churchill came back into office in 1951, he took a cautious approach in search of stabilizing the wounded postwar economy. Despite significant but localized unrest in the coalfields and occasional national disputes like the 1953 oil strike and the 1957 bus strike, the industrial landscape remained relatively calm.

The changing social trends and relatively high inflation of the 1960s was reflected in the growth of white-collar and public sector workers’ unions. Industrial action was also increasing, with a growing number of strikes originating from the workplace level. Rank-and-file members in the car industry, for example, with no real propensity for industrial conflict before World War II, caused a marked increase in days lost to strike action.

When the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations — known as the Donovan Commission — was set up in 1965, trade unions were on good terms with the Labour government that had come in the previous year. But by the time the commission gave its findings in the 1968, cracks had begun to show.

Trade unions responded defensively to the increasing political appetite for legislative control of the collective bargaining system, seeing it as a threat to the voluntary spirit that had been fought for over many decades. Frank Cousins, after serving as a minister in Harold Wilson’s government, had resigned in frustration at the plans to freeze incomes and prices in 1966, and returned to his general secretary post of Britain’s largest union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). The cabinet reshuffle that placed Barbara Castle as the new secretary of state for employment in 1968 also saw Ray Gunter, a former Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) official, moved from his position as minister of Labour.

Castle’s plans for industrial relations reform were set out in her 1969 white paper, In Place of Strife. The plans, divisive in the labour movement, would have allowed the government greater control over the bargaining process, including the power to impose ballots and force settlements during interunion disputes. Doubt about the plan’s efficacy from both the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party’ National Executive Committee, along with direct intervention by the TUC’s general secretary, Vic Feather, eventually persuaded Castle and Wilson to water down their plan. But the Conservatives seized on this fissure in the labour movement, widely denounced the failure of the white paper as a sign that the Labour Party could not govern, and in 1970, came back to power.

With trade unions on the defensive, the Tories could attack. They argued that the prevalence of unofficial strike action in the 1960s showed workers were too unruly to be trusted with voluntary arrangements. The actual decline in unofficial strike action toward the end of the decade did nothing to dissuade them; trade unionists were to have their fundamental right to strike controlled and curtailed.

The Tories’ Industrial Relations bill became law in 1971, establishing a National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) with the power to call for ballots in key industries, recommend “cooling off” periods to pause disputes, and the ability to fine trade unions for “unfair” practices. The rights of the closed shop were severely curtailed, with a new emphasis placed on individual choice. On top of that, trade unions would be required to register with the new Register of Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations.

Opposition to this plan was decisive and swift.

There were widespread calls for a general strike to be scheduled for December 8, 1970 to coincide with the publication of the bill, and despite the TUC’s stance against it, the threat of victimization and dismissal by employers did not stop some unions organizing unofficial protest strikes to signal their opposition to the new law.

The TUC went ahead with organizing rallies as well as numerous regional conferences to discuss their plans for resistance. But after being severely heckled at a TUC anti-bill rally in January 1971, Feather realized that the grassroots would not be content with hand-wringing. Trade union members demanded action.

The TUC’s anti-bill demo in Hyde Park the following month was widely reported to be peaceful and jubilant, with no arrests made. Marchers chanted, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want the Tory law!” as they moved en masse from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. Feather told the crowd, “All of us know what this bill is for. It is to strengthen the power of the employers and to weaken the hands of the working people and to cripple the trade unions.”

The TUC made resolutions at a conference a month later to instruct unions to boycott the NIRC and the registration requirement entirely. If the unions refused to register, how could the NIRC have any power? It also promised to financially support any unions that were fined as result of their noncompliance order.

Of course, the instruction for noncompliance was not heeded by all. A total of thirty-two unions, representing less than 5 percent of Britain’s trade unionists, either registered or refused to de-register once the TUC’s instructions were given. Thirteen of these eventually joined the TUC majority and de-registered, but those that still refused were expelled from the TUC two years later.

The widespread agreement not to register nonetheless became the central focal point of resistance. The Act was certainly not leading to the peaceful industrial outlook that the Conservatives had promised the electorate.

As the TUC expected from the outset, the real test was in the courts. In April 1972, TGWU dock workers were accused of “blacking” (refusing to work on) Heatons Transport Ltd lorries in Liverpool, and were first fined £5,000 for the offense by the NIRC. The TGWU ignored the fine, so were slapped with a further £50,000 fine for their obstinance.

Other court cases exposed further flaws in the government’s plan. A cooling-off period was imposed on the railway unions when they started to work-to-rule for a pay rise. The forced secret ballot that followed revealed a high level of support for the union leadership’s policy. It seemed that organized workers were more united than ever. The secret ballot and the cooling-off period were never imposed again.

The ultimate challenge to the faltering legislation came from the “glorious summer” of strikes in 1972. The first national miners’ strike since 1926 began earlier in the year, and saw Prime Minister Ted Heath forced to impose a three-day week once the National Union of Mineworkers moved to disrupt the movement of fuel. The first and only building workers’ strike took inspiration from the “flying pickets” of the miners, and as workers traveled from site to site to spread the message of solidarity and collective action, grew to two hundred thousand on strike. The establishment countered with the arrest and prosecution of the Shrewsbury 24 five months after the strike ended, illustrating the powerful forces workers were still up against.

The Pentonville Five — five dockers arrested on July 21, 1972 after refusing an order to stop blacking the Midland Cold Storage Depot in Stratford — also squared up to the legal challenge to their fundamental right to withdraw their labor. It was their arrest that caused the immediate nationwide strike of 170,000 dockers, with thousands of workers from other unions joining a mass march toward Pentonville Prison where Bernie Steer, Derek Watkins, Tony Merrick, Conny Clancy, and Vic Turner were being held. Demonstrators at the prison commandeered two buses and a freight semitruck to blockade its entrance.

The TUC threatened to call out almost twelve million trade union members on a twenty-four-hour general strike at the end of July, leading to the release of the Five after only four days. The Industrial Relations Act was scrapped once Wilson regained power the following year.

In the years since 1972, anti–trade union laws have been instituted that dwarf the implications of the Industrial Relations Act. Margaret Thatcher’s war on the labor movement, in particular, achieved its desired results. With when and why workers can strike now tightly controlled, trade union membership is at a historic low, and the consequences are evident in a growing proportion of the public struggling to heat their homes and put food on the table.

But the last twelve months have seen organized labour stirring from its slumber. The year 2022 saw the most days lost to strikes in thirty years; workers across the economy are taking action to demand better wages, fairer conditions, more reliable public services. Just as it was rank-and-file pressure that drove the response to and eventual defeat of the Industrial Relations Act, it’s the anger of working people against the bosses and ministers that refuse to listen to them that’s driving this revived pushback.

To say workers are channeling the spirit of fifty years ago might be getting ahead of ourselves. But once more, a government is responding to an assertive trade union movement with an attempt to clamp down on the bodies that represent them — an attempt that this time might render the right to strike ineffective altogether. It’s up to us to make sure that once more, the fightback is more than they bargained for.