1990s >> 1997 >> no-1120-december-1997

Book Review: ‘British Trade Unions 1945-1995’

Anti-strike record

‘British Trade Unions 1945-1995’, by Chris Wrigley (Manchester University Press, £12.99)

This textbook, aimed at students, is essentially a collection of extracts from trade union, government and Labour and Conservative party documents of the time.

After the war and up until at least the end of the 1960s there was more or less full employment in Britain. This seller’s market for labour power put the unions in a good bargaining position, but under the Attlee post-war Labour government the unions’ leaders chose not to take advantage of this. In fact strikes were illegal under this government which is supposed to have done so much for the working class.

When after 1951 workers, especially at shopfloor level, began to exploit the situation, governments threw their weight behind employers by adopting “pay pauses” and “wage restraint”. At the same time the media launched a campaign against shop stewards as well as in the film I’m All Right Jack with Peter Sellers playing the villain’s role.

In the 60s and 70s the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments were just as bad as the Macmillan and Heath Tory governments. Wilson imposed a legally-binding wage freeze in 1966 and planned to bring in anti-strike legislation as outlined in ‘In Place of Strife’. Heath brought in the notorious Industrial Relations Act under which 5 dockers were sent to jail (and released in the face of mass demonstrations).

Then came Thatcher. Eight separate pieces of anti-strike legislation were introduced over the period 1980-1995—which the present Labour government has no intention of repealing—but this was kicking the unions when they were already down: by 1979 the post-war boom was over and. with unemployment at over one million and rising, the seller’s market for labour power had disappeared.

All this is documented in this book but outside of any theoretical framework. There is no understanding that, while employers generally welcome unions as stable and more or less representative partners with whom to negotiate over the price and conditions of the sale of labour power, because wage-labour is the source of their profits they don’t want things to go too far and that it is the government’s role to help ensure that this does not happen.

Adam Buick

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