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11 January 2023

The long and futile history of British anti-strike law

After centuries of crackdowns, UK workers still walk out – as they always have done.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In 1871 Britain legalised trade unions for the first time by passing the Trade Union Act. That same year, however, its Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawed peaceful attempts to encourage workers to strike. This, according to Rob Sewell’s 2003 book In Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism, was giving with one hand and taking away with another.

You can see Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party doing something similar today. On the one hand, his government plans to pass anti-strike laws that would require public sector services to run minimum levels of provision on strike days (forcing people to work or face the sack). On the other, he is relenting and opening up pay negotiations with unions this week – something he deemed impossible a few days ago.

In a way, this confused approach has characterised the history of anti-strike laws in the UK. And despite crackdown after crackdown, in the first major period of inflation since the Seventies workers are still willing to strike when conditions and pay are poor. Trade union membership in the UK rose four years in a row from 2016-2020.

Since the start of the industrial revolution workers in the UK have withheld their labour in various ways to bargain for better deals. In the 1700s, with 24-hour, seven-day working weeks and children as young as seven enduring harrowing labour, workers would stage “go-slows” and formed (illegal) trade clubs to try to resist, according to Sewell.

The government cracked down with anti-union legislation and brutal repression, yet the trade networks survived and after decades of strikes, conflict and confrontation, anti-union laws were eventually repealed in 1824. Strikes persisted and the new legislation was tweaked a year later to restrict picketing. New unions formed and new sections of the workforce became organised anyway, wrote Sewell. The Chartist movement peaked in the 1830s, leading to a wave of strikes in 1842.

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By the turn of the 20th century the union movement had more than two million members. The first Labour MPs, representing the interests of the labour movement, were elected in 1906. Their presence in parliament contributed to the Trade Disputes Act that year, which protected unions from being sued for damages incurred during a strike.

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Before the First World War the “Great Labour Unrest” saw widespread industrial action, including the first national railway strike in 1911. Shortly after the war, Black Friday in 1921 and the general strike of 1926 contributed to 85.9 million and 162.2 million working days being lost in each year, respectively.

Again, legislation followed. The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927 outlawed “sympathy strikes” and made incitement to participate in an unlawful strike a criminal offence, among other restrictions. Labour repealed it in 1946.

In the Sixties and Seventies, as inflation kicked in, governments of both parties tried to restrict wage growth, Richard Toye, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, notes. Relations broke down and erupted in the first miners’ strike since 1926 in 1972, resulting in electricity generation falling and the government imposing a three-day week. The Winter of Discontent followed in 1978-79 with widespread public sector strikes.

When Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister she brought back the “sympathy strike” ban, in 1980, the first of seven acts of parliament up until 1993 that further restricted trade union action. Unions had to ballot their members to strike from 1984, for example. New rules on funding and limits on picketing also came in. Strike law became stricter, more complex and costly for unions.

New Labour adopted the “key elements” of these reforms, but did introduce more protections in the Employment Relations Act 1999, such as statutory procedures for trade union recognition in companies where a majority of the relevant workforce wanted to unionise.

The unsuccessful miners’ strike of 1984-85 is often seen as the last stand of the British labour movement against increasingly hostile governments. Yet this had never since been tested in a period of significant inflation. The strikes of 2022-23 so far show that even the Thatcherite consensus could not keep unhappy workers down.

“No matter how tough the union laws, workers are likely to turn to action when they believe their living standards are sufficiently threatened,” Toye writes.

Minimum service requirements have their limitations, too. As Ido Vock reports, some other European countries – more associated than Britain with industrial action – have such policies already. They do not necessarily have the desired effect. Compelling workers to come in on a strike day may be particularly difficult to enforce amid Britain’s current labour shortage too. If you sack someone for breaking the rule, who’s going to replace them?

As with recent attempts to legislate against disruptive protest and the arrival of asylum seekers, the government’s latest plan to minimise strikes is unlikely to work in practice.

[See also: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have big gaps to fill]