UK: TIME TABLES - CLASH OF WILLS IN THE WORKPLACE. - In the 1890s, when strikes were first recorded, industrial action was rife. In the 1980s, harsh union-bashing laws came into force. Rhymer Rigby recounts the unions' turbulent history.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In the 1890s, when strikes were first recorded, industrial action was rife. In the 1980s, harsh union-bashing laws came into force. Rhymer Rigby recounts the unions' turbulent history.

As we are probably now well into the last year of Conservative government, it's worth remembering the Tories' achievements.

One has been their unrepentant stomping of the unions. We don't see many strikes nowadays - and yet industrial unrest has a long and often remarkable history in the UK.

Records began in the 1890s, when a series of spectacular strikes got underway centred, as so often subsequently, on the miners. Government action and improved working conditions made for something of a fin-de-siecle hiatus, but, by 1912, industrial action was again in the ascendant.

The outbreak of the First World War merely delayed mounting discontent and with peace came renewed disruption, aggravated by burgeoning union membership and events in Russia.

As the post-war boom ended, things got worse. The coal mines, nationalised during the war, were losing money, prompting their return to former owners who immediately reneged on Government pay agreements. The upshot was a lengthy miners' strike in 1921, with only poor inter-union communication averting a general strike.A few years on, it was the turn of the first Labour government to face the miners. In a heartening show of solidarity with 'its' Government, the TUC tabled an ultimatum, promising to paralyse the coal industry. The Government capitulated and, having bought some time, set about implementing policies to cripple the increasingly truculent unions. In response the TUC staged the biggest single walk-out in British history - the famous 1926 General Strike - which involved over 1.5 million people. That year, a record 162 million working days were lost, although the General Strike accounted for a mere tenth of this total. The remainder was down to the miners who held out long after everyone else.

This was to be organised labour's last grand gesture for quite some time.

The General Strike had ended in bitter defeat, union membership was falling and the Depression meant many were relieved simply to have a job. By 1939 the nation was again at war and, as striking played into the hands of 'the Hun', firm legislative curbs were put in place. These lasted until 1951. But even when they were removed, the '50s and first half of the '60s were a time of relative economic prosperity, when low unemployment and high wage settlements meant there were few strikes.

When the Heath government took power in 1970, it found itself with an inflationary time bomb, a legacy of the years of managerial appeasement of the unions. This it tried to defuse using the ever-popular method of controlling pay. The unions took a rather dim view of this policy and led, again, by the miners, they began a series of strikes that contributed directly to the Tories' downfall in the February 1974 general election.

The next Labour Government, with its 'social contract', was arguably the most union-friendly ever. The Government and TUC worked together - sort of - for a couple of years. But the rapacious inflation and economic stagnation that characterised the mid-and late-1970s made pay restraint increasingly difficult. The 1978/9 'winter of discontent', in which strikes were widespread and prolonged, sounded the death knell for James Callaghan's government.

After more than a decade of workplace strife, the man in the street - unless, of course, he was in the street picketing - was sick to death of strikes. The Conservatives swept to power on a platform promising, among other things, some lordly union-bashing. And, with an integrity few would credit nowadays, they got right down to business, sticking the legislative knife to the unions' underbellies and reining in their familiars, the bloated public sector. But one union wasn't going to take this lying down - in 1984 Arthur Scargill led the miners out on their last great strike, but found more than a match in the Iron Lady. The miners lost a protracted and bitter dispute and provided the Government with the excuse it needed for more 'muzzling' legislation.

We haven't had a really decent strike since. The unions of the '90s are timid creatures who, though they may nip every now and then, are generally a pleasure to have around. Whether they remain this way after the next general election is something nine out of 10 fatcats would do well to worry about.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime