How successfully did Margaret Thatcher deal with industrial relations?
Thatcher aimed to hinder the power that the trade unions had over industry in Britain and the legal power they held over the government. Thatcher inaugurated legislation as a means of diminishing the power of the unions. These laws were implemented with the intent of ending their restrictive practises and high labour costs in an attempt to make British firms more competitive, as previously business had been given to overseas companies in favour of their lower labour costs. In that respect Thatcher was largely successful. It was her legislation which greatly limited the legal power of the unions and her economic policy which significantly reduced the numerical power of the trade unions. Thatcher’s policies on industrial relations eventually lead to de-unionisation and despite the criticism of her policies regarding the miners’ strikes in 1984 Thatcher dealt with industrial relations significantly more successfully than her predecessors.
Thatcher enacted legislation that limited the power of the trade unions gradually, this gradual introduction of new laws on industrial relations rendered the trade unions increasingly less effective. Thatcher ensured trade unions would be unable to control government as they had with Heath and Callaghan. In 1971 the Industrial Relations Act, which was later repealed, imposed all of the measures necessary to restrict unions in a single act therefore making it easier for the trade unions to mobilise their opposition to the act. In lieu of this Thatcher opted instead for a piecemeal strategy, whereby she introduced measures that restricted trade unions stage by stage. The Employment Act of 1980 outlawed flying pickets and increased the rights of individual workers who refused to join unions. By outlawing secondary picketing Thatcher limited the number of strikes and also limits how workers in unions are able to strike, the Employment Act meant strikers were no longer able to dissuade of prevent non-striking workers and supplies from entering the place of work, thus rendering secondary picketing a less effective and less persuasive means of protest as the law ensures work may continue relatively unhindered by strike action from unions. The increasing of rights for workers who did not belong to a union not only discouraged workers from joining a union to begin with but encouraged workers to leave their unions in favour of more individual rights, this divided the workforce and created tensions between unions and workers. The divisions workers and the lack of unity between the unions weakened their position in government, Thatchers legislation was working to successfully restrict their practises and decreased the validity of strike action from unions. Following this, the Employment Act of 1982 made balloting before a strike a legal obligation which unions and companies had to uphold, meaning the democratic process within a union had the power to stop a strike before it started. The same act restricted sympathy strikes and only allowed the closed shop if 85% were in support of the strike. These ballots only highlighted the growing disparity between unions and workers and worked to decrease the number of working days lost to strikes per year. The decline in number of strikes validates Thatchers legislation as it effectively restricts strike action from the unions, providing further proof that government policy under Thatcher was successful at diminishing union power. The sacking of anyone for not joining a union was made a criminal offence and those who were unfairly sacked were entitled to high rates of compensation, this new law only furthered the divide between unions and workers. It was the lack of unity between workers that weakened the position and legal power of unions significantly as strikes became less effective if only a portion of the workforce was on strike. Thatcher’s restrictive measures were put in place to not only limit the number of strikes but to effectively end them all together. The Trade Union Act of 1984 made secret ballots before a strike a legal requirement, thus the number of strikes fell dramatically to 4.2 million a year as the secret ballot allowed for fair and democratic votes within unions as workers no longer felt under pressure to conform to the view of their peers or their unions. Thatcher’s legislation was a significant success for her in terms of industrial relations, as by 1990 the number of working days lost to strikes decreased by a significant amount proving that Thatcher's policies had undoubtedly been successful in limiting the power of trade unions and reforming industrial relations within Britain.
Under Thatcher’s economic policies de-unionisation occurred at an accelerated pace than it had in the years prior. It was Thatcher’s economic policies that accelerated social and economic change within the unions however, those changes had been affecting the trade unions since the 1960’s. So Thatcher’s policies albeit effective were not necessarily wholly successful at limiting the power of the trade unions. Union membership had fallen from over 13 million in 1980 to below under 10 million three years later, the dramatic fall in union membership made it increasingly difficult for unions to mobilise effective strike action. However, it is disputed as to what caused the rapid decline in union membership between the years 1980 and 1983. Some argue the calming effect on industrial relations was a direct cause of Tory policy and while Thatcher’s policies certainly contributed to the neutralisation of the trade unions it may also be attributed to other factors such as mass unemployment or the growing economic crisis in Britain at the time. By 1983 Britain had lost 25% of its manufacturing capacity, such a large loss was incredibly damaging to the economy which was already in a state of crisis the resultant increase in the levels of unemployment also significantly dettered strike action as workers were less willing to strike knowing that they would be easily replaced by another worker from the large pool of unemployed. Workers were afraid to strike out of fear they too would be made unemployed and in the state of the economy finding more work would be extremely difficult, this only further weakened the unions as they were incapable of mobilising effective opposition. Despite these factors it was ultimately Thatcher's restrictive policies that were most effective as her policies on industrial relations accelerated change within the unions, and under Thatcher union membership plummeted considerable. However, at this time Thatcher’s policies were not the sole factor in the eroding of union power as the economic crisis in Britain at the time was also a contributing factor in the decline in union power and popularity.
The miners’ strikes of 1984-85 witnessed a significant success for the Conservatives, their previous legislation and defeat of the miners’ rendered unions powerless and from that point on trade unions ceased to be a serious threat to any government. Between the years 1983-84 the National Coal Board was facing a loss of £250 million, in order to prove that the government was serious about refusing to support nationalised industries that were running on a loss a pit-closure programme was essential. Thatcher knew that the dispute that would ensue would be damning for the Conservative if they neglected to make adequate preparations. The closures of twenty uneconomic pits and the loss of 20,000 jobs would inevitably provoke opposition from powerful mining unions that had successfully defeated the Heath government in 1972, however when the strikes began in March 1984 Thatcher and the Conservative government had already planned meticulously and thus were able to defeat the miners’. In 1981 a secret Whitehall committee was set up to oversee the stockpiling of coal so that power stations were able to be maintained throughout a long dispute. The Central Electricity Board also built up large stocks of oil and coal in the power stations so in the event of a prolonged dispute they were able to continue generating power, rendering strikes virtually useless as any leverage they had over the government had been diminished. Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, set up a National Reporting Centre in New Scotland Yard immediately after the strikes commenced, this was to ensure central control of policing, coordinating intelligence and the movement of police officers to trouble spots so that any violent opposition from the miners’ would be effectively put to a stop. The miners’ were not united, those who wanted to continue working formed a break-way union-- the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. However, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers received little support, the Labour party and the public were reluctant to support NUM as their leader, Arthur Scargill, was widely accepted to be an extremist. Whilst there was sympathy for the mineworkers violence on the picket lines undermined the support and sympathy of the British public however, in the face of this violence the government was prepared to use considerable force to protect the rights of miners who wanted to work and was not swayed by the unrest and violence exhibited by strikers. The Conservative defeat of the miners’ strikes was sealed when Arthur Scargill refused to hold a national ballot of miners on whether to continue strike action. This deprived the strikes of any legal legitimacy. Thatcher met the miners’ strikes of 1984 with careful preparation, it was the preparations made in the case of prolonged strikes and confrontation with powerful miners unions that ensured a Conservative victory against the unions and if not for those measures taken under Thatcher the miners may have been successful in 1984 as they had under the Heath government in 1972. Thatcher was successful at ending the miners’ strikes and ensuring that the trade unions ceased to be a serious threat to government.
Thatcher successfully eroded the power of the trade unions and succeeded with her aim of de-unionisation. However, the weakness of her opposition may also be ascribed as a contributing factor to that success. The miners’ were a weak opponent to Thatcher as the miners were not united, those who did not want to strike formed the breakaway unions-- the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. This served as proof that the miners were divided and thus were not as powerful as they had been in the strikes of 1972 when they took action against the Heath government. The miners’ strikes began in March, the miners’ had neglected the fact that the demand for coal was lessened in the spring and summer time. Thus they lost their most valuable leverage that they had over the government, this was a mistake on the miners’ part as it was detrimental to the effectiveness of the strikes as the government was less likely to negotiate with the miners who were on strike as the need for coal was not an important factor. The National Union Mineworkers, lead by Arthur Scargill, received little sympathy or support from the public as Scargill was widely accepted to be and extremist. The Labour party was also reluctant to show public support for NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) without this support the union was weakened and became an easier opponent for Thatcher to defeat. Also, the violence on the picket lines undermined public support and sympathy for the miners, the miners’ essentially had very little to support their cause and once again they appeared weak, these weaknesses Thatcher would take advantage of to end the strikes. Scargill also refused to hold a national ballot to decide whether strike action should continue, depriving the strikes of legal legitimacy and isolated many of the mineworkers. Thatcher's policies regarding the miners’ strikes were met with criticism from the public. Many believed that she had wantonly destroyed the lives of many miners and historic communities, many never recovered after the miners’ strikes of 1984. However, to Thatcher’s supporters the miners’ strikes were an undisputed success in terms of forcing the miners to accept that much of the industry was unsustainable and demonstrating that the union power could not be used to defeat that government. In this respect Thatcher could also be considered a success in diminishing the power of the trade unions and ensuring they would cease to be able to control future governments, however, the weakness to the opposition she faced must also be taken into consideration.
In conclusion, Thatcher was successful in dealing with industrial relations. Thatcher aimed to diminish the power of the trade unions and end their ability to control the government. Through her successful legislation and the defeat of the miners strikes in 1984 Thatcher proved successful by fulfilling her aims and effectively de-unionising the industry.