Trade unions in the United Kingdom

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A rally by UNISON in support of better terms and conditions of work for their members

Trade unions in the United Kingdom were first decriminalised under the recommendation of a Royal Commission in 1867, which agreed that the establishment of the organisations was to the advantage of both employers and employees. Legalised in 1871, the Trade Union Movement sought to reform socio-economic conditions for working men in British industries, and the Unions' search for this led to the creation of a Labour Representation Committee which effectively formed the basis for today's Labour Party, which still has extensive links with the Trade Union Movement in Britain. Margaret Thatcher's governments weakened the powers of the unions in the 1980s, in particular by making it more difficult to strike legally, and some within the British trades union movement criticised Tony Blair's Labour government for not reversing some of Thatcher's changes. Most British unions are members of the TUC, the Trades Union Congress (founded in 1867), or where appropriate, the Scottish Trades Union Congress or the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which are the country's principal national trade union centres.

Membership declined steeply in the 1980s and 1990s, falling from 13 million in 1979 to around 7.3 million in 2000. In September 2012 union membership dropped below 6 million for the first time since the 1940s.[1]


Trade unions in the United Kingdom
National trade union organization(s)
National government agency(ies)
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Primary trade union legislation
Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992

Trade union membership

7.3 million

International Labour Organization

The United Kingdom is a member of the ILO

Convention ratification
Freedom of Association 27 June 1949
Right to Organise 30 June 1950

Unions in Britain were subject to often severe repression until 1824, but were already widespread in cities such as London. Trade unions were legalized in 1824, where growing numbers of factory workers joined these associations in their efforts to achieve better wages and working conditions. Workplace militancy had also manifested itself as Luddism and had been prominent in struggles such as the 1820 Rising in Scotland, in which 60,000 workers went on a general strike, which was soon crushed. From 1830 on, attempts were made to set up national general unions, most notably Robert Owen's Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, which attracted a range of socialists from Owenites to revolutionaries. That organisation played a part in the protests after the Tolpuddle Martyrs' case, but soon collapsed.

An important development of the trade union movement in Wales was the Merthyr Rising in May 1831 where coal and steel workers employed by the powerful Crawshay family took to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil, calling for reform, protesting against the lowering of their wages and general unemployment. Gradually the protest spread to nearby industrial towns and villages and by the end of May the whole area was in rebellion, and for the first time in the world the red flag of revolution was flown - which has since been adopted internationally by the trades union movement and socialist groups generally.

In the later 1830s and 1840s, trade unionism was overshadowed, to some extent, by political activity. Of particular importance was Chartism, the aims of which were supported by most socialists, although none appear to have played leading roles.

More permanent trade unions were established from the 1850s, better resourced but often less radical. The London Trades Council was founded in 1860, and the Sheffield Outrages spurred the establishment of the Trades Union Congress in 1868. The legal status of trade unions in the United Kingdom was established by a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867, which agreed that the establishment of the organisations was to the advantage of both employers and employees. Unions were legalised in 1871.

In Principles of Political Economy (1871) John Stuart Mill expressed some of the more liberal sentiment towards unions of the time.

"If it were possible for the working classes, by combining among themselves, to raise or keep up the general rate of wages, it needs hardly be said that this would be a thing not to be punished, but to be welcomed and rejoiced at. Unfortunately the effect is quite beyond attainment by such means. The multitudes who compose the working class are too numerous and too widely scattered to combine at all, much more to combine effectually. If they could do so, they might doubtless succeed in diminishing the hours of labour, and obtaining the same wages for less work. They would also have a limited power of obtaining, by combination, an increase of general wages at the expense of profits."[2]

The strongest unions of the mid-Victorian period were unions of skilled workers such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers workers. Trade unionism amongst semi-skilled and unskilled workers made little progress until the emergence of the New Unions in the late 1880s. Unions played a prominent role in the creation of the Labour Representation Committee which effectively formed the basis for today's Labour Party, which still has extensive links with the trade union movement in Britain.

The years 1910–14 witnessed serious industrial unrest and an enormous increase in trade union membership, which affected all industries, though to differing extents. World War I resulted in a further increase in union membership, as well as widespread recognition of unions and their increased involvement in management.

The 1926 United Kingdom general strike was declared by the Trades Union Congress in defence of the pay and conditions of coal miners. After a nine-day industrial dispute, two unions took the TUC to court to prevent them being called out on strike. The subsequent court decision, the so-called Astbury judgement, ruled the general strike illegal. The ruling forced the TUC to capitulate as it resulted in the TUC being directly liable for huge fines from employers, and simultaneously gave the government the ability to confiscate all union funds. Ultimately many miners returned to work, and were forced to accept longer hours and lower pay. Additionally, in 1927 the government passed sweeping anti-union legislation under the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This imposed major curbs on union power, including outlawing sympathetic strikes and mass picketing, and ensuring that civil service unions were banned from affiliating with the TUC.

Major strike action by British unions during the 1978–1979 Winter of Discontent contributed to the downfall of the Labour government of James Callaghan. Callaghan, himself a trade-unionist, had previously appealed for unions to exercise pay restraint, as part of the British Government's policies at the time to try to curb rampant inflation. His attempt to try to limit unions to a 5% pay rise led to widespread official and unofficial strikes across the country during the winter of that year. Official and unofficial strike action by lorry drivers, rail workers, nurses and ambulance drivers precipitated a feeling of crisis in the country. The effects of the union action caused a major swing in voting intention. In November 1978, a Gallup poll suggested a 5% Labour lead in the opinion polls. Following the union action that Winter, in February 1979, the Conservatives had a 20% lead.

When Jim Callaghan's government lost a vote of no confidence, Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives swept to victory in the subsequent general election and introduced new union laws in part to combat the industrial unrest that had plagued the previous Wilson and Callaghan governments. These reforms saw the miners defeated during their strike of 1984/85, when a 12-month strike was called by NUM leader Arthur Scargill in protest against proposed pit closures. More than 6,000 printing workers went on strike in 1986 in the Wapping dispute, for what they and their union saw as "unacceptable" terms of employment for jobs at The Sun newspaper's new HQ in Wapping. They too lost their case.

A number of unions founded the Unity Trust Bank in 1984, largely to provide banking services to unions.


See also: UK labour law

Much like corporations,[3] until the Combination Act 1825 trade unions were regarded as criminal, and were regarded as quasi legal organisations, subjected to the restraint of trade doctrine, until the Trade Union Act 1871. This Act abolished common law restrictions, but took an abstentionist stance to unions internal affairs. The Trade Disputes Act 1906 exempted trade-union funds from liability in action for damages for torts, and this freedom gave future union pickets a great deal of power.

Democratic organisation[edit]

The principle that the common law enforced a union's own rules, and that unions were free to arrange their affairs is reflected in the ILO Freedom of Association Convention, and article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, subject to the requirement that regulations "necessary in a democratic society" may be imposed. Unions must have an executive body and that executive must, under TULRCA 1992 sections 46 to 56, be elected at least every five years, directly in a secret, equal postal vote of union members.

Union constitutions[edit]

The structure of the unions were based in contract and the rights of members depended on being able to show some proprietary interest to be specifically enforced.[4] This meant that the express terms of the union rule book can, like any contract, be supplemented with implied terms by the courts as strictly necessary to reflect the reasonable expectations of the parties,[5] for instance, by implying the Electoral Reform Service's guidance to say what happens in a tie break situation during an election when the union rules are silent.[6] If there are irregular occurrences in the affairs of the union, for instance if negligence or mismanagement is not alleged and a majority could vote on the issue to forgive them, then members have no individual rights to contest executive decision making.[7] However, if a union's leadership acts ultra vires, beyond its powers set out in the union constitution, if the alleged wrongdoers are in control, if a special supra-majority procedure is flouted, or a member's personal right is broken, the members may bring a derivative claim in court to sue or restrain the executive members. So in Edwards v Halliwell[8] a decision of the executive committee of the National Union of Vehicle Builders to increase membership fees, which were set in the constitution and required a ⅔ majority vote, was able to be restrained by a claim from individual members because this touched both a personal right under the constitution and flouted a special procedure.

Discipline and expulsion[edit]

Dispute resolution[edit]

Union members' rights[edit]

Unions organisation[edit]

Trade union membership in Britain experienced a serious decline from the time of the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979. Thatcher passed new union legislation,[citation needed] which was largely seen as a direct response to the actions of trade unions during the 1970s, culminating in the Winter of Discontent of the previous year. Union membership declined in the 1980s and most of the 1990s, along with the reduction in size of many traditional industries which had been highly unionized, such as steel, coal, printing, and the docks.[9]

Bridlington Agreement[edit]

Named after the town in East Yorkshire, the Bridlington Agreement governs the transfer of membership between British trade unions, to prevent them from poaching each other's members.

International affiliations[edit]

The ETUC, headed by Wanja Lundby-Wedin until May 2011, is the union federation for 37 European countries, the counterpart for the TUC of the UK and the ITUC internationally.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Moylan (7 September 2012). "Union membership has halved since 1980". BBC. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Principles of Political Economy (1871)Book V, Ch.10, para. 5
  3. ^ See the Bubble Act 1725 and the Combination Act 1799
  4. ^ See Rigby v Connel (1880) 4 Ch D 482 and Lee v Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain [1952] 2 QB 359
  5. ^ See Equitable Life Assurance Society v Hyman [2000] UKHL 39 and AG of Belize v Belize Telecom Ltd [2009] UKPC 10
  6. ^ AB v CD [2001] IRLR 808. See also, Breen v Amalgamated Engineering Union [1971] 2 QB 175, where the dissenting judgment of Lord Denning MR is probably an accurate reflection of the law after Hyman and Belize
  7. ^ See Foss v Harbottle (1843) 67 ER 189
  8. ^ [1950] 2 All ER 1064
  9. ^ graph