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1950-1964 Trade unions and post-war consensus

In 1947 a union official addresses London dockers. In the post-war years efforts were made by the unions to recruit new workers coming into British industry.
In 1947 a union official addresses London dockers. In the post-war years efforts were made by the unions to recruit new workers coming into British industry.
©TopFoto

When the Second World War broke out unions co-operated closely with the government; organising production, target setting and general planning. Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), became Minister of Labour in 1940.
 
In 1945 Labour won its first clear election victory and promised to build a new society in recognition of the contribution of all British people to the war effort. Trade unions benefited from this. The 1927 Trade Union Act (which placed restrictions on the ability of trade unions to strike and picket) was repealed in 1946. Union membership rose to 9.5 million by 1950. The Labour government created a National Health Service and nationalised the coal, rail and docks industries.

In this period trade unions were again at the top of the government's agenda, and as Britain prospered and the number of jobs rose, so did union membership.

Conservative co-operation

The Conservatives had been worried by the size of the Labour victory in 1945 and recognised that they had to take active measures to be seen as friendly towards ordinary working people. Successive Conservative Prime Ministers in this period went to some lengths to consult trade unions on relevant issues. Trade unions were represented on the National Economic Development Council (NEDDY) in 1962 and the National Incomes Commission (NICKY) in 1961.

One of the most striking examples of Conservative co-operation with the unions was when party leaders refused to reinstate the Trade Union Act of 1927 even though many of their own backbench MPs wanted this measure restored.  

In 1960 there were 9.8 million union members. This rose to 11.2 million by 1970 and 12.8 million by 1980. These new members were not in the traditionally unionised industries, but were often in very large unions. Many of them were women, who made up about 30 per cent of union members by 1976.

Decline of industrial relations

After the war the government became an increasingly large employer. One result of this was the formation of two large unions for public sector workers: Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) and the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) were both formed in 1964. There were also an increasing number of white-collar workers forming and joining trade unions. The relationship between government and the unions began to deteriorate in the 1960s, as the rising numbers of union members to a great extent were a response to government policies on prices and wages.

In the 1950s and 1960s Conservative governments, concerned about the slow growth in the British economy, tried to enforce controls on prices and wage freezes. At the same time, government began to look at the legal position of trade unions, particularly the issue of the 'closed shop' - which meant a worker could not be employed in a particular factory or production line unless he was a member of the relevant union.

The legal ruling in case of Rookes v. Barnard challenged the power of the unions in relation to closed shops.
The legal ruling in case of Rookes v. Barnard challenged the power of the unions in relation to closed shops.
©Unite the Union/TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University

The opportunity for the Conservatives to take action on the issue of the closed shop came in a legal judgement in 1964 known as the Rookes vs. Barnard case. A worker called Rookes had been sacked because he had resigned from his union because the union had threatened to strike in support of the 'closed shop'. It was ruled that Rookes was entitled to damages from the union. This decision was potentially very serious for trade unions, making it clear they did not have the protection they had assumed.

The 1964 election of Harold Wilson under Labour pacified union fears. Wilson passed the Trade Disputes Act in 1965 which effectively nullified the Rookes vs Barnard judgement. However, Wilson made it clear to the unions that in return they would have to reform some of their practices. He also appointed a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers Associations (1965 - 1968), with the clear intention of undertaking a major reform of the law regarding unions and their relations with employers.