During the 1950s trade unions became stronger as the British economy boomed. As a result unions were able to push for better wages and working conditions for their members. Inevitably this led to strikes but many were avoided by co-operation between government, employers and unions.
By the mid-1960s there were signs of the political consensus breaking down. In 1963 a court case (Rookes vs. Barnard) seemed to say that unions could not operate a 'closed shop' in which only union members could work in a particular place of employment. This two-page extract shows how the Conservative government of the time was reacting to this case and some of the other issues relating to trade union practices.
Trade Unions and the Law
2. The Cabinet had before them a memorandum by the Minister of Labour (CP. (64) 62) about the desirability of instituting an inquiry into trade union law and practice.
The Minister of Labour said that it had become clear that, as a result of the Motion on the Order Paper of the House of Commons calling for the appointment of a Royal Commission on trade union law and practice and of recent comment on the subject in the Press, the trade unions would be unwilling to co-operate before the general election in any measures directed to establishing a Royal Commission, although, if the Government were returned to power at the election, moderate trade union opinion might be willing to co-operate in an inquiry thereafter. Since it would be unwise to appoint a Royal Commission without the co-operation of the trade unions, the courses now open to the Government appeared to be:
(i) to make no announcement before the election; or
(ii) to undertake in the Election Manifesto that, if a Conservative Government were returned to power, they would set up a Royal Commission soon thereafter; or
(iii) to make an announcement in the near future, on the lines of the draft statement annexed to CP. (64) 62, to the effect that, if the Government were returned to power, they would set up a Royal Commission immediately after the election but that no action would be taken in the meantime and none of the interests concerned would be expected to commit themselves about the attitude which they would adopt in that situation.
It might be difficult to sustain the first course, particularly in the light of the measures which the Government intended to take in relation to monopolies and restrictive practices; and the third course entailed the risk that Left-wing opinion in the trade unions would be given an opportunity, in the interval before the election, to disseminate the view that, if the Government were returned to power, they would seek to weaken the industrial power of the unions. The wisest course, therefore, might be to defer an announcement of the Government's intentions until the Election Manifesto was published, provided that their proposals could be made known privately to their supporters in the meanwhile.
In discussion it was suggested that, since successive Conservative Governments had resisted for a number of years the pressure of their supporters for the appointment of an inquiry into trade union law and practice, a sudden departure from this policy towards the end of the life of a Parliament would be liable to expose the Government to the charge that they were actuated by merely political motives. On the other hand there was a strong case on merits for a review of trade union law, which had not been comprehensively examined for some 60 years. Such a review was desirable not only in order to assess the effect of the judgment in the recent case of Rookes v. Barnard, which might on analysis be found to be of less significance than had at first been supposed, but also in order to examine a number of other issues affecting, for example, the right to strike, the protection of individual members of trade unions and the safeguards against abuse of the unions' constitutional procedures. But, although an inquiry into the law relating to trade unions might be desirable, it was open to question whether a body appointed for this purpose could make any useful contribution to the solution of the problem of restrictive practices by the unions, which was the issue on which public opinion was principally concerned.