The Declining Power of Organized Labor in Britain Since the 1970s - Power in Britain

Essay, 2010

10 Seiten


Since the late 1970s, trade unions in Britain have experienced a significant loss of power. Not only have membership numbers fallen dramatically, but the unions’ ability to influence government policy and the wider polity has seen a strong decline. Therefore, this essay will explore the reasons for these developments, utilizing a four-dimensional model of power. In this context, anti-union legislation introduced in the 1980s will be analyzed against the backdrop of the fundamental political and social changes that have characterized Britain since the late 1970s.


‘Whichever way one looks at it the last two decades of the twentieth century were a period of relentless, sustained corrosion of British unionization’ (Fernie, 2005: 3)

In 1979, the election of a conservative government headed by Margaret Thatcher represented a new era not only for Britain in general, but especially for the trade unions. It was the starting point for a sustained anti-union campaign that would have significant consequences for the unions. However, behind the surface of government policies, more fundamental long-term trends contributed to the erosion of union power. This essay will analyze the decline of British union power in the context of a four-dimensional view of power. After a brief definition of trade unions and a description of the historical context, trade union power will be analyzed using a two-dimensional view of power, emphasizing the consequences of anti-union legislation. In separate discussions, the focus of the essay will lie on the third and fourth face of power, which will be employed to investigate preference-shaping and the construction of subjects, respectively. As a conclusion, it will be argued that fundamental changes in Britain’s society such as the erosion of class structures combined with the legislation of the 1980s to erode union power. Thus, union decline was not caused by the Thatcher governments, but merely exacerbated.

Trade Unions: A Definition

Burnham defines trade unions as ‘[c]ollective organizations of workers whose purpose is to substitute a collective bargain for separate individual bargaining and thereby maintain and improve the standard of living of their members’ (2009: 535). Trade unions can be analyzed from different perspectives (Ibid: 536); pluralists see them as essentially economic organizations pursuing a narrow agenda. In social democratic theory, trade unions assume a more constructive role in the larger society and politics. In the Marxist perspective, trade unions are seen ambiguously. While they can represent workers, they are also a participant in the perpetuation of capitalist structures.

The Historical Context

Beginning in the late 1960s, Britain experienced a reversion of its post-war economic success that would have profound implications for the trade unions. As pointed out by Atkinson (1987: 4-5), the underlying cause of the slowdown of economic growth was the crisis of fordism, the sort of mass production that relied heavily on continuous investment. Exacerbated by the oil crises of the 1970s and the breakup of the gold standard in 1971, Britain saw itself confronted with growing challenges (Ibid: 3). As a result, the ‘post-war social democratic consensus began to crumble’ (Ibid: 15), a process that was reflected strongly in the course of the de-industrialization of the British economy (Ibid).

However, Britain was not alone in the confrontation with these developments. Coates and Topham suggest that most of the Western economies were characterized by the ‘universality of inflation, technical change, and dislocation caused by rising unemployment’ (1988: 250). The fight against inflation impinged especially heavily on the trade unions’ endeavor to protect the wage standards of workers. In the 1970s, the British state was strongly influenced by a corporatist system that provided the trade unions with a direct avenue to shape government policies (Fairbrother, 2002: 59-60).

Yet, increasingly they became to be seen as barriers to progress (Atkinson, 1987: 5). First attempts to curb the unions’ power included the Industrial Relations Act of 1971, which was later repealed by the Labour government (Wrigley, 2002: 70-2). As Hanson suggests, by 1979 the ‘blatant abuse of trade union power [was the] primary cause of the election of the Thatcher government’ (1991: 3). This New Right government proceeded to break up the British tradition of voluntarism over the course of the 1980s, introducing regulations to curtail the trade unions’ influence within the economy and the wider polity (Fairbrother, 2002: 58-9). Hence, between 1980 and 2001 union membership fell from 12.2 million to 7.3 million (Wrigley, 2002: 19)

The First and Second Face of Power

The first face of power is an analysis of one agent’s overt exercise of control over another (Lukes, 2005: 16-7). Thus, one looks at the outcome of a decision-making procedure in which one agent prevails against another’s will. When analyzing trade union power, few such instances can be observed.

In 1980, the new Thatcher government abolished institutions such as the National Economic Development Council and the Manpower Services Commission, which had been vehicles through which trade unions tried to secure their influence over policy-making (Reid, 2005: 389). Thus, the unions lost their ability to make direct contributions to the formulation of government policies. This represented a first step towards abolishing the corporatism that had characterized the British state throughout the 1970s. Moreover, the British government was able to push through a program of massive privatizations of previously state owned industries, which were a bastion of trade unionism at the time (Ibid: 401). As Taylor notes, ‘the government’s crusade to privatize state owned industry […] was also partly motivated by a determination to weaken the trade unions’ (1993: 273). In doing so, the conservative government intended to make the unions subject to the market economy, in which it would be harder for them to retain bargaining power. Nevertheless, public sector unions experienced a similar atmosphere of hostility. While they remained sizable, the government introduced ‘tight limits on pay increases’ (Reid, 2005: 401)

Blanchflower and Bryson point out that, increasingly throughout the 1980s, employers in new workplaces started to refuse recognition of unions (2008: 3). Given the shift in the economic structure that characterized the British labor market at the time, this non-recognition of unions represented a major blow to the general ability of the unions to remain influential. Without significant representation in these new workplaces, their impact would continue to dwindle. Where the unions did try to establish their power in the form of strikes, they were often met with a deployment of police forces. Reid notes that the police were present at many of the strikes and pickets, which often led to arrests of several participating union members (2005: 404-5).


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The Declining Power of Organized Labor in Britain Since the 1970s - Power in Britain
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Trade Unions, United Kingdom, Thatcher, Working Class, Class Structures, Power, Economic Decline, Globalization, Anti-Union Laws
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Tim Pfefferle (Autor), 2010, The Declining Power of Organized Labor in Britain Since the 1970s - Power in Britain, München, GRIN Verlag,


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