Briefing: Anti-Union Laws

Anti-union lawsThis briefing itemises anti-trade-union legislation since 1980. It then looks further back into history, and examines some of the key issues in Britain's anti-union laws.

1980 Employment Act

  • Definition of lawful picketing restricted to own place of work
  • 80% ballot needed to legalise a closed shop
  • Funds offered for union ballots
  • Restricted right to take secondary action
  • Code of practice (six pickets)
  • Repeal of statutory recognition procedure
  • Restricts unfair dismissal and maternity rights
  • Unfair dismissal rights from 1 year to 6 months in companies under 20

1982 Employment Act

  • Further restrictions on industrial action - eg. definition of trade dispute
  • Further restricted action to 'own' employer
  • Employers could obtain injunctions against unions and sue unions for damages
  • 80% rule extended to ALL closed shops every 5 years
  • Compensation for dismissal because of closed shop
  • Removed union only labour clauses in commercial contracts

1984 Trade Union Act

  • EC elections every 5 years by secret ballot
  • Political fund ballots every 10 years
  • Secret ballots before industrial action

1986 Public Order Act

  • Introduced new criminal offences in relation to picketing

1988 Employment Act

  • Unions to compensate members disciplined for non-compliance with majority decisions
  • Members can seek injunction if no pre-strike ballot
  • Union finances to be open to inspection
  • Unions prevented from paying members’ or officials’ fines
  • Action to preserve post entry closed shop made unlawful
  • New restrictions on industrial action and election ballots
  • Ballots for separate workplaces
  • Ballots for non-voting EC members
  • Election addresses controlled
  • Independent scrutiny
  • Establishment of CROTUM (Commissioner for the Rights Of Trade Union Members)

1989 Employment Act

  • Tribunal pre-hearing review and proposed deposit of £150
  • Exemption of small employer from providing details of disciplinary procedures
  • Restricts time off with pay for union duties
  • Written reasons for dismissal now require 2 years' service
  • Redundancy rebates abolished
  • Abolition of training commission

1990 Employment Act

  • Attack on pre-entry closed shop - unlawful to refuse to employ non-union member
  • All secondary action now unlawful
  • Unions liable for action induced by ANY official unless written repudiation using statutory form of words sent to all members
  • Selective dismissal of strikers taking unofficial action
  • Extended power of CROTUM

1992 Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act

  • Brings together all collective employment rights including trade union finances and elections; union members' rights including dismissal, time off; redundancy consultation; ACAS, CAC and CROTUM; industrial action legislation
  • Does not cover individual rights like unfair dismissal, redundancy pay, maternity etc (these are covered by 1978 EPCA)

1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act

  • Individuals can seek injunction against unlawful action
  • Creation of Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • 7 days notice of ballots and of industrial action
  • Members to be involved in ballot to be identified
  • Attack on Bridlington procedures
  • Written consent for check-off every three years
  • Financial records, including salaries, to be available
  • Checks on election ballots
  • Independent scrutiny of strike ballots
  • All industrial action ballots to be postal
  • Postal ballots on union mergers
  • New powers for Certification Officer to check union finances
  • Higher penalties against unions failing to keep proper accounts
  • ‘Wilson/Palmer’ Amendment (sweeteners to those moving to individual contracts)
  • Unlawful to dismiss heath & safety rep in course of duties and those walking off unsafe site
  • Right of individual to challenge collective agreement in contravention of equal treatment terms
  • Changes to Transfer of Undertakings Regulations
  • Changes to redundancy terms (consultation)
  • Abolition of Wages Councils
  • Changes to Tribunals and EAT procedures

1999 Employment Relations Act

  • Amendments to Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
  • Recognition and negotiation procedures for employers with at least 21 workers, establishment of bargaining unit
  • Derecognition from loss of trade union independence or majority support of bargaining unit
  • Complaint process for use of political funds and breach of union disciplinary, electoral or other internal rules
  • Dismissal for participation in official industrial action deemed unfair
  • Ballot and notice provisions for strike or industrial action
  • Abolishes offices of Commissioner for Rights of Trade Union Members and Commissioner for Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action
  • Funds to be provided to assist in developing employment partnerships
  • Amends Employment Rights Act and TULRA to prevent complaint over unfair dismissal if action for purposes of national security

Information from the Institute of Employment Rights


  • Anti-union laws go back to the time of the Pyramids: 5,000 years ago
  • 1306: Royal Proclamation Against Congregations and Chapter
  • 1799-1800: Anti-combination laws
  • 1859: Tolpuddle Martyrs transported to Australia for swearing illegal oaths ie. organising a union
  • 1906: Taff Vale Railway Company vs Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS, forerunner of RMT) judgment: unions liable for loss of employers’ profits caused by strikes; overturned by Trades Disputes Act 1906
  • 1909: Osborne judgment: trade unions could no longer use their funds for political purposes; overturned by Trade Union Act 1913, which allowed unions to have political funds that members can opt out of

Since 1979

  • Tories introduced anti-union legislation salami-style, because the unions were strong enough to defeat a full-scale legal assault.
  • There was a progressive weakening of trade unions, via legislation and their own ineffectiveness
  • Legislation in response to major strikes eg. Grunwick, miners
  • Lack of democracy in unions (eg. Leaders elected for life) opened the door for the Tories’ anti-union laws

Issues and arguments

  • While governments claim that union legislation gives ‘fairness’, there are no ‘mirror-image’ laws for employers eg. no requirement to elect the Managing Director every five years, or to hold a ballot before imposing changes to terms and conditions!
  • Legal requirement for industrial action authorised by postal ballots rather than workplace meetings:
    • workers vote at home, where they are under different pressures
    • the time taken to hold the ballot delays the action
    • the ballot does not include discussion on details of what action is taken, whereas a workplace meeting can
  • Despite anti-union laws, workers do still have the right to strike, and the union needs to remind and reassure them of this

Key Messages

  • All improvements to our rights have been won by struggle.
  • These laws do not exist to make industrial relations fair, but to stop workers fighting back.
  • The timeline shows progressive attacks by government on union rights and effectiveness.

Further Reading

  • Union Rights ... And Wrongs, John Hendy QC

This article was first published on the 5th or January, 2010