Unless there is a world-changing event somewhere, nothing that isn’t about Margaret Thatcher will get read today or probably for the rest of the week. There is a lot to say about her so I will restrict this piece to a question I have often thought about: Did Thatcher break the trade unions?
There is a surprising level of consensus on this one. Both left and right tend to agree, although they use very different language. For the right, Thatcher tamed the unions, restored the economy and made Britain great again. For the left, Thatcher smashed the unions, destroyed the working class and ruined the economy. However, both agree that it was Thatcher wot did for the unions.
I’m not so sure though. Was it the Thatcher government’s laws that reduced trade union militancy or was the fall in industrial action and union membership due to other factors.
The strike statistics for the 1980s tell an interesting story. As this chart of ONS data from Full Fact shows, the introduction of compulsory ballots for strikes and the election of union leaders in the early 80s didn’t have any noticeable effect on the number of days lost to strikes. Apart from the highs of the 1979 Winter of Discontent and the 1984 Miners’ Strike, the level of militancy stayed pretty much the same. It was not until after the Thatcher period that the big decline came.
This is not as odd as it might look. The suggestion that enforced democracy broke union power assumes that unions members were only militant because their leaders forced them to be. That may be the image we have of 1970s unionism but it was a lot less widespread than the tabloid myths would have us believe. For the most part, strikes were only called when a majority of workers felt aggrieved enough to down tools. When they voted in secret ballots, the results were often not that different from the show-of-hands in the car park.
When the big drop in industrial militancy came, at the end of the Thatcher period, it was probably more to do with changes in the economy than changes in the law.
Unions emerged as a response to powerful employers. As workers were pulled into ever-larger manufacturing operations and subjected to factory discipline, organising into equally disciplined and regimented bodies was a natural defensive response. When companies became larger, so did the unions. As companies merged, the unions followed suit. Trade unions were a mirror image of the large corporations and public sector bureaucracies in which their members worked.
Union leaders, therefore, were most comfortable when dealing with other large and well-defined organisations. Once the large industries declined, the trade unions declined with them and proved unable to re-orientate themselves to the generally smaller organisations in the service industries with their higher levels of part-time and female employment. The decline of manufacturing and the privatisation and fragmentation of the old nationalised industries hit the unions hard and their membership never recovered.
It is a similar story in most of the major western economies. Trade union membership has declined over the past three decades as manufacturing sectors have been rationalised, (or have collapsed) and production has been outsourced to Asian countries. Only in Scandinavia, where governments work in partnership with trade unions to regulate the economy, has union membership held up. Everywhere else, it has declined, in some places by much larger percentages than in the UK.
Percentage of employees in trade unions
Selected OECD countries – 1979 and 2008
It is therefore likely that much of the decline in union membership would have happened anyway, even without the Conservative government’s anti-union legislation. Wherever large-scale manufacturing declined, so did the unions.
That said, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were cheerleaders for the economics of free-trade, state-shrinking and deregulation which helped to bring about the decline of manufacturing employment in most western countries. Union membership started falling in Britain sooner than it did in many other countries. It would be wrong to say that the Thatcher government championed these policies just to break the trade unions. It is unlikely that they realised at the time the impact these policies would have on British industry. Some of Thatcher’s key supporters were industrialists. They would probably have been horrified had they been able to see ten to fifteen years into the future.
But not all of this can be attributed to Margaret Thatcher. These were global trends. Thatcher was a key player but so were Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping and a number of other people. Britain blazed the trail but, chances are, something similar to the world economy we see today would have happened sooner or later anyway.
Both righties and lefties over-state the case when they say that Margaret Thatcher broke the unions. Like an endangered species, they were heading for decline because the ecosystem that supported them was changing. As their traditional hunting grounds disappeared, their numbers declined. All the Thatcher government did was give them a shove in the direction they were already going.