To what extent has British employment relations changed since 1980?

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher and her new Conservative party were voted in as the party to change Britain. A seventeen-year span running from 1979 to 1997 saw two Prime Ministers at the helm of a major change in Employment Relations. Mrs Thatcher believed that Britain should go back to the "Golden Years", where there was high production and employers ruled with an iron fist. Britain was in a poor state, their were strikes after strikes after strikes and the Conservative party had ways of dealing with these problems, dissolve some of the power trade unions had, and hand this power back to employers.

This started the ball rolling for continuous decline in Trade Union membership to name one feature of change. The Government wanted to reduce Trade Union power and also reduce employees statutory rights. These changes that were brought about by the Conservative party of the 1980's, were said to be "frequent and controversial". These emphases have had a great effect on Employment Relations, especially on the labour market. The main legislation changes that were brought in the 1980's were in the form of the Employment Relations Act (ERA) 1980, 82, 88 and 90.

The act primarily focused on the reduction of Trade Union power, laws on picketing, reduction of ballots and the eventual abolishment of pre-closed shops. Before these acts were introduced, there was relatively little legislation effecting industrial relations. The 1980 ERA brought in new measures that primarily focused on industrial action, picketing and closed shops. Immunity industrial action had against civil action was removed unless it fell under strict criteria. New rules on picketing meant that it was restricted and lines were drawn on where employees could "lawfully" picket.

The 1982 ERA saw a "new definition of a trade dispute". Rose (2001) points out that "strikes are only 'immune from legal action if they fall inside the legal definition of a trade dispute. ' After the act was brought in, industrial action was only deemed to be lawful if it relates "wholly or mainly" to the issues raised at the time. New limitations on trade union immunity were introduced and further restrictions on the closed shop were implemented in 1982. 1988 saw the introduction of the CROTUM.

This was a commissioner who "had the power to assist union members taking or contemplating legal action against their union for breach of the law concerning union elections, industrial action, political fund ballots and union accounts". (Gospel and Palmer 1994) The 1990 Act saw "the abolition of pre-entry closed shops", "further restrictions on secondary industrial action", "severe restrictions on industrial action" and "the extension of the role of CROTUM". This was the last ERA that was brought in by the Conservative Government, but it was not the last piece of legislation.

This came in the form of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act. This act was said to again focus upon industrial action. More restrictions were brought in concerning industrial action in the shape of "a trade union now has to ensure that the ballot is conducted by post in order to have immunity from any legal repercussions" (Rose 2001). This has been crucial because it has restricted the type of action that is lawful. Also union members now had to give their written consent every three years if they wished to pay their union subscription by the check off system.

To add to this, the act created the Commissioner for the Protection Against Unlawful Industrial Action. This is basically if there is an unlawful industrial act, and there is likely to be a prevention in receiving goods or services for an individual, then they can apply for a high court order to prevent further industrial action. According to Gall and MacKay (1996) "since 1982 for a trade dispute, as legally defined, to exist 1) there must be a dispute between workers and their own employer and 2) the dispute must be wholly or mainly about such matters as pay and conditions, jobs, allocation of work, discipline etc.

" The changes rung in by every ERA the Conservative are announced resulted in one of the major changes in employment relations, the reduction in Trade Union membership. A quote here from Norman Tebbit relays the attitudes that the Conservatives had about Trade Unions 'The arrogant misuse of the wealth and power of Trade Unions to serve political ambitions of unrepresentative leaders has been a growing cause of public concern. They should become more democratic institutions, responsible to the views and wishes of their members'.

As one of the primary objectives of this Government was to "curb trade union power", each act would decrease the powers they had in the hope that people would no longer be a part of them. According to the WERS (Workplace Employment Relations Survey) 1998, "The percentage of all employees who were union members fell from 65 per cent in 1980 to 47 per cent in 1990 and 36 per cent in 1998. " Other interesting changes according to the WERS in Trade Union memberships are that in 1980, the trade union membership stood at 73% compare to 1998 where it only stood at just 54%.

Another significant change is to do with Collective Bargaining. "The proportion of colleagues who's pay was set by collective bargaining with trade unions stood at 41% in 1998, compared to 70% in 1984". As stated by Rose (2001) "there has been a twenty year decline in union membership". Unions now became liable for all industrial action and it was deemed unlawful whether official or balloted on upon or not. The trade unions powers were seriously culled and the effects that were mentioned above were inevitable. The undermining of collective bargaining added to the changes of employment relations.

Due to the reduction in Trade Union membership, Collective Bargaining has also decreased. Other key measures introduced by the Conservative's were the reduction of statutory and protection rights of individual employees. The reduction of employee rights in concern to unfair dismissal, the abolishment of wage councils and the withdrawal of certain protective status relating to the employment of young people and women where some of the key measures brought in. Some tripartite bodies were also abandoned whilst others were diluted and according to MacIlory (1995), "the role of the government as an industrial peace-maker was officially rejected.

" As well as this the role of the Government as a model employer also changed. According to Metcalf, D. (1989) the recognition of Trade Unions, the removal of pay bargaining rights, the rejection of the principle of pay comparability in favour of what the market determines, the changed rules concerning local government tendering and the encouragement of the 'contracting out' of services and establishment of 'agencies' has set a different example to private sector companies, which induced another change to employment relations.

It is quoted by Rose (2001) that "it is highly unlikely that there will be a return to the largely autonomous voluntarist systems which characterised employment relations up to 1979" and "the framework established is likely to remain intact, for the foreseeable future at least". Although the Conservative's induced radical changes to employment relations, the New Labour Government, with help from the European Union, have also changed significant areas in Employment Relations but the New Labour agenda is said "to be geared more towards continuity with the policies of previous Conservative governments than with promoting radical change.

"(Rose 2003) The 1999 and 2002 Employment Act introduced by the Labour Government as well as the minimum wage have been two of there notable changes, but it is pointed out by Rose 2003 that "The balance of power between employers and employees in the workplace even where unions are recognised, hardly changed as a result of legislative developments; employers are likely to remain in the ascendancy and continue to dominate the employment relations agenda for the foreseeable future (IRS, 1999; Kessler and Bayliss, 1998 Smith and Morton, 2001, Dickens and Hall 2003).

" These two acts are said to "contain EU inspired provisions which improve individual rights at work". Therefore the European Union have influenced the changes made by Labour and they will probably carry on to be highly influential in determining policies such as Age and Gender at work and Equal Pay Rights. It is also mentioned by Rose (2003) that the changes made by the New Labour Government, are not a significant part of Employment Relations.

Only time will tell to see if Labour is to have a profound effect, which the Conservatives had, on Employment Relations. To conclude, a quote by McKay sums up the change from 1980 onwards "The Conservative governments' years in office ushered in a move to the right, to de-regulate labour markets. " (McKay, S 2001)


Rose Ed (2001), Employment Relation, Prentice and Hall Financial Times

Rose Ed (2003), Employment Relations 2nd Edition, Prentice and Hall Financial Times accessed 19/11/03

http:/// Accessed 19/11/03

Rollinson Derek et al (1998), Organisational Behaviour and Analysis, An Integrated Approach, Addinson-Wesley accessed 20/11/03