What do the anti-union laws say?

Submitted by Matthew on 27 May, 2010 - 11:48 Author: Dave Kirk

When activists refer to the “anti-union laws”, we are talking about a whole series of acts brought in by the Thatcher and Major governments between 1980 and 1996, which the Labour government of 1997-2010 did nothing to challenge. Each new act built on its predecessors in often quite elaborate ways to restrict the ability of workers to strike and organise effectively. But what do they actually say?


A minor part of the 1980 Employment Act provided funds to unions for voluntary postal ballots of union members. However, the Tory government soon began to see ballots as a potentially very effective way of delaying and subverting union democracy, whilst claiming to be upholding the rights of union members.

Secret ballots were made compulsory in 1984. Before that strikes could be authorised by ad hoc votes in workplaces.

This move supplanted branch and workplace democracy and slowed down the whole process of taking strike action. All sorts of subsequent rules were brought in to complicate this process, including strict rules on the publishing of results and who should be balloted.

The 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act introduced a requirement that unions provide employers with up-to-date information of every worker to be balloted, meaning that if the union's records include any inaccuracies about a worker's current grade or particular workplace, then the ballot is in danger of being declared illegal.

It is these technicalities that were recently used to overrule the democratic will of the workers in the Network Rail and British Airways disputes.

The same act illegalised workplace ballots entirely.


Solidarity strikes (whereby one group of workers takes action in support of the demands of another group of workers, such as car workers striking to win higher pay for nurses) were made illegal in 1980.

Two years later the grounds for industrial action were limited to pay, jobs and conditions. “Political” strike action had been made illegal.

A requirement for a 7-day notice period before any industrial action was introduced in 1993, in order to give employers time to prepare. Unions became legally liable for the costs resulting from unofficial industrial action unless an official written repudiation is sent to all members.


The 1980 Employment Act included a “code of practice” for picketing, which restricts picket lines to six workers. This was intentionally designed to outlaw effective picketing; unless your workplace is extremely small, it is unlikely that a picket line of just 6 people will be able to exert any moral pressure (or physical pressure, in the form of actually blocking the entrance to the workplace) on scabs.

The 1990 Employment Act made all secondary picketing (that is, of anywhere other than your own workplace) illegal. In short, effective picketing has been made illegal.

The 1986 Public Order Act introduced new criminal offences related to illegal picketing, meaning that anyone attempting to organise a real and effective picket line could theoretically face arrest or jail.

Union recognition

New Labour introduced a series of stipulations and restrictions relating to union recognition.

The 1999 Employment Relations Act established the concept of the “bargaining unit”, referring to the given group of workers affected by potential union recognition. This is supposed to be decided jointly by the union and employers through the notionally “independent” Central Arbitration Committee, but can be used to make recognition difficult. For example, even if 100% of the workers in a particular store are union members and want union recognition, the employer could claim that because the store is part of a national chain, the “bargaining unit” is in fact all workers employed nationally by the chain.

Small employers — those employing less than 21 workers — are also completely excluded from recognition law.

For more, see this briefing from the RMT London Transport Regional Council: http://www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk/node/1150

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