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The Industrial Relations Bill

click for more info.The 1970 Industrial Relations Bill was seen as the beginning of a systematic government attack on the growing strength and confidence of the trade union movement. The Bill sought to introduce legal controls by the compulsory 'registration' of trade unions and the regulation of union/employer agreements, enforceable by fines or imprisonment. In a wider context, the Bill could be seen as an early reaction by the state against the growing militancy of community groups prepared to take direct action outside the formal democratic structures.

The reaction of the national TUC's General Council to the Bill revealed a classic dilemma. On one hand they were faced by calls for direct action by their militant grass-root members. On the other hand they felt constrained to play their traditional role within the establishment's rules. They sought to resolve this dilemma by mounting a campaign against the Bill which called for traditional protests (petitions and demonstrations) but which carefully avoided calls for direct action such as strikes or occupations.

It fell to individual trades union branches and Trades Union Councils to act in a more direct manner.

It was perhaps due to this divided opposition that the campaign against the Bill failed. It was passed by parliament largely unamended, and became an Act in 1971.

In July 1972 five dockers were jailed for picketing offences under the Act. They were released when (in an act of unaccustomed militancy) the TUC called a one day general strike. This marked the end of effective implementation of the Act - and reinforced trade union confidence in direct action.

Although the 1971 Act was largely ineffective, trade union fears of future government action proved prescient. The Thatcher government was to enact many repressive measures that the Heath government introduced but failed to make effective. These still remain largely in place although the current Blair government has sought to redress the worker/employer balance by ameliorating some of the more draconian measures.

The political pendulum has not yet stopped swinging.

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