Lobbying the TUC union federation in February 1984 (Picture: John Sturrock)

The government announced that trade unions were to be banned from its secret spy centre, GCHQ, on 25 January 1984. The Tories went on the offensive against workers in the 1980s. By 1984 they had already attacked the steel workers, rail workers and printers. 

Each battle was finished before the next started. And each victory for the bosses saw the Tories increase the pace of attacks. The ban at GCHQ provoked immediate walkouts in a number of civil service offices. But the decision stunned the main union leaders.

They immediately promised the government a no-strike agreement at GCHQ if they were allowed to continue to collect membership dues. A civil servant told them they had a deal. But when they met prime minister Margaret Thatcher she threw them and the proposed deal out of Downing Street in minutes. The union leaders were shocked and furious. 

TUC union federation leader Len Murray angrily demanded a massive protest, including strikes on 28 February. Sensing a threat to their position other union leaders, including the AUEW engineering union, backed the call. The right wing leader of what is now the GMB union, David Basnett, wanted “all members apart from those involved in essential services to stage a half-day strike”. 

According to one opinion poll, the strike even had the support of 20 percent of Tory voters. Over one million struck, but support for the strike was uneven. The national newspapers shut down, but because of one local branch of the AUEW, not the big print unions. Bus workers in many cities, and most hospital and local authority workers, did not strike. 

Train stoppages were limited. In the mines the strike was confined to a few pits in Derbyshire. There would not have been as much action if national union leaders hadn’t made the call. But it was reps, local branches and in some cases simply ad hoc meetings of workers that made the action happen.

There was one workplace the union leaders were careful to exempt from the strike—GCHQ itself. This was part of showing how loyal to the British state they really were. But after being told by their own leaders not to take any action in defence of their own rights, the majority caved and left the unions on the day of the ban on 1 March. 

The Tories did not wait. That same day, the Coal Board announced that Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire was going to close. Coal boss Ian MacGregor said he would shut 20 pits within a year. The next and biggest battle of the 1980s—the Miners’ Strike—was about to begin. In GCHQ some 130 workers at first held out as union members.

But that number quickly dwindled to 14. They rejected a £1,000 bribe and were eventually sacked. After a lengthy campaign in 1997 Labour restored the right to join a union at GCHQ. The government offensive had met with resistance. The scale of the attack and the anger meant that the union leaders had to respond. But they ran away as fast as they could from a real fight.

New anti-strike laws will test workers’ strength     

The protest at GCHQ this year is not just to mark an anniversary. Nor is it due to the fondness of the British trade union movement to celebrate defeats. Rather it is allegedly the next step in the campaign to stand up to the latest attack on trade union rights. 

After over a year of half-hearted campaigning the union leaders’ latest act of resistance is to hold a march in Cheltenham. This is within a year of large scale disputes over pay that saw over a million workers take action

The Cheltenham protest follows a “once in a generation” special TUC congress. TUC head Paul Nowak said, “We will defy their ban on strikes, we will overturn this unjust law.” Since the Tories announced the attack there has been much similar bluster from various union leaders. 

A number of token protests took place with many promises to stand up to the new laws made. But unlike in 1984, the union leaders haven’t called a strike then run away to wait for a Labour government. They are just waiting for Keir Starmer to take the nasty laws away—which is as dangerous as it is naive.

There is a real test coming and the next rail strike by Aslef union members may be it. Are the unions going to instruct their members to ignore the minimum service laws?

Are other unions going to call on their members to support workers under attack from it? That would break the law and the government. It would turn the tables on the bosses in a way warm words while waiting for Labour won’t.

Demonstrate, Sat 27 Jan, 12 noon, Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham GL50 1UL. For details and transport go to tinyurl.com/GCHQ27Jan

Maximum disruption over minimum service

The strikes (Minimum Service Level) Act is intended to force workers to scab on their own strikes. The law sets a limit on how much of a service must be provided during any dispute. The first set of regulations imposed “minimum service levels” during strikes in the rail sector, ambulances, border control and some passport sectors. 

Similar rules will apply to other hospital workers, schools, colleges, higher education and fire services. So now workers are being told to provide 40 percent of normal services during a transport strike. The Tories claim that strikes risk health and safety.

The only threat to safety comes from scabs, not strikers. Look at the last year of rail strikes. Scabs sent trains in the wrong direction. Others told trains to leave stations when signals were on red. In one case a manager driving a train in London brought down overhead cables, shutting Paddington station and the Elizabeth line.

If a dispute does need emergency cover, say in health or the fire service, then workers should decide the nature of the cover and whether to provide it—not bosses trying to break a strike. And if minimum service levels are such a priority, the Tories should be properly funding public services so they’re not forced to regularly run on the bare minimum.

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