Unite History Volume 5 (1974-1992)

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This volume traces the history of the TGWU from its zenith in the period of the Labour Government to its nadir in 1992. It easily divides itself into two distinct periods. The first from 1974-79 saw a reforming Labour government which, recognising trade union strength, was determined to ‘bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people’. It marked the zenith of the TGWU in which the union played an important role, overseeing the repeal of anti-union Industrial Relation Act, and the enactment of a raft of pro-worker legislation. But this was insufficient to sustain the 'Social Contract' between the Labour Government and the Trade Unions– leading to the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the Tory election victory of 1979.

The second period, 1979-92, witnessed the nadir of the TGWU. A right wing Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, was determined to reverse all the gains of preceding Labour administrations. Anti-union legislation and the cruel tool of unemployment created the economic and political conditions to decimate trade unions. Defensive struggles could not stop the defeats suffered by car workers, miners, printers and dockers.

Trade union membership declined in the Thatcher years, leading to a bleak period of industrial defeat and union retrenchment, characterised by mergers and reorganisation - mitigated only by positive moves to tackle endemic racism and sexism in an attempt to involve previously disregarded women and black workers.

Mary Davis is a Visiting Professor of Labour History, Royal Holloway, University of London, and Secretary of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers' School.

Mary Davis
Number of Pages: 
Liverpool University Press
Publish Date: 
Monday, 15 May 2023