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British Labor Legislation & Trends
after 1945

Yonatan Reshef
School of Business
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Industrial Relations Act, 1971
  2. Trade Union and Labor Relations Act, 1974/1976
  3. Employment Act, 1980
  4. Employment Act, 1982
  5. Trade Union Act, 1984
  6. Wages Act, 1986
  7. Employment Act, 1988
  8. Employment Act, 1989
  9. Employment Act, 1990
  10. Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act, 1993
  11. Tony Blair and the New Labor

- National Minimum Wage
- Trade Union Recognition - Fairness at Work
- The Employment Act
- The European Dimension

12. Blair's Second Term - May 2005

I. Industrial Relations Act, 1971 
(Edward Heath, Conservative Government)

Reasons for The Industrial Relations Act

  1. Amend laws relating to employers and workers and to the organization of workers and the organization of employers
  2. Establish a National Industrial Relations Court. Whereas the Commission on Industrial Relations exists to promote collective bargaining, either side (employers or unions) has the power to seek a legally binding order (in case of dispute) from the NIRC.
  3. There would also be the appointment of a Chief of Registrar of Trade Unions

Main features:

  1. Registration with the registrar of Trade Unions
  2. Collective agreements would be legally binding unless specified (a major encroachment on voluntarism)
  3. Removed blanket immunity for Trade Unions
  4. Secretary of State could apply to defer strike action
  5. Creation of the National Industrial Relations Court
  6. Restrictions on closed shop. Employees are give the right to belong, or not to belong, to a registered or unregistered union.
  7. Reform
    • Unions had to register with the Trade Union Registrar. This was the main feature of the Act.
    • Only those registered had legal rights and certain immunities. Registered unions also had the important right to seek recognition.
    • Enforceable collective agreements
    • Creation of the National Industrial Relations Court
    • The Secretary of State for Employment could impose strike ballots as well as "conciliation pauses" (cool off periods).
    • Introduction of unfair industrial practices which include unofficial strikes and secondary boycotts by unions as well as employers unlawfully denying union recognition. They were also applicable, in certain cases, to individuals. here the most notable was unfair dismissal, by which employees could take a complaint to the industrial tribunal and claim compensation.
  8. Restriction
    • Laws were used to reduce the strength of unions
    • Curtailing ability to take collective industrial action
    • Restricted further immunities by unions and placed collective agreement within a legally binding framework


  1. Employers reluctant to use legislation
  2. Highly organized companies and workplaces were not effected

II. Trade Union and Labor Relations Act, 1974
Trade Union and Labor Relations Act, 1976 

(Harold Wilson & James Callaghan, Labor Government)


The 1974 Act rejected the presumption of legally binding collective agreements and earlier levels of unfair dismissal protection (under the 1971 Act, the basic qualifying period for bringing an unfair dismissal case to tribunal was two years' service. It was reduced to one year under the 1974 Act and then to six months by the Employment Protection Act, 1975). The 1974 Act and the 1976 Amendment restored earlier immunities, that is, covering actions in "trade disputes" and extending it to breaches of both employment and commercial contracts. Additionally, judicial ruling, which since the 1950s had narrowed the definition of trade dispute, were overridden and restrictions placed on the judges' freedom to award injunctions against trade unions (Brian Towers. 1997. The Representation Gap, pp. 159-166).

III. Employment Act, 1980 
(Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Government)

Main features:

  1. Restricted closed shop
  2. Secondary picketing was deemed unlawful meaning that employees could not strike companies doing business with a directly struck company (e.g. if Company A's employees are on strike yet Company A keeps operating, Company B's employees cannot strike against Company B because it keeps doing business with Company A)
  3. Removed immunity in most cases where secondary action was involved
  4. Allocated public funds for union ballots
  5. Union recruitment tactics using coercive sanctions against employers was made illegal
  6. Abolished statutory recognition procedures

Trade union reform

  1. Tightening of picketing made unlawful
  2. Law on secondary action reviewed and amended so that immunity removed in cases where such action was involved
  3. Operation in closed shops restricted, in particular, existing employees in closed shops who were dismissed should have the right of appeal to courts and be entitled to compensation
  4. New closed shops could only be established after a vote by secret ballots
  5. Secret ballots for union election and on other important issues should be encouraged

IV. Employment Act, 1982 
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Government)

Main features:

  1. It removed blanket immunity for Trade Unions as distinct from Trade Unionists
  2. Further restrictions on closed shop
  3. Provided compensation for workers dismissed for not joining unions between 1974-1980
  4. It facilitated selective dismissal of strikers
  5. Redefined the meaning of a trade dispute


  1. Employers try to avoid strikes by increasingly applying for court injunctions
  2. Large organizations are not particularly anxious to use new legislation
  3. The legislation is harder to oppose than the Industrial Relations Act of '71
  4. Union leaders are conscious of support for the legislation

V. Trade Union Act, 1984 
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Government)

Main Features:

  1. Members of executive committees of unions and union presidents and general secretaries are to be elected every 5 years
  2. During strikes, unions lose immunity unless a secret strike vote has been conducted
  3. Unions which operate political funds must ballot their members every 10 years
  4. Industrial action against non-unionized companies unlawful


  1. Compliance with injunctions
  2. Number of applications for injunctions is doubled
  3. Employers are willing to use the legislation in sectors marked by a high degree of conflict and poor management

VI. Wages Act, 1986 
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Government)

Main Features:

  1. Restricted Wages Councils rates

VII. Employment Act, 1988 
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Government)

Main features:

  1. The abolition of all legal protection for post-entry closed shop
  2. The establishment of union members' right not to be disciplined for refusing to strike or to cross picketing line
  3. The establishment of union members' right not to be called out on strike without secret ballot
  4. The establishment of union members' right to postal vote in union elections and ballots
  5. The establishment of Commissioner for rights of Trade Union members


  1. Gives individual unionist a series of rights through their unions
  2. Prevents unions from disciplining members

VIII. Employment Act, 1989 
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Government)

Main Features:

  1. Lifted restrictions on working time of women and youth
  2. Established exemptions of small firms from some employment law
  3. Restricted time off for union duties

IX. Employment Act, 1990 
(John Major, Conservative Government)

Main Features:

  1. Allowed firms to selectively dismiss for unofficial industrial action
  2. Outlawed all secondary industrial action
  3. Abolished pre-entry closed shop (i.e., mandatory unionization)
  4. Extended union liability for unofficial industrial action


X. Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act, 1993 
(John Major, Conservative Government)

Main Features:

  1. Tightened restrictions on strike ballots and union mergers
  2. Required more union accounting
  3. Required ballots for check-off arrangements
  4. Phased out public funds for ballots
  5. Abolished Wages Councils

Summary and Comparison
(See tabular presentation: 1980-1993)

The major elements found in these Acts are:

  1. The blanket of immunity enjoyed by unions as being distinct from unionists was removed
  2. The definition of a legitimate trade dispute has been successively narrowed so as to reduce the immunities enjoyed by unions
  3. The legal basis of the closed shop was initially restricted by the Acts of 1980 and 82 and was removed in the later Act of 1988
  4. Unions are now required to hold secret ballots for the election of officers and are also required to conduct political fund ballot

XI. Tony Blair and the New Labor
(May 1997; June 2001 - present)

The long-awaited Employment Relations Act (short version) was published on 28 January, 1999. The Act completed its passage through parliament in the summer of 1999, and its phased implementation began a few months later (see report).  The Act implemented the package of individual, collective and "family-friendly" employment rights set out in the Labour government's Fairness at work (full report) white paper issued in May 1998.

Main Features:

  1. National Minimum Wage (April 1, 1999). Since March 2001, £4.10 an hour for those aged +22, and for £3.50 for workers aged 18-21 (and subject to favorable economic conditions, £3.60 from October 1, 2002). (Full preliminary report)
  2. Trade union recognition (June 6, 2000). This new law boosts both collective and individual employee rights. The main collective element is statutory procedures for union recognition, while individual rights concerning unfair dismissal, maternity pay, and rights of representation are also enhanced. (Fairness at Work)
  • An independent recognition agency, the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), can only accept an application from a union to establish a bargaining unit:

    1. in companies with 21 or more employees (in 2004 = about 75% of employees excluding the non-trading public sector);

    2. where at least 10.0% of the employees are union members;

    3. providing there is not already a collective agreement covering some or all of the unit's employees; and

4. if the CAC deems that a majority of employees are likely to favor recognition. 

  • If the union and employer do not agree on the bargaining unit by the time the application has been accepted, then the CAC must decide whether the union's proposed unit meets certain criteria (if not, CAC determines an alternative unit). The moist significant criterion is that the unit must be "compatible with effective management."

  • Once an application is accepted, if the bargaining unit is settled and a majority belongs to the union, then the CAC may declare the union recognized.  Otherwise, it must order an election in which the union has to secure a majority of those voting and at least 40.0% of those eligible to vote. 

Various rights of the individual employee have also been strengthened:

a. The employee comes under the umbrella of the unfair dismissal laws after a tenure of one year, rather than the previous two years.

b. Maternity benefits are to be paid for longer duration (18 weeks as against 14 weeks) and family-friendly paternal leave introduced. This provides for three months (unpaid) leave for men and women when they have a baby, and time off for urgent family reasons to help employees to look after sick children or deal with a crisis at home.

c. A new legal right is introduced for employees (in both union and nonunion workplaces) to be accompanied by a fellow employee or trade union representative of their choice during grievance or disciplinary procedures.

3. The Employment Act.  The center piece of industrial relations reform in Blair's second term (he was reelected in 2001) has been the Employment Act.  The Act, which reached the UK statute book in July 2002, introduces new provisions concerning 'family-friendly' working, the resolution of individual disputes at the workplace, equal treatment for fixed-term employees and other matters.

Read more about the main provisions of the EA.

4.   Embracing the European Union Social Chapter. This act brought the UK within the scope of a number of EU directives including the Working Time Directive and the European Workers Councils Directive.

The Working Time Directive (was inherited by the Blair government. Came into force in the UK on 1 October, 1998) provides for:

  • a 48 hour weekly limit on working time (average over 17 weeks)
  • night workers are subject to a working limit of 8 hours in every 24 hours period
  • one day off each week for adult workers
  • 3 weeks paid annual holiday (rising to 4 in November 1999)

In the UK, employees are allowed to "choose" to work more than the maximum number of hours, opening the door to employer coercion.

Click here to read the full text of the Directive.

The European Works Councils Directive comes into force in December 1999. A company with at least 1,000 employees within the countries covered by the Directive and at least 150 employees in two or more of the countries must set up a Works Council to provide greater information about the organization to employees and to consult employees on various matters that affect them and the fortunes of the firm.

Click here to read the full text of the Directive.

Parental Leave Directive.  In early August 1999, the UK government issued detailed proposals for Regulations to implement the rights to parental leave required by the EU Parental Leave Directive and to improve existing UK maternity leave provisions. The new Regulations will take effect from 15 December 1999.

Under the government's proposals, employers must provide for at least 13 weeks' parental leave for childcare purposes which may be taken by the parent of a child born or after 15 December 1999 up until the child's fifth birthday. To qualify for parental leave an employee must have at least one year's continuous service with the employer. The employee will remain employed while on parental leave but need not be paid.

In the area of maternity leave, the Regulations will increase ordinary maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks and reduce the qualifying period of employment for additional maternity leave from two years to one. Mothers who qualify for additional maternity leave will be able to extend their maternity leave until 29 weeks after the birth of their baby.

Click her to read more about the Directive.

The Directive on Information and consultation was adopted by the EU in early 2002.  Implementing legislation is required in the UK within the next few years.  It will cover all firms with 150 or more employees by 2005, and all organizations with 50 or more employees by 2008.  (Click for to view the full text of the Directive)

What is information sharing?
Information sharing constitutes the transmission by the employer to the employees’ representatives of data in order to enable them to acquaint themselves with the subject matter and to examine it. The disclosure by management of relevant information to employees is essentially a top-down exercise.

Relevant information should be made available before a decision is taken and in such a way that employee representatives are able to acquaint themselves with the subject matter (i.e. in written format), formulate a response and where necessary prepare for consultation.

What is consultation?
Consultation constitutes the exchange of views and establishment of dialogue (implies an ongoing process, not ad hoc arrangements) between the employer and the representatives of employees. Information should be given at such time, in such fashion and with such content as appropriate in order to enable employees’ representatives to conduct an adequate study and, where necessary, prepare for consultation.

Consultation should be entered into with an open mind and a willingness to be persuaded. It should also occur during the planning stage of a decision and allow influence to be exerted on the decision-making process.

The directive requires that consultation take place, with a view to reaching an agreement. This not only reinforces the requirement that information and consultation should take place before decisions are taken, but also that consultation should seek to reach a consensus, if not a formal agreement.

Consultation will be required to take place at the relevant level of management and representation, depending on the subject under discussion (implies there should be different levels of representation and consultation within an enterprise).

The directive does not oblige employers to adopt the evidence presented by employee representatives, although employers will have to provide a reasoned response for the final decision taken.

Note, collective bargaining primarily remains outside the scope of this directive. However, according to the text of the Directive, employers will be obliged to negotiate the practical arrangements of information sharing and consultation with the representatives of employees.

The directive makes no such obligation on employers to negotiate or reach agreement with employee representatives during or after the processes of sharing information or consultation.

The fixed-term work directive was adopted by the EU on 28 June 1999, puts into effect the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded earlier that year by the European Trade Union Confederation, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest. This aims to:

  • prevent fixed-term employees from being less favourably treated than similar permanent employees;
  • prevent abuses arising from the use of successive fixed-term contracts; and
  • improve access to training for fixed-term employees; and
  • ensure fixed-term employees are informed about available permanent jobs.

The Directive requires Member States to comply with its provisions by 10 July, 2001, but states that "Member States may have a maximum of one more year, if necessary, and following consultation with management and labour, to take account of special difficulties ... They shall inform the Commission forthwith in such circumstances."

In the UK, the Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 came into force on 1 October 2002. They provide that:

  • fixed-term employees should not be treated less favourably than comparable permanent employees on the grounds they are fixed-term employees, unless this is objectively justified; and
  • the use of successive fixed-term contracts will be limited to four years, unless the use of further fixed-term contracts is justified on objective grounds.

Read more on this directive

XII. Blair's Second Term: May 2005

Family Friendly Employment Legislation
In October 2005, the UK government published its Work and Families Bill, which will enable ministers to introduce a range of new 'family-friendly' employment rights. These include longer paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave for fathers if the mother returns to work before the end of her maternity leave period, and a new right for carers to request flexible working.

Read the full story.

Employee Consultation Legislation
The final version of the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations 2004 was approved by both Houses of the UK Parliament in December 2004. The legislation will come into force in April 2005, applying initially to undertakings with 150 or more employees. The Regulations are intended to implement the requirements of the 2002 EU Directive (2002/14/EC) on informing and consulting employees (EU0204207F).

Read the full story

Unions' Decline Continues
A report published in January 2005 suggests that the decline of trade unions in the UK private sector is such that it might culminate in their eventual demise. Unions need to focus on organizing new recruits as well as servicing existing members, but without further state support this seems an uphill task. One potential glimmer of hope is said to be provided by the introduction of legislation to implement the EU information and consultation Directive. 

Trade union membership in Britain peaked at 13.2 million in 1979, before falling by 5.5 million over the next two decades. Today, around three in five public sector workers and under one in five private sector workers are union members. The decline, according to the report, reflects sectoral and occupational change - in particular the shift from heavy industry to service sector employment - as well as changes in the business cycle to do with inflation, real wages and unemployment. Also important have been government policy and changes in the law, employer attitudes and the strategies of unions themselves, which have failed to deliver sufficient replacement membership.

Read the full story.

Fewer than one in five (17.2%) private sector employees were union members in autumn 2004. Private sector union density fell by 1.0%. By contrast, almost three in five (58.8%) public sector employees were union members. Public sector union density fell by 0.3% in 2004. Despite this fall in density the number of public sector union members rose by approximately 138,000 in 2004, as the size of the public sector grew. They account for 57% of all trade union members.

Read the full report.

In addition, first findings from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey, published in July 2005, show a further decline in collective representation in the UK since the previous survey in 1998. Fewer workplaces recognize trade unions; collective bargaining is less widespread; and the proportion of workplaces covered by representative-based consultative arrangements has fallen. Yet there are signs that the rate of decline may have slowed compared with the period before 1998.

Read the full story.

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