In Place of Strife: a Policy for Industrial Relations was the title of a government White Paper which appeared in January 1969. It was largely the work of Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (although it was her husband Ted Castle that thought up the catchy title), which sought to establish a new legislative framework for trades unions and employers. As the preamble to the white paper put it; "There are necessarily conflicts of interest in industry. The objective of our industrial relations system should be to direct the forces producing conflict towards constructive ends. This can be done by the right kind of action by management, unions and Government itself. This White Paper sets out what needs to be done".

Background

For a number of years Trade Unions had operated within the legal framework specified by the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Act 1927. However that piece of legislation was repealed by the Labour government in 1945 who then neglected to put anything in its place. Their Conservative successors (1951-1964) similarly ducked the issue, largely because the civil servants at the Ministry of Labour predicted industrial chaos should the government seek to intervene. It was thus left to the courts to make their own decisions on the matter which of course tended to please no one, and the unions became particularly upset when in 1963 the Court of Appeal ruled against the legality of the closed shop in the case of Rookes v. Barnard.

When a Labour Government was elected in 1964, the new Prime Minister Harold Wilson promptly passed legislation that reversed the decision in Rookes v. Barnard and made the closed shop legal once again. Wilson was however concious of the increasing levels of industrial unrest in the country, in particular the growth of unofficial strikes and the increasing level of inter-union demarcation disputes and believed that it was necessary to establish some kind of legislative framework to regulate industrial relations. (Indeed it is widely believed that Wilson reversed Rookes v. Barnard purely in order to curry favour with the unions and help persuade them to accept this as a quid pro quo.)

On the 2nd February 1965 Harold Wilson announced the establishment of a Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers Associations, clearly signalling that he was intent on a major reform of the law regarding unions. Chaired by the Lord Donovan, and thus known as the Donovan commission it finally reported in June 1968. It was no doubt Wilson's expectation that the Commission would come out in favour of a new legal framework. However, thanks to the efforts of a number of left-inclined academics, including the infamous Hugh Clegg, who put much effort into 'fixing' the result of the commission, the eventual report had little of any value to say. It specifically rejected the principle of pre-strike ballots and its main recommendation was the establishment of a Commission for Industrial Relations which was to have little more than an advisory role in encouraging the adoption of good industrial relations practice.

In the event this did not dissuade Wilson from continuing with his original plan. By the time the Commission had reported he had appointed Barbara Castle as the first ever Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, replacing Ray Gunter who was the last ever Minister of Labour. (Gunter found himself shunted aside as the Minister for Power, where he stayed for a few months before resigning on the 29th June 1968.) Wilson now gave Castle the job of putting together some concrete proposals as to how to put his original intention into effect.

In Place of Strife

Therefore when In Place of Strife appeared on the 16th January 1969, its proposals went much further than the recommendations of the Donovan Commission. Setting out its intention to "strengthen and improve industrial relations in this country" the White Paper proposed that trade unions should operate within a defined legal framework, and gave the Secretary of State powers to impose a settlement in certain situations. Its most controversial proposals where that there should be a twenty-eight day conciliation pause (commonly known as a 'cooling off period') before a strike could take place and that unions should be compelled to hold ballots prior to going on strike, whilst the Commission on Industrial Relations was beefed up and given powers to levy fines on unions who failed to comply with the law.

It won the support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins, who believed that since an incomes policy was not practical, this was the best way to persuade the financial markets that the government was serious about tackling wage inflation. A large chunk of the Labour Party's right wing were therefore fully behind the policy, although some of them such as Ray Gunter thought that it was a bit feeble in places but would do for a start.

However none of the above was was acceptable to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) who regarded In Place of Strife as an unwarranted restriction on their rights to free collective bargaining. Hugh Scanlon, President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, and Jack Jones, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union both took leading part in drumming up the initial opposition to the proposals which led Wilson to famously warn Scanlon to "get your tanks off my lawn, Hughie". Nevertheless the opposition was sufficient to persuade the Government to put forward only a truncated bill in the Commons in an attempt to answer some of its critics, although Wilson decided to make it an issue of confidence in an effort to strong arm Labour bankbenchers into supporting it.

Parliament debated In Place of Strife on the 3rd March 1969 and although the Government obtained a majority of 162 this concealed the fact that fifty-five Labour MPs voted against the bill whilst another forty abstained and that the Government's handsome majority was thanks to the support of the Conservative Party. Worse was to come later that month when the Labour Party National Executive Committee voted against the bill by sixteen votes to five. Despite these setbacks Wilson decided to perservere, being encouraged by the fact that the press (with the exception of The Guardian) were all enthusuastically in favour of the legislation.

Barbara Castle was therefore sent on a tour of union conferences, taking in a range of seaside resorts and spa towns around the country in an attempt to persuade the unions to accept the Bill. It must be said that this was not a unqualified success as Castle's idea of persuasion was to harangue the assembled delegates and tell them that "this government has got to control forces in this society. It has to control the City, industry and the trade unions". Naturally the trade unions had no wish to be controlled by any government irrespective of its political inclinations and thus virtually the entire movement became united against In Place of Strife.

Opposition to the proposed legislation was a prominent feature of the May Day rallies of 1969 and a special Trades Union Congress held on the 5th June voted against the proposals by a margin of 8,252,000 votes to 359,000. The TUC also countered with the issue of their own document, Industrial Relations: A Programme for Action, where the TUC's idea of action boiled down to a promise of its best efforts to avoid strikes unless they are absolutely neccessary. Such was the scale of opposition that the the Bill was 'postponed' on the 18th June 1969, although as a face saving exercise an arrangement was made with the TUC whereby it promised to encourage union mergers and play a positive role in resolving disputes.

Ironically it was the Home Secretary James Callaghan (very much a trade union man) who took a leading role in the opposition to In Place of Strife. He was one of the members of the NEC who voted against the Bill, and he used all his political skills to kill the proposed bill. He later had occasion to regret this when he later became Prime Minister and the still unregulated trades unions brought forth the Winter of Discontent which destroyed whatever credibility remained with his government and brought it crashing to the ground.

Afterword

With the benefit of hindsight possible to see that In Place of Strife was the last best chance of the Labour movement to set its own house in order. Many of the proposals from In Place of Strife later resurfaced in the Industrial Relations Act 1971 passed by Edward Heath's Conservative government. This was vehemently opposed by Barabara Castle who promised to fight the bill line by line, seemingly unconcerned about the apparent contradiction between her newly adopted position, and her earlier advocacy of much the same thing.

In any event the Industrial Relations Act 1971 also failed in the face of universal hostility from the trade union movement. It was left to the Thatcher government of 1979-1990 to introduce a number of signifcant changes into trade union law including a specific requirement for pre-strike ballots. Once viewed as a fundamental assault on trade union rights these reforms have since been described as "common sense" by Tony Blair and have not been substantially amended by the Labour government post 1997.


SOURCES

  • In place of strife: a policy for industrial relations http://www.bopcris.ac.uk/bopall/ref13299.html
  • Trade Unions and the Law http://www.unionhistory.info/timeline/1960_2000_2.php
  • Single or Return - the official history of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association http://www.tssa.org.uk/about/single-or-return/chapter26.htm

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