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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
trade unions

From the late Middle Ages there were occasional attempts by workers to stand together when arguing with those who paid them, but the common law made it illegal to combine 'in restraint of trade'. The issue did not become important until the *Industrial Revolution and the development of the factory system during the 18C, when groups of skilled artisans began to form associations. The example of the *French Revolution alarmed the government into passing the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, which declared such associations to be criminal conspiracies against the public interest.

These acts were repealed in 1824, and several of today's unions have their earliest roots in the years immediately after that event. The surge of enthusiasm for what was now legal provoked the government into finding other ways of making it illegal, but the conviction of the *Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 (for unlawfully administering oaths) proved only a brief check on the proliferation of unions. The umbrella organization of the *TUC (Trades Union Congress) was established in 1868, and by the end of the century the movement was powerful enough to play a major part in the founding of the *Labour party.

The *General Strike of 1926 was an important assertion of nationwide solidarity, but it was after World War II that the unions came into their own. In subsequent decades union leaders (in particular the general secretary of the TUC) were treated almost as partners in government; as representatives of the nation's workforce they negotiated with politicians and civil servants at the highest level, often over beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street. This cosy arrangement did nothing to improve Britain's appalling industrial relations (known elsewhere as the *English disease), and restrictive practices were rife on the shop floor.

There was an abrupt change with the election of the Conservative administration in 1979 after the *'winter of discontent', and many would point to the subsequent reduction of the unions' misuse of power as Mrs *Thatcher's one undeniable achievement. Successive employment acts during the 1980s ended compulsory closed shops, removed legal immunities if strikes were called without a secret ballot, and reformed the law on *picketing. The *miners' strike of 1984 was the central trial of strength, which the government won.

The resulting decline in union power has been reflected in a marked decrease in the number of days lost through *strikes. It has also been accompanied by a steep drop in union membership, a tendency for unions to merge into much larger super-unions, and a growing campaign to reduce the influence of the block vote in the deliberations of the Labour party.

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