GCHQ union ban 40 years on: fight for union rights continues

Chris Baugh, former assistant general secretary of the PCS (2004-2019)

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstration on 27 January in Cheltenham to defend the right to strike has been called on the 40th anniversary of the decision of Thatcher’s Tory government to ban unions at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and security service, in 1984. This produced outrage from workers at GCHQ, a spontaneous wave of strikes by tens of thousands of civil service workers across all major departments, and a TUC-called day of action on 28 February. The Militant newspaper, forerunner of the Socialist, reported at the time that in towns and cities from Derry to Dover, from the north of Scotland to Cornwall, workers showed their anger at this injury to one set of workers.

It was seen as the thin end of a very large wedge, and civil servants were joined by trade unionists in public services and from industry on demonstrations and rallies which far exceeded the expectations of the organisers. Thousands marched in central London. In Glasgow, 3,000 people crammed into a meeting with another 3,000 having to join an impromptu rally at a nearby bandstand.

At least 5,000 demonstrated in Liverpool, with thousands of workers taking action at Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, Cammel Laird, bus workers, dockers, Pilkingtons and Plesseys. In Birmingham 5,000 rallied. BL Longbridge stopped work and in Coventry, well over 15,000 struck at Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Massey Ferguson and Alvis. In Manchester, a rally at Free Trade Hall was packed solid, with doors closed a quarter of an hour before it started. Railways came to a standstill, the airports closed in the afternoon, and firefighters answered only emergency calls.

Similar rallies took place across Cardiff, Edinburgh, Dundee, Bristol and most other towns and cities. This included marches and rallies in Cheltenham, Gloucester, Bath, Weymouth, Bournemouth and Dover. In my hometown, hundreds packed Blackpool Trades Club to the rafters with civil servants joined by many other trade unionists. A rally not surpassed in size until the Anti-Poll Tax campaign and the successful Oyston Out campaign by local football fans

Thatcher’s plan

As set out meticulously in the infamous Ridley Plan, Thatcher was determined to neutralise the power of organised labour and had started with a range of laws restricting trade union activities, including the right to take solidarity or so-called secondary action. By the autumn of 1983, the print unions were under attack at Warrington and Wapping. In 1984 the year-long miners’ strike began, constituting an attack upon the most powerful union in Britain and an industry that provided jobs and had sustained working-class communities for decades.

The outcome and impact of this heroic strike was a turning point in modern British history. At the time, the film director Ken Loach was commissioned by Thames television to make a documentary series about trade unions called ‘Questions of Leadership’. The theme he chose was to show how the various key strikes in the early years of the Thatcher government were kept separate. There were nationwide strikes in steel, on the docks, in the car industry and in the NHS and civil service.

He revealed how this was achieved through the compliance of many union leaders. In one episode, the right-wing leader of the electricians’ union EETPU Frank Chapple was interviewed. At one point he became so infuriated by Loach’s line of questions he told him he would make sure it was never shown on television. Not surprisingly, this documentary series was dropped by Thames and has never been shown on terrestrial television!

It shows how there were many missed opportunities in the decades since Thatcher and the importance of holding union leaders to account. The GCHQ union ban heralded the start of many industrial battles and it is important we learn the lessons from the past as the trade union movement builds on a renewed confidence and confronts the latest threat to union rights from a Tory government. It was against this volatile industrial background that the Thatcher government decided to ban unions at GCHQ.

Trade union campaign

Although even more secretive than its sister services MI5 and MI6 which did not, GCHQ had always recognised trade unions. The civil service union for senior staff, FDA has since secured recognition in MI5.

It was 25 January 1984 that the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe told a shocked House of Commons that as from 1 March 1984, independent unions would be banned from GCHQ. As Mike Grindley, a Chinese linguist at GCHQ and who became one of the principled ‘refusenicks’ and leader of the campaign to restore union rights said: “It was carefully prepared in secret and came as a bolt from the blue – bang!”

In 1981, the director of GCHQ Brian Tovey strongly urged the Thatcher government of the need for a ban because of the involvement of union members in the major civil service pay strike in 1981. While GCHQ has little history of union militancy, in 1979 there was a strike of radio operators and there had been a series of ongoing contested pay and grading issues. The public reason given for the ban was that industrial action could have had serious consequences for national security. In fact in 1981, Sir John Nott, then defence secretary, insisted: “This dispute has not in any way affected operational capacity.”

Cheltenham was effectively a vast factory that produced intelligence on an industrial scale. As in all factories, even secret ones, the conflict between workers and bosses applies. The close relationship between US and UK intelligence was an underlying factor in the decision. The US were unhappy with the strikes and argued they had an impact on GCHQ’s growing role as the processor of information from the new US satellites. The US National Security Agency (NSA) was picking up a vast amount of new information, not least following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1981, and relied on GCHQ and the Australian and Canadian security services. Neither could they understand the strong opposition to deploy Polygraph, a form of lie-detector test upon GCHQ staff.

The Radcliffe Report in 1962 raised concerns about the role of communists in the civil service. Lord Armstrong introduced a report to the Thatcher Cabinet in 1982 of a threat raised by MI5 of the growing influence of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) in the CPSA, a predecessor union to PCS. They were deemed as ‘subversives’ and a discussion took place on how they should be dealt with. The concerns of the secret state were always shared by the right wing so-called ‘moderate’ faction in CPSA.

Its founder and leader, a formidable and rabid anti-communist and anti-Trotskyist, Kate Losinska OBE, had long argued for implementation of the Radcliffe Report and, in the diaries of right-wing journalist Woodrow Wyatt, Losinska visited Thatcher at Number 10 on at least one occasion following the GCHQ ban. These secret meetings took place while the TUC General Secretary Len Murray, Alistair Graham Genral Secretary of CPSA, and other civil service union leaders, were in negotiation to offer a no-strike deal in return for a restoration of union rights, that was contemptuously thrown back at them by Thatcher.

Union-busting tactics

The ban meant the workers at GCHQ were presented with a classic union-busting tactic. Each worker got a letter telling them that they must immediately resign membership of any registered, independent trade union or face the sack. In return, each worker was to be given £1,000 and invited to join what in the US they call ‘yellow-dog unions’, an employer-controlled entity called the GCHQ Staff Federation. Option B was to ask to be redeployed to another civil service department. Option C was face dismissal. Out of 8,000 staff, the overwhelming majority from fear of dismissal and seeing the reluctance of union leaders to build on the widespread support, went for Option A. Around 150 were redeployed leaving a group of around 150 GCHQ trade unionists, led by Mike Grindley and many others, who founded the GCHQ Free Trade Unions which waged an heroic struggle that eventually led to the restoration of union rights under the New Labour government. It represented an important step in enabling collective bargaining, individual representation and access to arbitration in the event of disputes over pay, grading or other employment issues. It also contains the ‘no-disruption agreement’ that was rejected by Thatcher.

Those who went for Option C either resigned or were eventually sacked. They deserve a special place in the annals of trade union history. A Judicial Review in autumn 1984 found in favour of the union case concluding the union ban was “invalid and of no effect”. The three Appeal Court Judges overturned the decision and found that the ban “which had been carried out under the royal prerogative were not susceptible to a judicial review on the grounds of national security”. After the initial Court decision, nearly 200 staff rejoined the union. They were eventually sacked alongside the original refuseniks. The GCHQ Free Trade Unionists conducted a long campaign of writing and lobbying. For many years the TUC organised an annual march and rally at Cheltenham.

History is more than nostalgia. The 27 January TUC demonstration is a chance to celebrate the struggle of GCHQ trade unionists to defend union rights. And it carries lessons for the immediate threat we face from the latest piece of Tory anti-union legislation – that an injury to one is an injury to all. Any employer contemplating using a work notice under the new Act must themselves be put on notice.

The use of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act against any worker needs to meet the collective power of the unions, for all workers to join and get active in unions, and in future struggles to defend union rights and their place in the fight for socialist change.