20 January 2009
The GCHQ trade union campaign began after the decision by the Conservative government in January 1984 to ban unions at the GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters) intelligence gathering centre in Cheltenham.
The foreign secretary announced to a shocked House of Commons that independent unions would be banned from GCHQ. The TUC, CCSU, the leaders of all opposition parties, and MPs from all parties erupted in indignant anger at this declaration.
In the short period between the announcement and the implementation of the ban on 1 March 1984, the entire labour movement joined forces to oppose the ban.
The level of solidarity, particularly from trade union members in those areas unconnected with the civil service or even the public sector, was a great source of encouragement to their counterparts in GCHQ.
After 1 March, a determined group of 150 union members remained steadfast in refusing to give up their rights. They became known as the “GCHQ trade unionists”. In 1988, 14 workers were dismissed because of their refusal to resign their union membership.
The GCHQ trade unionists remained at the forefront of the campaign to restore trade union rights at GCHQ, travelling the length and breadth of the country talking to other union members about the campaign and the fundamental right to belong to a trade union.
The GCHQ campaign became one of the most important trade union issues during the 1980s and 1990s, with annual marches in January through Cheltenham until the ban was lifted.
With the election of a Labour government in May 1997, the rights of trade unionists at GCHQ were restored and the campaign ended. On Friday July 25 the sacked trade unionists made a symbolic march back inside GCHQ to mark the end of the infamous union ban, some of whom continue to work in GCHQ to this day.
Mike Grindley, one of the sacked trade unionists said: “We are all very proud of having been at the heart of the GCHQ trade unions campaign, and of having fought for the fundamental trade union rights to which everyone is entitled. We express our gratitude to all, both here and abroad, who have given us steadfast support since 1984.”
Hugh Lanning, our deputy general secretary commented: “The successful restoration of trade union rights, jobs, and pensions in 1997, was a huge achievement following a long running campaign, and we now have a thriving organisation in GCHQ.”
And the following is an extract from a statement by the late foreign secretary, Robin Cook, 15 May 1997 when union rights were restored to staff at GCHQ:
“The government have signalled their commitment to open and fair relations in the work place.
"As part of that commitment, I want today to right a long-standing wrong. Since 1984, we have been pledged to restore normal trade union rights to the staff of GCHQ.
"We are now honouring that pledge. …GCHQ staff make a valuable contribution to protecting the liberties and freedoms of our country. Today’s move enables them to share fully in one of the important liberties that they defend.”