This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Labour government lifting the Tory-imposed ban on trade unions at the government’s communications headquarters in Cheltenham.
On 25 January 1984 all GCHQ workers were ordered to leave their trade unions by 1 March or face dismissal. Those who signed away their rights received a payment of £1000, less tax. The Tory government’s ban came out of the blue and a long struggle began, turning into the second longest continuously fought dispute in UK trade union history.
130 GCHQ workers refused to sign away their union rights but it wasn’t until late 1988 that the government sacked the last 14 workers who were still holding out. The first four sackings, in November, including Mike Grindley, branch chair, and were followed by 10 more during December and into the spring of 1989.
For the next 4,860 days, until the ban was overturned by the incoming Labour government in May 1997, the GCHQ trade unionists campaigned tirelessly against the ban.
Mike Grindley recalls: “We published 150 issues of our campaign journal ‘Warning Signal’, gave countless media interviews and received thousands of support messages. We criss-crossed the country to address trade union and party political conferences and branch meetings, trades councils, rallies and seminars. MPs were regularly lobbied.
“By 1997 our campaigning ‘Roadshow’ had covered over 150,000 miles, attended over 350 events and raised large sums of money for the fight. Every January saw multitudes rally in Cheltenham to show support and listen to top-level political and TUC speakers, each march through the town led by the NUM Frickley Colliery brass band or the GMB Glasgow pipe band.”
The way trade unionists were treated at GCHQ in the 1980s has many parallels with events today.
Mike said: “What they did to us in 1984 showed the government’s true intentions against trade unionism. It was no aberration, but a carefully planned attempt to try and render powerless the grass-roots mass organisation that stands in the way of the destruction of the welfare state and the lowering of civilised living standards for all.”
The announcement of the lifting of the ban was made at the conference in Blackpool on 14 May, 1997 of the Public Services, Tax and Commerce Union (PTC), which merged with the CPSA to form PCS in March 1998, with the official announcement being made by foreign secretary Robin Cook the day after.
PCS’s 2017 annual delegate conference will be marking the 20-year anniversary of the lifting of a ban on Wednesday, 24 May at 3.45pm. National president Janice Godrich will introduce a presentation about the campaign and general secretary Mark Serwotka will also speak. About 15 members who are existing or former Government Communications Group (GCG) branch members have been invited to attend.