Over 5000 marched to mark 40th anniversary of GCHQ union ban and warn against further attacks on trade union rights

Thousands of people crowded the streets of Cheltenham on Saturday, bringing the town to a standstill. They came from all over the UK to mark the 40th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial ban on trade unions at GCHQ, the government’s intelligence and security organisation. They marched not only to remember but also to send a warning shot to this and future governments that the right to join a union was a right that should not be eroded and would be defended.

PCS, Northwest, one of the unions representing central government staff, tweeted on Saturday:

“Proud day for PCS, our brilliant samba band led the right to strike and GCHQ TU ban anniversary march in Cheltenham marking their 200th demo! And our GS, Mark Serwotka, delivered his last ever speech as our GS, marking a momentous campaign in our history as a union.”

Throughout the long campaign from 1984 to 1997, the civil service unions, then CPSA, PTC, IPMS and FDA, were supported by other trade unions and Saturday was no different. Unite and UCU were among other unions showing their support and commitment.

There is no doubt that In 1984 Thatcher underestimated the scale of resistance when she ordered staff, without any consultation, to resign their membership for a sum of £1000, minus tax, or face dismissal. Access to industrial tribunals was also banned. Her statement that trade union membership was incompatible with national security was seen as particularly chilling.

 130 GCHQ workers initially refused to sign away their union rights, but in the end fourteen members stood their ground and were sacked. These fourteen principled members became the focus of the campaign with over 200 events organised throughout the ban, including a series of one day strikes, legal challenges that ended up in the House of Lords, and the annual march through Cheltenham, supported by thousands of workers. The aim was to ensure that this attack on trade union rights would not be forgiven or forgotten. The concerted campaign, impressive for its longevity, scale of resistance and solidarity, was clearly a factor in the Labour Government’s decision to overturn the ban in 1997. Staff at GCHQ are now members of PCS.

However, speaker after speaker referred to the fact that the fight for union rights was not over.  They cited the latest move to restrict workers’ rights with the Strikes {Minimum Service Levels) Act.  This law stipulates that when workers in certain sectors lawfully vote to strike, they could be forced to return to work – and sacked if they don’t comply. This undemocratic new law could curtail the right to strike for 1 in 5 workers.

It was pointed out that this was the last thing our crumbling public services or our dedicated frontline workers need. They were clear, these draconian laws will poison industrial relations for decades to come.

The TUC has said they will resist and mobilise against yet another dangerous attack on trade union rights. They also vowed to hold Labour to its commitment to repeal this legislation within its first 100 days of office, and to call on all employers and public bodies to oppose this legislation – naming and shaming any employer who deploys a work notice as anti-union and anti-worker.

In his final speech as General Secretary of PCS, Mark Serwotka sent a strong warning to whichever government was in power, “Make no mistake. We won’t stand by and let workers get sacked for defending their pay and conditions. And we won’t rest until this law has been repealed. Our message today is the same as it was in 1984 – we shall fight this injustice for however long it takes.”

This was echoed by the thousands of union members who turned out to support the march, many of whom had been at every event since 1984. Nick Parker, a member of PCS said, “As we mark 40 years of the GCHQ trade union ban, we stand on the shoulders of giants and recommit ourselves to fight until the end for workers’ rights.”

The campaign against the ban at GCHQ was a model of trade union tenacity and solidarity. It is unlikely though that the campaign would have been successful without a change of government.  The example of Thatcher’s treatment of the miners at the time, and the lack of support by the wider trade union movement, suggests that even calling an all-out civil service strike wouldn’t have changed her stance.

If anything, the lessons learned are that, when dealing with ruthless governments, trade union solidarity will require more than a presence at rallies and messages of support, no matter how heartfelt they are.

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