GCHQ 40: the ban on trade unions in 1984

Hugh Lanning explains why the GCHQ struggle and eventual victory means so much to the British labour movement

Commentary icon22 Jan 2024|Comment

Hugh Lanning

Former Deputy General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS),

In 1984 no-one had heard of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the government’s then-secret intelligence-gathering centre — let alone that the staff were represented by trade unions.

All that changed on January 25 1984, when Margaret Thatcher’s government announced its decision to impose a total ban on trade union membership at GCHQ.

The decision came without warning or consultation, and it provoked a sustained campaign unparalleled in modern labour history. It ended in 1997 when, in one of its first decisions, the Labour government overturned the ban.

For more than 13 years, trade union members in GCHQ and their unions campaigned against the ban, inspired by a small group of brave GCHQ staff, led by the indefatigable Mike Grindley. They defied the ban, refusing to give up their trade union membership. They were made to resign, were transferred and, after many threats, in 1988, 14 staff were sacked.

Those individuals and the principle they fought for — the right to belong to a union — became a symbol for the protection of basic civil rights against an arbitrary, authoritarian and totally unnecessary act. They commanded huge support throughout the labour movement.

Thatcher’s claim that there was an “inherent conflict between the structure of trade unions and loyalty to the state” was roundly condemned.

In a remarkable speech in the Commons on February 27 1984 the shadow foreign secretary, Denis Healey, told MPs that Thatcher had forced on GCHQ staff “the most damaging conflict of loyalty known to man — loyalty to principle as against loyalty to family.”

The claim that the ban was in response to previous industrial action at GCHQ was rebutted by none other than the defence secretary, John Nott.

He told MPs he did not want to discuss the difficulties of earlier disputes and added: “but up to now they have not in any way affected operational capability in any area.”

In the intervening 13 years from 1984 until 1997 there was continuous campaigning — marches and rallies in Cheltenham in January every year, a TUC day of action when the sackings took place, legal challenges, roadshows and invitations to trade union conferences, international pressure and rebuke for the British government.

However, a key strand was obtaining pledges from opposition parties to restore trade union rights in GCHQ when they came to power. By the time of the general election in 1997, GCHQ trade unions had assiduously collected 41 pledges from the different leaders of the Labour Party.

Vague about what “we’ll return independent trade unions” or “we’ll return rights” would mean and precisely how it would happen, they did all say it would be one of the first acts or an early thing that would happen.

It felt like a long time from the election on May 1, but in reality, we only had to wait until May 15 until the new foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, made the announcement: “I can announce that the conditions of service of staff at GCHQ have today been changed, they once again have the freedom they previously enjoyed to join any trade union they choose.”

This was coupled with lifting what was done by royal prerogative to change the conditions of service of all staff to ban them from belonging to a trade union.

When trade unions proudly marched back into GCHQ in August 1997 much had changed. The staff federation had voted to join what is now PCS as the officially recognised union. Members were offered their jobs back and had their pensions restored as if they’d never been sacked.

Senior management welcomed union leaders and members back with a private briefing welcoming the return of unions and wanting a return to the sort of industrial relations that had existed before the ban.

As described by Grindley, the chair of GCHQ Trade Unions: “The unions in GCHQ before the ban not only provided the traditional benefits as regards pay bargaining, negotiation of terms and conditions of service, insistence on health and safety standards, independent professional advice and legal support; they also provided a window to the outside world, a lifeline to workers whose occupations involved secrecy and reticence, even towards their own families.”

The successful campaign to defend and restore trade union rights in GCHQ was a bulwark against government plans to extend the ban across other sectors of the public sector. It became a thorn in Thatcher’s side, preventing her from proceeding as she desired — to remove trade unions as an organised force from the public sector and beyond.

That struggle is mirrored in the government’s proposed legislation on minimum service levels and its general erosion of trade and workers’ rights. In celebrating the union movement’s success in GCHQ we are also committing to take on today’s challenge — learning from the past. The key was a committed, united campaign supported across the whole trade union movement — led by the brave example of ordinary union members standing up for their rights.

We owe our thanks to trade unionists in GCHQ, in PCS, the TUC and many other unions for what they achieved in defeating the ban. In celebrating that achievement in Cheltenham in January 40 years after the ban was proposed, let’s commit that we will show a similar determination and commitment to fighting against this government’s proposals.

Unions aren’t an “enemy within,” there is no “conflict of loyalties” in being a member — to belong to a trade union, the right to organise collectively to protect people in and out of work, is a fundamental human right. United we stand.

In honour of the GCHQ struggle, the TUC will he holding a Protect the Right to Strike march and rally on Saturday January 27 meeting at midday, Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham, GL50 1UL.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star. We thank them for their kind permission to reproduce it here.

Hugh Lanning

Hugh Lanning was the Deputy General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) until May 2013. Lanning and... Read more »