United Kingdom

Capital: London
Population: 64.56m. (2014 est.)

The UK ratified ILO Convention No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, 1948) in 1949 and Convention No. 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, 1949) in 1950.

Under the common law tradition much trade union activity is conceptualised as unlawful, even criminal. Statutory labour law provides a number of 'immunities' and exceptions to this basic position. A highly complex legal regime for strike action provides numerous opportunities for employers to thwart strikes and places a high burden on unions to achieve compliance. Litigation and increasingly demanding legislation has increased these burdens over recent years. For much of the early and mid-20th Century a system of voluntary (but state encouraged) collective bargaining and wage council structures were rolled out. State support for these processes has been withdrawn but a number of significant large-scale 'voluntary' bargaining arrangements continue to operate, with unions negotiating minimum standards to cover tens, even hundreds, of thousands of workers in key sectors. Outside this most private sector bargaining is increasingly devolved to workplace level. Since the late 1990s a legal process has existed, supported by an arbitration committee, requiring employers to recognise unions where a balloting process shows majority support by relevant workers.

State support for bargaining is minimal, strike action is highly regulated, and protection for union organisers is relatively weak, however very serious civil liberties violations against trade unionists have been comparatively rare since the 1980s, when police violently repressed strike action by miners. The exception to this has been the extraordinary scandal of a vast blacklisting operation uncovered in the construction industry in 2009 by an organisation acting on behalf of multinational companies in the sector. Extensive litigation and research uncovered police collaboration with the illegal operation. Further evidence also emerged of mass State and private surveillance and shocking levels of interference in the work and private lives of trade unionists and other progressives and activists, including environmental groups, with profound economic, personal and psychological impacts on those who were targetted. The extent of these operations is still being uncovered in ongoing litigation and investigations. In 2018 there were two violent attacks by fascist thugs against trade unionists and the TUC's bookshop.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), founded in 1868, has never had a serious rival as Britain’s trade union centre. It has no direct role in bargaining and its powers over affiliated unions are limited, but its longevity and cohesion give it considerable authority as the voice of British trade unions. TUC is affiliated to the ITUC.

Full details of the country's political history, the development of trade unionism, and contact and affiliation details for all national trade union centres can be found in ICTUR's in-depth global reference book: Trade Unions of the World.

Link to reportFull country profile: United Kingdom, from Trade Unions of the World (2016)

Link to letterIntervention letter: fascist attack on union bookshop (2018)

Link to letterIntervention letter: fascist violence against union activists (2018)

Link to reportIUR journal: Focus on Brexit

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation
based in London, promoting international trade
union rights through research and advocacy services.
Email: ictur@ictur.org / Web: www.ictur.org