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The reason I first joined a trade union was triggered by Tory anti-union legislation - #heartunions

© NUJ

8 February 2016

Anita Halpin, NUJ National Executive Council member

Looking back over nearly 45 years as a member of a trade union I realise that the fight to defend and advance trade union rights and freedoms has featured at a number of key points on that journey.

Even the reason I first joined a trade union was triggered by Tory anti-union legislation. Ted Heath’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act, steered through parliament by secretary of state for employment Robert Carr, introduced a register of unions and those who chose not to register were excluded from the very minimal protections in the Act.  

I’d just started work at the BMA in its specialist medical journals department The Association didn’t recognise unions collectively but made it clear that individual employees were only 'allowed' to join a registered union. So, I looked for what I thought was an appropriate non-registered union and joined ASTMS scientific and medical section. 

Yes, I admit that I didn’t realise at the time that what I was doing was journalism. Thankfully, when I went back to work when my son started school, one of my colleagues in the PR and comms department of a multinational pharmaceutical company was on the NUJ’s P&PR branch committee. She joined me up within a week and I became at 'proper' journalist.

And defending trade unions is also very much part of my home life. My husband Kevin was one of the founder members in the mid-60s of the rank-and-file liaison committee for the Defence of Trades Union (now merged into the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom). He was the committee chair for many years and I met him at a meeting where he described how the combination of protest, like the Massive Tower Hill demo, and rolling industrial action that freed the Pentonville dockers, killed that legislation stone dead.

Yes, the TUC did eventually call for a general strike, but it was too late; the dockers were out before the TUC general council met. In the 1970s union leaders and the TUC were very different than they are today. Some TUC affiliates registered under the Carr Act and it was not unknown for Congress House to call on the local police to move trade union members lobbying outside for 'disturbing the peace'.

That wouldn’t happen today; the TUC and Congress have made clear their outright opposition to the Trade Union Bill (which goes much further than Heath, Major or even Thatcher) and pledged the widest possible protest to kill it.

This is a radical, if not yet a revolutionary shift and the NUJ played a significant part in this.

Former NUJ general secretary John Foster when he was our national newspaper organiser established the Press for Union Rights Campaign in response to the Thatcher-led, Murdoch-assisted de-recognition across the newspaper industry.

The NUJ was seen by many sister unions as a bit of an anomaly and it took quite some time for the importance of this campaign and its demands seen as central to the aspirations of free and independent trades unions.

I was vice president when John became general secretary and remember some of those battles for our own 'recognition' over the years both on the floor of the annual Congress and later on the TUC general council.

Times change: the NUJ has had a chapel at the BMA for some 20 years; ASTMS is now part of Unite via TASS and Amicus, and Press for Union Rights is now also merged into the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. 

Industries and workplaces have changed and so have unions; some have grown, while others are much, much smaller or have disappeared.

We’ve had our own lows and highs but most importantly, the NUJ (my union) is still here as one of the very few remaining specialist craft unions in the TUC, punching well above its weight nationally and internationally; big is not always best.

The NUJ is supporting the TUC week of action #heartunions to celebrate the work of the trade union movement and to campaign against the government's divisive trade union bill.

Tags: , heartunions, tuc, trade union bill, branch, pr and communications branch