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1971: Workers down tools over union rights

Hundreds of thousands of workers across Britain have taken part in an unofficial day of protest against the government's new industrial relations Bill.

Figures suggest over 100,000 workers walked out on strike in London alone - although only a tiny proportion of that number, about 2,000 joined a march through the capital.

Some reports suggest as many as 1.5 million people stopped work across the country.

The protest is the latest and biggest demonstration so far against the bill, which includes proposals for a strike ballot and a cooling-off period before any industrial action, as well as tighter controls on union agreements and membership.

Unions represented on the march included the boilermakers, printers and electrical workers. Postal workers, who have now been on strike for six weeks, also joined the protest. No national newspapers have been printed.

The Trades Union Congress has not officially endorsed the strike action - although it has been campaigning against the bill. The protesters deliberately chose to march past Congress House, headquarters of the TUC, to demonstrate their opposition to the bill.

Ultimatum

The rally was addressed by Bill McLaughlin, London organiser of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU).

He said: "We must confront this government with the ultimatum that if they will not change course, if they're insisting on bringing in this bill which limits our freedoms and our rights, then we must confront them with a declaration that there will be a national stoppage. I see no alternative."

Many of the demonstrators carried banners calling for a general strike on 18 March unless the government backs down.

In Context
Another protest took place in Glasgow on 7 March. An estimated 10,000 workers took part, calling on the government to "kill the bill".

The General Secretary of the TUC, Vic Feather, was continually heckled as he addressed the Glasgow rally. Workers were angry at the TUC's refusal to back strike action.

He said, "I hope very much there will be judges in the House of Lords who will point out the dangers in this bill, not only to the legal profession, but to the principles of democracy because this bill is not just an attack on the trade union movement, it is a limitation of free speech and a limitation of democratic action."

A newspaper report the same day indicated the government was prepared to back down and allow closed shops to operate in certain circumstances.

The bill was approved by MPs in August 1971 but proved largely ineffective. It fell to Margaret Thatcher's government to introduce a series of laws to curb the power of the unions in the 1980s.


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