Margaret Thatcher and the Unions: are there lessons to be learned for Greece?

Margaret Thatcher and the Unions: are there lessons to be learned for Greece?
flickr © FotoFight

Thatcher’s passing ignited an on-going and controversial debate about her political legacy. The focus of that debate has been on how she transformed the British political, economic and social life. For many the one area which undergone the most radical transformation and is regarded as the greatest achievement of Thatcherism, was industrial relations.



Her opponents fiercely condemn her policies and continue to despise her like no other politician in modern times; her advocates swear by her political courage, strong conviction and non-nonsense approach that curbed trade union power. Whether one believes that the weakening of trade unions was a straightforward effect of Thatcherism or an unavoidable consequence of the economic situation at the time, it is undoubtedly the case that the extent of change in industrial relations in Britain has been shattering.


Unquestionably, there are major lessons to be learned from the Thatcher – trade unions confrontation, which transcend the British realm. During her premiership, Britain witnessed the longest period of strikes in the country’s history. Her confrontation with the unions was fierce and the outcome detrimental to the future of trade unionism in Britain. It is true that the Thatcher administration put an end to the dramatic ‘who governs Britain’ battle which had tarnished the Conservative government in 1973-74. However, it would be simplistic to solely view the curbing of union power as Thatcher’s victory. Rather, it can be argued that it was the trade unions that failed to stand up to the challenge and allowed to being defeated. In fact, trade unions disregarded the new context within which they had to operate, failed to adopt a pragmatic approach to problems and indulged in a ‘zero-sum game’ battle; conditions that shifted the balance of power towards the government.


As a result, Thatcher’s success in defeating the unions was contingent upon the failures of the opposite part. An essential point to bear in mind is that the changing political and economic environment was the defining factor. For the new Conservative government radical changes were needed as a response to the long period of trade unionism’s immensely negative power in the industrial relations field. The economic crisis and the Conservative government’s shift towards a monetarist policy provided the basis of anti-union legislation. In simple words, the harsh economic environment within which the market struggled to operate was used to justify attacks on unionism which was seen as obstructing the efficient operation of the market. For the left-leaning and Labour affiliated trade unions the Conservative government posed a threat to their interests; they had brought a Conservative Prime Minister (Edward Heath) down in the early 1970s and union leaders were prepared to fight and succeed at any cost in order to preserve their power and influence in policy-making.

Thatcher’s policies couldn't be implemented in Greece. Though the coalition government has taken some radical decisions -closure of the  ERT or blocking the proposed strike of school teachers- generally speaking, there is a lack of political power, willingness and heritage to support radical legislative changes.


Within such a context, both sides rejected the option of bargaining and compromise, and indulged in a ‘win or lose’ situation. The strong and decisive position of the government and the impact of recession on the one hand, and the failure of the trade union movement to appreciate and mostly, respond to the challenges of a rapidly changing environment, conditioned the outcome of the game. As it happens, there was a number of underlying factors that sealed the fate of the trade union movement in the 1980s Britain; factors that are highly comparable to the present situation in Greece. Trends such as high unemployment, the restructuring of the economy and major changes in the composition of the workforce had a negative long-term impact on trade unions which lost their capacity to enjoy political influence and defend the rights of their members. In fact, trade unions missed the opportunity to set new parameters of activity.  


Could Thatcher’s policies be implemented in Greece? The simple, straightforward answer is no. Though the coalition government has taken some radical decisions (the closure of the state broadcaster, ERT; or blocking the proposed strike of school teachers) generally speaking, there is a lack of political power, willingness and heritage to support radical legislative changes. So far the Greek government has been responsive rather than strong-willed and decisive. The most important question however, relates to the scope of activity of trade unions. Could the behaviour of the Greek trade unions differ from their British counterparts? Given their activity so far the most probable answer is also no. And that would not solely be the result of drastic government policy; besides legislation is a very significant means of change but if it is not used it is rendered relatively worthless and thus its implications are minimal. While trade union membership figures show an increase of 6% (period of 2003-2008, according to the European industrial relations observatory) unions have failed to reach out to the wider population. Contrariwise, public opinion is rendered sceptical towards industrial activity; a poll by Marc revealed that 72.6% of the citizens considered the school teachers plans to hold a strike as questionable. This emerging trend in lack of public sympathy can in the long term, discredit the bargaining position of trade union leadership.


How could one predict whether, and to what extent the behaviour and strategy of the trade union movement in Greece can change? The current political and economic turmoil presents an opportunity for all and mostly, for the unions to reinvent themselves; to reform their political strategy and internal procedures; to democratise and regain the support of the public and tolerance of the government; but most importantly, to stop using their power for disruption and militant extremism and focus on making positive gains for their members and ordinary workers. Probably the answer has already been given by Thatcher herself when she claimed that ‘… the object is to change the soul’.



Leave a comment