Industrial Relations in Local Government

Published date01 January 1984
Date01 January 1984
AuthorGuy Harkin
Subject MatterHR & organizational behaviour
Relations in
by Guy Harkin
Preston Polytechnic
The popular image of industrial relations in local government
is one in which negotiations consist of genteel tête-à-têtes
over coffee and (if the meetings spill over into the afternoon)
Though there is little in the activities of 1984 to justify
this conception the traditions which give rise to it were real
The main white collar union, NALGO, had its origins
in a nineteenth century campaign by senior officers, led in-
evitably by a Town Clerk, to press for a local authority
sion scheme. The union was officially launched in July 1905
and saw itself as an association of professionals rather than
a union of employees. Indeed it was not until 65 years after
its launch that NALGO sanctioned its first-ever strike when
18 of its 400,000 members took industrial action in Leeds.
An article in NALGO's own journal, Public Service, summed
up the old-style NALGO in 1975.
"Comfortable, uncomplaining and isolated from the trials
and tribulations of the world outside. Once in a job you
stayed in. NALGO itself had an air of destiny: if the
Almighty was a card holder in a union then NALGO would
hold his ticket. No strikes, no trouble and a quiet fusty-
dusty daily round that meant wearing a dark suit from
Monday until Friday. The world extended as far as the
town hall steps and politics were as welcome as
The reluctance of NALGO to affiliate to the TUC was symp-
tomatic of the extent to which it saw itself as different from
the vulgar trade unionists who populated the world beyond
the town hall steps. The campaign to persuade the union
to affiliate began in 1921 but made little headway in the 20s
and 30s. In 1936 a motion calling for affiliation to the TUC
was defeated at conference but by the early 1940s the cam-
paign was successful in securing a ballot of the member-
The first ballot in 1942 produced a majority of those
voting in favour of affiliation but a low poll which was not
large enough to change the status quo. Further ballots in
1955, 1958 and 1962 produced higher polls but
majorities against affiliation! Even when a successful result
was eventually obtained in 1964 more than 40 per cent of
those ballotted still preferred to remain outside the
mainstream of the trade union movement; but both attitudes
in local government and indeed the centre of gravity of
NALGO itself changed greatly in the late 60s and early 70s.
To some extent this can be explained in terms of secular
changes within wider society. People were becoming less
deferential and workers in local government were less
ing to accept without question instructions which came
from above or for that matter a situation in which senior
union positions were
for the most part, by senior local
government officers. If some of the explanation is to be
found in society as a whole, part of the change can be ex-
plained by the changing personnel profile of local govern-
ment. Between 1965 and 1975 NALGO grew by 68 per
cent(2). People were recruited into local government from
industry and they brought with them attitudes towards in-
dustrial relations and industrial action wholly alien to the
traditional local government officer.
Local government manual workers, too, have far higher
aspirations than in the past. In the past the GMWU
dominated the manual worker scene in local government
and was rightly characterised as moderate to the point of
torpor. Though industrial relations difficulties were not
unknown they tended to be rare and quietly resolved. The
growth of NUPE has put an end to the "sweetheart" rela-
tionship in that NUPE is an avowedly militant union and the
GMWU has responded to the challenge posed by NUPE by
pursuing the interests of its members in local government
with greater vigour and resolve. When Alan Fisher became
General Secretary of NUPE in 1967 the union had just a
quarter of a million members; a decade later the figure was
just short of 600,000. This growth came partly from the
internal growth of local government employment mention-
ed above but it also resulted from an aggressive campaign
to recruit those who were previously ununionised and by
any standards very poorly paid(3). The manual workers' pay
strike of 1970 signalled that NUPE meant business and dur-
ing the 1970s it took over from GMWU as the dominant
union for local government manual workers.
By the early 1970s,
both the white collar and the
manual workers employed by local authorities were willing
to take vigorous action in pursuit of rising expectations. It
was this new militancy and these new aspirations which pro-
vided the challenging environment in which local govern-
ment industrial relations men were blooded.
28 ER 6,1 1984

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