by Doina Cornell
The Tolpuddle Martyrs are familiar to many across the south west as a powerful story of workers seeking to unionise for better pay and feeling the full force of the established order trying to stop them. But we have a similar story much closer to home in Gloucestershire.
In 1984, Margaret Thatcher announced that it wasn’t possible for someone to be in a union and be loyal to their country. Workers at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham were banned from being in a union and had to sign a declaration that they would give up their membership. Over 100 GCHQ workers refused to sign away their union rights, but it wasn’t until late 1988 that the government unceremoniously sacked the last 14 workers who were still holding out in what became one of the most important trade union issues of the 1980s and the 1990s.
The response to the Tory government’s GCHQ ban turned into one of the longest continuously fought disputes in UK trade union history. For more than 13 years, a small group of brave GCHQ staff and their union campaigned for the right to belong to a union, commanding huge support throughout the labour movement.
Their principled and sustained campaign ended in 1997, when the new Labour government overturned the ban on unions. Staff at GCHQ are now members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS).
March & Rally 27 Jan 2024
Starting at Montpellier Gardens in Cheltenham
The 27 January event is run jointly by PCS and Trade Union Congress (TUC).
The march and rally will take place through Cheltenham, the home of GCHQ, to mark the anniversary of this ban on 27 January - the first Saturday after the anniversary.
The surviving members of the original campaign and their families will be attending as guests of honour, reminding us of the inspiring example set by their actions for years across the trade union movement.
The march is not only a commemoration of the ban and the unprecedented campaign which opposed it. This is also a moment to reflect on our own resistance today to persistent attacks on trade union freedoms.
These plans threaten to strip the democratic right to strike from hundreds of thousands of workers. Like Thatcher’s GCHQ ban of 1984, it’s obvious that this crude legislation is designed to limit the effectiveness of trade unions.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “40 years on, unions will march through Cheltenham to commemorate the GCHQ victory and to demonstrate continued defiance against minimum service level regulations and attacks on the right to strike. We will once again show a Conservative government that the full force of the union movement stands behind any worker sacked for trade union activity.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Margaret Thatcher’s decision to ban trade unions at GCHQ was part of her attack on unions in general but these workers weren’t prepared to accept it. Their principled decision not to give up their trade union membership saw them pay a massive price. Now, forty years on, as we celebrate their courage and determination, a different Conservative government is attacking trade union rights – this time they’re introducing Minimum Service Levels in a naked attack on our right to strike.
"Our message today is the same as it was in 1984 – we shall fight this injustice for however long it takes.”
After a long and inspirational campaign, the GCHQ ban was consigned to history in 1997. But the political rationale behind the decision by Thatcher – a hostility to the very existence of trade unions – remains. Attacks on unions and their ability to fight for justice and fairness at work are still with us.
Timings and location
12pm - gather at Montpellier Gardens
12:30 - march departs through town centre to Pittville Park (approximately 1 hour walk)
13:30 - rally in Pittville Park
The march will follow the route that the GCHQ campaigners took on their annual demonstrations, starting at Montpellier Gardens from noon, followed by a rally at Pittville Park.
Read more here: https://www.tuc.org.uk/protectrighttostrike
Union members who would like to attend can register here