Huge rally to mark 40th anniversary of ban on unions at GCHQ

Trade unions at GCHQ were banned by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1984. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A huge protest will be held on Saturday to mark the 40th anniversary of the controversial ban on trade unions at the GCHQ communications headquarters.

Thousands of trade unionists will march through Cheltenham and hear speeches by senior union officials, many of whom are currently embroiled in long-running disputes with the government.

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government banned trade unions at GCHQ, citing security concerns.

Most workers quit their unions, but 14 refused as a matter of principle and were sacked. In 1997, the newly-elected Labour government lifted the ban and they were able to return to work.

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said the GCHQ dispute has a special place in labour movement history.

GCHQ's headquarters in Cheltenham. Credit: ITV News

He said there were parallels with the current row over the new law aimed at ensuring minimum levels of service during strikes, which unions have warned is unworkable.

“It doesn’t matter how much the government tries to ban, bully and intimidate unions, we know that right is on our side.

“The GCHQ workers had to wait 13 years for justice, but we expect Labour to live up to its commitment to repeal the Strikes Act within 100 days of winning the general election.

“What really depresses me is that despite the big issues facing the country – the state of public services, wages, ongoing cost-of-living crisis – the Government found time to launch yet another attack on unions.

“On Saturday, 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.”

Public and Commercial Services union 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, 40 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.”

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said that the Minimum Service Level law had echoes of the ban on union membership at GCHQ.

“Linking union membership with being loyal to your country was an insult at GCHQ, and it is similarly insulting to assume that public sector workers such as those in the NHS would not put the public first if they go on strike.

“The Tories have a blind spot when it comes to working people.”

The surviving members of the original GCHQ campaign – Alan Rowland, Robin Smith, Brian Johnson and Gareth Morris – and their families will be attending Saturday’s event as guests of honour.

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