GCHQ: a badge of honour for trade unionism

On 14 May 1997, just a fortnight after the landslide election of a Labour government, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook stood up in the House of Commons to announce that a thirteen-year ban on trade union membership at the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) was to be rescinded. The long-promised move brought to an end one of the longest-running industrial disputes in British history, and one of the most high-profile trade union campaigns of the 1980s.

The picture here shows one of numerous badges, plates and other items of memorabilia produced to support and promote the campaign, many of which were sold at the annual rallies held in Cheltenham by the TUC and civil service unions throughout the long years of the dispute and at events in which the GCHQ trade unions’ travelling roadshow took part. This example is in brass with red and white enamel; it has the manufacturer’s mark ’ADB’ on the back.

The ban had been announced by the Conservative Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in January 1984. Under pressure from US spy agencies to act, the Government claimed in introducing the ban that the involvement of workers at GCHQ in civil service pay strikes had put national security in jeopardy by undermining the UK’s ability to monitor global radio communications.

This justification was angrily rejected as untrue by the Labour Opposition, TUC and trade unions represented at GCHQ, branded a fundamental breach of civil liberties, and denounced as a slur on those involved.

When the ban took effect on 1 March 1984, 130 GCHQ employees opted to retain their trade union membership. Although many subsequently left for other jobs or retired, fourteen were finally dismissed in two waves in 1988 and 1989. Three of the original fourteen were eventually to resume their careers at GCHQ following Robin Cook’s announcement, and the fourteen would between them share a compensation payout of £550,000.

The Independent journalist Barrie Clement wrote a retrospective account of the dispute focusing on Mike Grindley, one of the final three GCHQ workers still holding out at the end of the dispute just as the ban was lifted. Read Sweet revenge for man who defied union ban at GCHQ.

The Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick holds the Archive of the GCHQ Trade Union Campaign.

GCHQ trade unions plate and badges from the long campaign.