Britain struggles with moral, political issues of strike . . . while British unemployment hits 14 percent mark
Deep moral and political issues, as well as Britain's own image in the world, are at stake in the current and spectacular clashes between workers and management here.
Is a stop-work ''day of action,'' for instance, such as Britain saw Sept. 22, actually a ''day of inaction,'' even a ''day of futility,'' reducing the output of an ailing economy and undoing the prime minister's efforts in Asia to drum up more foreign investment to Britain?
Does it make economic sense to strike at a time when the jobless total here has just hit 3.34 million, or 14 percent of the work force?
Morally, is it right for union leaders to urge all unions to stage a stop-work ''day of action,'' as they did Sept. 22, to help one particular union win more pay, even though such ''secondary picketing'' breaks a law of the land?
If unions believe the law, passed by the Conservative majority in 1980, is a bad one, should they instead leave a decision to test it to the moral judgment of individual unionists, rather than urge and encourage protest?
Asked how workers in his office handled union pressure to strike, one British supervisor said: ''Some took a day's leave (vacation). That way they escaped union criticism for working, but morally, they didn't strike. I think many workers did the same thing around the country.''
Again, does the admittedly low pay of one section of British workers (in this case, the health workers) justify closing down bus lines, interrupting subways for an hour or all day, halting ambulances, closing mines, canceling national daily newspapers, sending children home early from school, and stopping school lunches for a day across Britain?
On the other hand, ought the Tory government to make an exception for health workers and nurses as a matter of moral rightness, given their low wages and the humanitarian nature of their work?
The picture presented by Britain is one of a nation divided between itself, even as it searches for a new economic as well as diplomatic role.
Beneath the clouds of confrontation rhetoric swirling across the landscape Sept. 22, and the claims and counterclaims of success, lay a Tory government determined not to yield more in pay settlements, and a union movement weakened by prolonged recession hunting for ways to make its voice heard in the corridors of power.
Despite the headlines, unions today appear to be losing power in Britain, not gaining it. Strikes are fewer and pay settlements lower. The Labour Party, reliant on union support, is torn by factional feuding.
The question being asked is whether the stop-work action and protest rallies Sept. 22 had ''succeeded.''
To Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in Asia trying to attract Japanese and Chinese investment, the headlines could hardly come at a worse time.
''Utterly futile,'' she called the protests.
To Social Services Minister Norman Fowler, the protests were openly political - ''some people wanting a punch-up with the government.'' He says flatly that the government's offer to health workers - 6 percent increases, plus a 7.5 percent offer to nurses - must stand, since the government has ''no more money to spare.''
The government offer would cost it some $:450 million a year (health services are nationalized here), already $:170 million over budget. Health workers' unions are asking for 12 percent, which would cost $:400 million more.
To Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Len Murray, Sept. 22 was a deeply moral day of labor solidarity. The law against secondary picketing was ''bad.''
The TUC had urged workers to strike for at least an hour. They claimed widespread support in the public sector, including schoolteachers and canteen workers, bus drivers, and miners as well as well-attended protest rallies in major cities.
To British industry, however, the day was a flop. Private industry went to work despite the lack of buses and lightning action by subway workers.