BRITISH trade unionists have voted decisively in favor of curbing their powers and say they would support a Labour government that set strict limits on the right to strike. The decision, passed by an overwhelming majority at the annual meeting of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Blackpool, means that many of the laws passed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government during an 11-year campaign to restrict union rights will be accepted by the Labour Party if it defeats the ruling Conservatives in the next general election.
Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who hopes to become prime minister, welcomed the result and told TUC delegates that they could expect no favors from a Labour government.
The TUC, with a membership of 8.4 million, brings together under one umbrella most of Britain's unionized workers. In past years, it could be counted upon to insist on members' rights to make their own decisions about industrial matters, without the need for a government-sanctioned framework of law. Cartoonists always used to depict the TUC as an old and stubborn cart horse.
Mr. Kinnock has been trying to modernize the movement and persuade it to abandon policies that in the last three general elections (all won by Mrs. Thatcher) turned millions of voters away. At the Blackpool meeting, his efforts paid off. Organized labor in effect endorsed, by a big majority, industrial relations policies decided on earlier this year by the Labour Party after exhaustive internal debate.
Tony Blair, Labour's employment spokesman, said Monday that the vote would clear the way for a forward-looking approach by the TUC to industrial matters. The entrenched attitudes of the past, he said, had been ``laid to rest.''
The policies now endorsed by the TUC outlaw the closed shop, require secret ballots in electing union officers and taking decisions on strike action, and set tight limits on secondary picketing (demonstrations in support of strikes by workers not directly involved in an industrial dispute).
These are all policies originally adopted by the Thatcher government. A Conservative Party official said: ``The TUC vote at Blackpool goes to show that Mrs. Thatcher has tamed the trade unions once and for all.''
Norman Willis, the TUC general secretary, hailed the decision to back the Kinnock strategy as ``an historic step'' and described the new policies as ``fair and balanced.''
Until Thatcher came to power in 1979, British trade unions enjoyed extensive immunity under the law. Kinnock has campaigned vigorously for four years to persuade the voting public that his party no longer is overindulgent toward trade unions and that a Labour government would not allow itself to be pushed around by them.
The move to endorse the Kinnock approach was opposed at Blackpool by Nalgo, the union of local government workers, and other smaller unions. They argued that trade union laws should be restored, broadly speaking, to what they were before Thatcher came to power. A last-ditch attempt by Nalgo to challenge the Kinnock approach to industrial law by demanding the repeal of all Thatcherite industrial legislation was defeated, however, by almost a million votes.
Keith Harper, an industrial relations analyst, notes that during the Thatcher era total TUC membership has fallen from more than 12 million to 8.4 million. There has also been a heavy reduction in the numbers of individual trade unions.
Twenty years ago 180 unions were affiliated with the TUC. By 1979 there were 112. This year 77 turned up at Blackpool.
``Far from being the cart horse of old, the TUC will be a much more nimble animal,'' Mr. Harper says. ``Its future is as a research organization providing up to date material on labor market issues, industrial relations, pay, and changing work patterns. I see it as a kind of think tank for the shop floor.''