British strikes pit Thatcher's capitalism vs. socialism
Britain's most controversial labor leader, Arthur Scargill, has seen the enemy ... and it's the capitalistic policies of the Thatcher government. Britain's most controversial politician, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has seen the enemy ... and it's the radical socialism of people like miners' union leader Scargill.
Such are the political battlelines in strike-ridden Britain, where political ideology is increasingly overshadowing the more basic bread-and-butter issues that prompt workers to down tools.
The miners' strike is now into its 19th week, with no end in sight. The much more recent dock strike has brought a total ban on all freight moving into and out of Britain. The Thatcher government says that, if necessary, it is ready to use emergency powers including troops to move those goods. But so far it is trying for conciliation rather than confrontation.
The politicization of the labor problems that have stopped many coal mines and stranded hundreds of freight trucks bearing highly perishable tomatoes and melons on the other side of the English Channel is making it harder for ''honest brokers'' to resolve the disputes.
One spokesman involved in arbitrating the dockers' strike says privately that he is at a loss to know how this particular dispute can be resolved. He says that although the original cause of the dispute - the use of nonregistered dockers at one British port - has been settled, there is no disposition on the part of the dockers' representatives to reach an agreement. He sees this as a clear case of political machinations, with dockers apparently holding out in support of the miners.
Defenders of the strike say that trouble has been brewing for months because of an often-expressed desire by port employers to move toward a more free-enterprise approach to hiring dockworkers which has aroused fears of job insecurity.
A labor expert wonders whether Britain has gone beyond the point of tolerance in accepting unprecedented levels of unemployment. A record number of well over 3 million people are out of work.
With public agitation mounting over spreading strikes, violence in the coal fields, rising interest rates, the falling pound sterling, and high unemployment , the debate over the future of Britain has become more intense. Two basic concerns surface here:
1. What kind of society should Britain have? Should it move more toward capitalism and free enterprise as espoused by Mrs. Thatcher, who is probably the most conservative of the postwar Conservative prime ministers? Or should it be more socialistic, as envisioned by Mr. Scargill and others?
Mr. Scargill sets off alarm bells even within the trade union movement because of his past conection with the Communist Party. He has made no secret of his desire to radicalize British society and to take extra-parliamentary action to get Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative government out of office.
Mrs. Thatcher's antipathy to the trade unions is barely disguised. It has aroused serious doubts within sections of the working classes that she has their interests at heart.
She is adamant that industrial strife must be squarely faced and that more private enterprise and protection of personal freedom are needed if the ''Great'' is to be put back into Great Britain.
2. What is the highest, ultimate authority in the land?
The Thatcher government has come down strongly on the side of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. The government says that the refusal of the National Union of Mineworkers' executive to hold a ballot among its members on whether to strike is the fundamental democratic rights of miners who wish to stay on the job. In addition, the violence committed by ''flying pickets'' (groups of strikers who try to enforce the strike on fellow workers around the country) against those continuing to report for their shifts is seen as tantamount to mob rule.
But the government's legalistic approach to trade unions has been embarrassingly undercut this week by a High Court verdict that the government had acted too hastily, and without prior consultation with the unions, in banning trade union membership among the staff at the Government Communications Center at Cheltenham. The center is a top-secret listening post whose monitoring results are routinely funneled to the US Central Intelligence Agency.
The court's invalidation of the government order puts a ''law and order'' government in the uncomfortable position of appearing to be on the wrong side of the law. Although the government intends to appeal the decision on the grounds of concern for national security, its more immediate concern is how to end the strikes.
The current miners' strike has already lasted longer than the 1972 and 1974 miners' strikes. Although the 1974 strike had as its end result a political consequence - the fall of then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath's government - both those earlier strikes were economically motivated.
But now the days are long gone when then miners' leader Joe Gormley, a comparatively right-wing union leader, would sit down with his counterpart on the National Coal Board and work out a deal. Says a labor expert familiar with both management and union leaders, ''Gormley realized the (miners' union) and the (coal board) were natural allies. They had a common interest. They both wanted the industry to survive.''
The atmosphere changed radically the moment Arthur Scargill took office in October 1981 because he regarded the coal board as enemy No. 1 of the union.
Other observers of the industrial relations scene suggest that if Mr. Scargill was itching for a confrontation, then Mrs. Thatcher must have known that she was being equally provocative by appointing a tough, no-nonsense industrialist like Ian MacGregor to head the National Coal Board.
A trade union spokesman says that Scargill and MacGregor are so personally antagonistic to each other and so diametrically opposed in economic outlook and political philosophy that he doesn't see much room for maneuver in the miners' strike.