Just Like The Bloomin' Bad Old Days

It has been a trying summer for the British. I realized just how trying when someone spoke to me on the train. He didn't say much and, yes, it was about the weather--but he had spoken. Not since six-inch "snowdrifts" crippled the trains in 1986 had this happened to me.

What caused this exceptional break in British reserve? A rail strike that began on June 15 when signal workers walked out over pay. At first, the trains were halted one day a week. But after six weeks and no sign of a settlement, the strikers began disrupting as many as three days in seven. Now, in the tradition of World War II, Londoners are banding together, soldiering on, and even speaking to fellow commuters.

"LAST FLING." This strike has symbolic meaning out of proportion to its size. "This is the last vestige, the last fling of old-style industrial relations," says Robin Aspinall, chief economist at stockbrokers Panmure Gordon. Jimmy Knapp, the gravel-voiced general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers, is one of Britain's last old-fashioned, leftist labor leaders. He's fighting looming privatization and the loss of jobs that would follow. In the opposite corner is Bob Horton, the abrasive former chairman of British Petroleum Co. and now chairman of Railtrack, the company set up by British Railway to operate track and signaling operations in an April restructuring.

So far, the strike--the worst on the rails in 12 years--has cost the railroad industry more than $195 million, according to British Railway. As for the cost to the British economy, estimates for July are $500 million, about 0.67% of the month's total gross domestic product, says Maurice Fitzpatrick of accountants Chantrey Vellacott. If the strike continues through September, it could reduce Britain's $900 billion annual GDP by about 0.2%, he predicts.

The numbers tell only part of the story. In the southeast, where people are most reliant on the train, the strike has left some 400,000 London-bound commuters scrambling for alternate transportation. On the first strike day, a particularly sunny one, absenteeism was high. A dozy Wednesday spent "working from home" (which mostly meant from the garden in suburbs such as Tunbridge Wells) appealed to many people.

But as the strike days continued, the daily hegira to work resumed--despite laptops and fax machines. Some commuters cram into the strike-busting trains, staffed by managers and strike breakers, which have become more common. Others have joined the 150,000 who regularly drive into town, slowing London's already sclerotic traffic flow. On strike days, it's gridlock by 6 a.m.--unheard nf in late-rising London. The slow speeds are particularly vexing in this unusually hot summer--July was the warmest since 1659--since only 2% to 3% of cars have air-conditioning.

TOURIST CLASS. To beat the traffic, some commuters have dusted off their "push bikes," as bicycles are known. Heinrich Wenzel started pedaling an hour and a half each way from the far-off suburb of Reigate, in Surrey, and reports that he has had only one near-death experience. "A cyclist's life in London is not an easy one," he says. "But it's better than sitting in traffic." The diesel fumes and the need for speed prompted him to rent a motorcycle. "Now, British Rail has lost me forever on sunny days," he says.

Some commuters are even making the ultimate sacrifice: carpooling. Maybe, I thought, something environmentally friendly will come out of the strike. Not likely, says E. Rayner Peett, an Automobile Assn. spokesperson. "We have every faith that as soon as this crisis is over, British reserve will reassert itself and people will stop car-sharing--and talking on the trains."

On the second strike day, I took a tip from Chris Tarrant, London's favorite morning disk jockey, and headed home on a Thames River dourist boat. In 90F heat, it was filled to the gunwales with sweltering commuters in broadstripe suitst. They sat quietly through a guide's spiel on Charles Dickens' favorite pub but found the bar--geared to selling the occasional overpriced soft drink--woefully unprepared for the rush of parched workers looking for something a bit stronger. I feared things would turn nasty, but politeness prevailed. Some commuters even tipped the guide.

By now, workers have mastered strike-day drills, but businesses still fret about lost hours. Lloyds Bank has been running 80 buses to transport its employees, at a cost of $75,000 a day. "We can't afford the impact on revenue and perception if a branch cannot open," says a bank spokesperson. Of course, some businesses--hotels and bus lines--are winners.

Even after 12 weeks, though, "this is nothing, compared with the `winter of discontent' in 1978-79," says one friend. Then, everyone from sanitation workers to bread bakers struck. The fatal blow came when the Liverpool grave diggers went out. Down went Labor's James Callaghan. Up came Margaret Thatcher.

Now, "time lost in industrial action is at its lowest in 100 years," says Patrick Minford, a Liverpool University economist. Some 30,000 working days were lost to strikes in 1979, but less than 1,000 in each of the past three years. This strike, says Minford, is only a blip: The breakup and privatization of big nationalized industries has eliminated the power base of traditional labor.

DIGGING IN. Still, the fear of a return to the bad old days is real: "There has been one theory that, if the government settles with Railtrack, floods of public-sector workers would come forward with their hands out," says Adrian Cooper, a specialist on the British economy at stockbrokers James Capel & Co. Indeed, some 10,000 London Underground workers, upset with their latest salary offer, will decide in September whether to join the signal workers' strike. If the strike spreads, business leaders fear that England's fragile recovery will stall.

While the tube workers contemplate strike action, Railtrack has plans to strengthen its position. There are rumors that the striking employees will be fired. Meanwhile, Railtrack is looking to rehire retirees, and British Rail is offering some of its own signal-box-trained employees to Railtrack.

It looks as if both sides are digging in for a war of attrition. But someday, I suppose, train service will return to normal. Life will be easier, with the old routine of the overcrowded 7:21 and the delayed 18:50. As we slip back into our silent commute, we will have to wait to see if this winter brings snow, and with it the opportunity to hear each other's voices again.

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