Commentary: Back To The Bad Old Days Of Strikes?

British unions are angry, but things are nowhere near as chaotic as in the '70s

On Oct. 16, local government workers in London went on strike, closing 184 schools and 84 libraries. They were joined by London employees of Royal Mail Group PLC, who are also demanding higher pay to meet the costs of living in the high-priced capital. Days later, Bob Crow, the tough-talking chief of the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers, threatened to bring the London Underground to a screeching halt. After two derailments, Crow wanted to underline his concern that the Tube's shift to private maintenance contractors was undermining safety.

What's going on here? Isn't Margaret Thatcher supposed to have crushed the unions beneath her heels? Are we about to see a resurgence of the bad old days of the 1970s, when strikes crippled the British economy and forced industry into three-day weeks? The sight of union leaders denouncing Tony Blair and his policies at September's Labour Party and trade union conferences certainly sent a shudder through Britons old enough to remember those grim times.

Don't panic yet. Britain isn't experiencing anything near the level of industrial disruption of past decades. In fact, the number of days lost to strikes has come down sharply since the 1970s and is the lowest in over a century. Experts also say that there's little chance the country will once again suffer through a period of intense labor strife. Many industries that used to be hit hardest by strikes -- coal, steel, shipbuilding, and auto manufacturing -- have relocated elsewhere or are under such fierce pressure from international rivals that workers are happy just to have a job. "People don't have the stomach for a fight, and it is not obvious what a fight would bring," says William Brown, professor of industrial relations at University of Cambridge. The trade unions, in fact, have lost much of the private sector. Only 19% of nonstate employees now carry union cards.

But couldn't the public-sector unions still trigger a labor uprising? Organized labor certainly remains strong there, with unions holding sway over 60% of the workforce. The friction gets hottest in areas subjected to tougher, cost-cutting regimes. Royal Mail Chairman Allan Leighton, the former boss of Britain's ASDA retail chain, is trying to cut some 30,000 jobs and bring the mail service back into the black. Last year the Royal Mail posted losses approaching $1 billion. The Oct. 16 strike was the second this month by London postal workers, who also staged a 24-hour walkout on Oct. 1 in hopes of gaining higher local pay.

Until recently, union honchos were so relieved to have a Labour government back in power after 18 years that they left Blair alone. But as trade unionists become more and more convinced that Blair's policies are not radically different from those of the Conservatives, they think there's something to gain by unleashing a few verbal potshots. Tony Woodley, the new head of the Transport & General Workers' Union, sent a buzz through September's trade union conference by castigating Blair on Iraq. "If I were the Prime Minister I would turn around, review my position, and apologize to this country," Woodley said.

But even in the public sector, changed realities seem likely to keep the unions in check. For one thing, their members are now mostly skilled workers who are more interested in preserving jobs and benefits than striking. The unions' mainstream leaders are careful not to go too far for fear of losing access to 10 Downing St. But if they stick to a calculated blend of carping and schmoozing, the union bosses can still have impact. For instance, Blair has promised that if local government workers are transferred to private companies, their new employers will have to offer them the same salaries and benefits.

For now, riders of the London Underground and many British train lines are hostage to the whims of RMT's Crow, a maverick leader with a choke hold on the capital. But even Crow must now contend with Ken Livingstone, the shrewd, populist mayor of London. Red Ken may be reluctant to criticize the unions, but he won't want them to spoil his chances for reelection in 2004. A full-fledged return of Britain's militant labor? Don't count on it.

By Stanley Reed

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