The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 6


British Labor's New Start

by Samantha Sparks

This May was Britain's hottest in 25 years. Farmers are worried: insects and drought are threatening crops. Pollution in the island nation's waterways has reached unprecedented levels, killing hundreds of thousands of fish and forcing periodic shut- downs of town water systems. Amidst a furious media debate over the declaration by the Conservative social minister that poverty in Britain has all but disappeared, monthly inflation reached its highest level in seven years. And in the most dramatic of several burgeoning strikes, London's public transportation system suffered the most crippling shut-down by workers in the last 60 years.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cannot control the weather, but people seem to be holding her responsible for just about all of Britain's other problems. With worker protests threatened or underway by groups from doctors to dockers, the country is bracing for a summer of unrest not seen since the outbreak of strikes in the 1979 "Winter of Discontent" that ushered in Thatcher's rule.

This time as last, demands for higher wages are at the heart of most of the labor disputes. The pay pinch is due to worsening macro-economic conditions: Britain, like other western industrial nations, appears stuck in a period of slower growth and higher inflation. Government figures released in late May showed that most pay increases fell short of the official level of an 8.3 percent price increase needed to maintain living standards. Initial pay offers for train, bus and underground drivers, university teachers and British Broadcasting Corporation journalists, among others, were 7 percent or less.

For some workers, however, there are broader concerns. The insufficient pay raises are only part of what they perceive to be management attempts to restructure working conditions fundamentally and adversely without offering adequate compensation through higher wages or better hours. This complaint is central to the London Underground workers' strike. The Underground system is undergoing major changes including a station automation program. "Automation should go hand-in-hand with improved working conditions, like reduced working hours. There should be a spin-off to the worker, as well as to the customer. Right now there is no spin-off at all," says Laurie Harris, a spokesperson for the National Union of Railwaymen which represents most of London's Underground train drivers.

For most of its 135 year history, says Harris, the system was "a transportation service. Now managers are being told to operate as a business, which means cost-cutting."

Like the automation program, the introduction of One Person Operated trains has reduced personnel and the unions contend that it has reduced safety too. According to Derek Follick, the newly elected General Secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, only a few years ago such changes "would have lead to wholesale strikes." Indeed, the fire at King's Cross station in 1987 which killed 31 people showed the potential for disaster in running an old and dilapidated system, at its greatest usage ever, on a cost-cutting budget.

If the discontent this year is more diffuse than a decade ago, it may nevertheless prove more systemic. The feeling is growing, and not just among the union members, that after 10 years of Thatcher's radical reforms, it is time to pause and consider whether the social costs are beginning to outstrip the gains. Follick believes that workers have realized that Thatcher was not working in their interest. He says that the prime minister is facing very determined opposition from labor. "Margaret Thatcher's chickens are coming home to roost. She said she wanted to take the power away from the wicked trade union leaders and give it to the members. Well, the members are showing her exactly what they do with that power."

It is not just the unions that criticize Thatcher's costcutting and privatization. The wildcat strikers on the London Underground were reported to have the support of most Londoners, because travelling conditions on the public transport system have deteriorated so much. The investigation into the King's Cross fire exposed how communications between management and the reduced workforce have lapsed; there has been little or no coordination between the two groups in developing new safety operations and procedures to accompany the new technology.

Likewise, the government has run into stiff opposition from doctors in the British Medical Association for its plans to run the National Health Service on more cost-conscious terms. Thatcher's plan to sell off the national water works has triggered anger and fear that drinking water will be unsafe in profit-making, private hands.

At the same time, Thatcher has so fundamentally changed the legal and philosophical framework of working peoples' lives that unions, and the Labour Party they support, cannot simply offer a return to their old policies. The challenge they now face is to forge an alternative agenda to Thatcher's, an agenda which takes into account the need for modernization and international competitiveness without ignoring the need to restore and improve worker rights.

The outlook for the unions, however, is not good. The Labour Party's just-completed two-year policy review reveals just how successful Thatcher has been in defining the parameters of political debate. Now, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, once "the compliant spokesman of organized labor ... has donned the garb of the national leader who believes that trade unions can never again be allowed the licence they enjoyed before 1979," crowed the conservative London Times.

Kinnock's caution reflects public opinion polls. Public concern over the social price of the Conservative Party's programs has grown, but resentment of workers' power and memories of 1979, when the unions were denounced as "out of control," are still strong. More importantly, over the past 10 years the Thatcher government has systematically removed keylawsthat protected worker rights, thereby strengthening the power of the courts to rule (almost always unfavorably for labor) on industrial is-sues. According to British labor researchers, Ken Coates and Tony Topham, authors of Trade Unions in Britain, such changes "have wrought a transformation of labor law, to the point where the immunities attached to strikes or other industrial action have been diminished to minimal proportions. Trade unions' own internal affairs are now subject to extensive state and judidal interference, and individual workers' rights have been pared away by wholesale amendments and repeals."

Rory Murphy, an assistant secretary of the Manufacturers Science and Finance, says "the Tories have effectively sought to legislate trade unions out of existence. It's almost illegal to strike. Wildcats are the only ones that get through. Thatcher has effectively written the agenda."

In the past 10 years:

  • Closed shops have been banned.
  • The definition of "trade dispute" has been narrowed to relate only to conflict between workers and their own employer. Previously, disputes could deal with any employer. The new definition has far-reaching implications for workers in subsidiary companies. Disputes now must relate "wholly or mainly" to a specific list of employment issues. As the striking dockworkers found, this change has made unions subject to injunctions for workplace disputes defined as "political" or "ideological" and therefore illegal under the new law.
  • All strikes or official actions must be authorized by a ballot of union members involved, in order to qualify for immunity under the law. The balloting must be con-ducted according to guidelines in the law and is not protected from outside interference. The courts recently rejected a strike ballot by the National Union of Railway-men as improperly worded, forcing them to put an industrial action on hold.
  • Parent unions have been made liable for the actions of their branches.
  • Union funds and assets are no longer protected from contempt of court rulings. Union funds can be used to pay fines, or even sequestered by the courts. With the judiciary heavily biased in favor of employers, this change has made unions very cautious about taking action.
  • Secondary actions by unions are not protected. Nor are actions to compel an employer to recognize or give negotiating rights to workers who are not involved in the action.
  • The laws against unfair dismissal have been weakened. Protection against unfair dismissal was available to workers with six months' service in 1979; now only workers with two years' service qualify.

Workers cannot be stopped from striking to protest unjust conditions, though they are likely to use unofficial "wildcat" walkouts more than in the past. This is evident in the current rash of industrial unrest. The dockworkers, traditionally a group reluctant to strike though very militant once out, delayed taking industrial action until the courts had ruled on the employers' charge that they were after a political, not an industrial goal. (The government plans to abolish a national employment scheme and the dockers want their employers to replace it with some-thing just as good.) London transport was effectively shut down by unofficial strikes by unidentified workers. "Legitimate action is more and more difficult, so this leads to more wildcats," says Graham Brice, a spokesman for the Trades Union Council, the union umbrella body.

Not all unions, however, oppose all of Thatcher's re-forms. The Labor Party's most recent policy review, supported by the policy-making union umbrella, the Trades Union Council, declared that the party would preserve the requirement for pre-strike ballots and new rules for election of union officials.

But the result of Thatcher's policies is that unions find themselves in perhaps the weakest position of this century. In the face of the sustained and far-reaching legislative attack, as well as rising unemployment, industrial actions have actually diminished (although several major strikes, notably the miners' strike of 1984-1985, did occur). The Conservative government calls this social peace; other analysts contend that it is a logical result of repression and not a satisfactory, stable state of affairs.

British employers and workers, however, face a long, hot summer.

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