London — British trade unionism has a notorious (if statistically undeserved) reputation for strikes -- and a history of destroying governments that get in its way. Both the Conservative government of Edward Heath and the Labour government of James Callaghan were brought down by union disaffection in the 1970s.
But the present Conservative government is bent on setting limits to union immunities. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's hard-nosed government feels it steamed to power last spring on the call to "do something" after a winter of damaging strikes. Many Conservatives feel this may be their last chance to squelch union power, which has grown significantly since World War II.
Wedged in the middle of these implacable forces is Britain's avuncular employment secretary, James Prior. The ruddy- faced farmer is the author of a surprisingly mild industrial-relations bill going through Parliament. He is also one of Mrs. Thatcher's most outspoken critics. His position has been characterized by the press here as "the 'softly, softly' approach."
Like many Britons, he sees labor relations, rather than inflation or recession, as "the key to our problems."
"We've got an enormous amount going for us," he said in a candid interview with the Monitor. "We've got bags of coal, fertile soil, efficient agriculture, all that oil, and a very skillful and stable population.
"If we could just get our industrial relations right, we should be on the receiving end of a vast quantity of the world's investment."
How to get it "right" is the question. The answer has eluded governments since the general strike of 1926. Is Mr. Prior a dove in hawk's feathers, a man at odds with his time? Or has he found the way?
"I think everything points to the fact that people are going to be quite grateful that I held the line," he says. The line, for him, is what restrains Conservative dislike for trade unionism from rushing into confrontation with the 12-million-member Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Mr. Prior's industrial bill, which may be the first of several, calls for legal restrictions on secondary picketing and the closed shop, and encourages unions to use secret ballots.
Many Cabinet ministers, such as Industry Secretary Sir Keith Joseph and Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Geoffrey Howe, want more teeth put into it -- and their voices carry great weight.
The bill does not, for instance, go for the unions' jugular -- trade union funds -- by imposing stiff fines for illegal action. Mr. Prior wants it that way. His bete noir is what he calls "the totally erroneous belief that legislation can solve the problem."
"If we run into trouble next winter," he says, "it will be because on the whole the law is being disobeyed." Hence the need for persuasion as well as law. He says he "deliberately" left union funds untouched "because the trade union people told me that for them was a vital issue."
The employment minister has staked his political reputation on his success in dealing with union leaders -- even to the point of such compromises. He says he finds TUC general secretary Len Murray "a perfectly reasonable man to deal with."
"What I'm desperately worried about," he adds, is that an arms-length approach could "throw the TUC leadership into the hands of the extremists" who would turn to all-out warfare with the government. He wants to be seen to be talking with the unions -- especially by September, the time of the next TUC conference. That, he hopes, will help prevent a militant takeover.
What makes him sure that, as he says, "we've got it about right" with the bill?
He points to the May 14 "day of action," which the TUC organized as a one-day strike to show distaste for govenment policy. The day drew far fewer workers than the unions had expected -- "a pretty good disaster" from the unions' point of view, Mr. Prior says.
He says there are signs that "Britain is going to settle down." He cites a change in attitude on the shop floor and talks of "the number of industrialists who tell me that they're getting better discipline than they've had for many years -- that the work force is behaving itself better."
He also believes that the Cabinet, in the past few months, has been coming around more to his view. Sir Geoffrey recently called for more consultation with unions -- and he has been "about the hardest liner of all," he points out. With Britain's economy in steep decline and unemployment widely expected to touch 2 million within a year, he feels the Cabinet will have to move toward such un-Conservative policies as stimulating the housing industry.
But Mr. Prior voices much of the urgency the nation feels for "getting it right" with labor relations. It is more, he says, than a matter of the economy: "It's the key to the future of parliamentary democracy here."