London — Trade unionists in Britain were handed a sobering fact to ponder before gathering in Brighton for their annual conference: There are more than 2 million people out of work across the country.
The figure, released by the Department of Employment, is the highest since the depression of the 1930s, and rams home the fact that the British economy is in dire trouble, with little prospect of early recovery.
For the Trades Union Congress (TUC), umbrella organization of the union movement, the unemployment news is only are aspect of a harsh industrial scene.
On hearing the unemployment figure, TUC general secretary Len Murray told Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the policies which, he claimed, had produced it were "cruel and wicked." He demanded early talks between the TUC and the government.
But Mrs. Thatcher replied that her policies were right. "A nation cannot spend what it has not earned," she declared. Britain had been trying to do just that for too long.
Compared with three or four years ago when Britain was under a Labour government led by James Callaghan, the TUC is in a beleaguered position. Mrs. Thatcher and her that lay down rules of conduct for striking workers.
The Employment Act, passed before Parliament rose for the summer holiday, sets limits to picketing, loosens constraints of the closed shop, and invites workers to be guided more by conscience and private judgment than sweeping leadership demands.
At the gathering in Brighton, over 1,000 TUC delegates representing 12 million members were having to decide how to respond to the new guidelines. Their room for maneuvering was limited by publication of opinion polls showing that shop-floor workers in general do not find the guidelines too restrictive.
This did not prevent the leader of the transport workers, Moss Evans, predicting that unions would find it necessary to break tha law from time to time.
But at the root of the Brighton discussions was the threat of even worse unemployment ahead. On the average, one worker in 12 is now out of a job, but there are areas in the Midlands and the northeast where the rate is two or three times as serious.
Not only does this represent substantial personal suffering on the part of the unemployed and their families. For the government it means a bigger bill for unemployment pay. And for the TUC the position is made worse by a slump in its own membership.
For the first time since the 1920s total membership is expected to fall this year -- because of jobs being lost and workers ceasing to pay their dues.Some government supporters also argue it is because the image of the TUC has become tarnished.
In the heyday of the Labour government, when the TUC cooperated on pay policy and won an important say over official policy, men like Mr. Murray were a power in the land. Now they feel excluded from consultation with government, and their standing in the community appears to have suffered. Opinion polls show a falling off of public respect for the TUC.
Even within the TUC there has been criticism of the organization's recent tactics, notably the May 14th Day of Action, which was intended to draw attention to failures of government policy but fizzled out when workers did not join the protest in large numbers.
Whether or not Mrs. Thatcher is following an antiunion strategy, it is obvious that the TUC is in too weak a position to bring pressure to bear on the government to change its economic strategy.
The traditional image of the TUC is that of a cart horse plodding on stolidly in the interests of the worker, but old dobbin at Brighton appears to lack a sense of direction.
According to one industrial observer, the economic recession through which Britain is passing spells political recession for the TUC, and it does not know how to find a route back to power and public esteem.