Britain's beleaguered Iron Lady backs off

"She's opened the gate," remarked one veteran Londoner. By suddenly backing down in a dispute with militant coal miners, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has encouraged more than 2 million other government-paid workers to call even more vociferously for pay raises this spring.

In other words, the champion of the stratergy of slashing public spending and cutting taxes to beat inflation -- the very leader who set the pattern for President Reagan in the US -- is being forced to spend more, not less, on the state sector of her own economy.

Half a million white-collar civil servants have organized a communications center at Westminster and have chosen strike targets if they don't get at least 7 1/2 percent more.

Almost half a million teachers want 15 percent more from April 1. They have been offered 4 percent. More than 200,000 hospital workers and ambulance drivers demand more than the 6 percent limit and threaten to strike as well.

Burst water mains in one area of northeast England are not being repaired immediately as water and sewerage workers take unofficial work-to-rule action to support their pay claims.

The government has already broken its own limit to offer them 10 percent. More than half the members of the General and Municipal Workers' Union have now rejected the offer. Experts say Britain faces its first-ever national water strike.

So far, Mrs. Thatcher and local government officials have tried to stand firm. But then 25,000 miners in south Wales walked off the job. Miners in Kent , Yorkshire and Scotland followed suit, and by the night of Feb. 17, a national coal strike looked certain.

The Tory government moved quickly -- more quickly than its own record had led anyone to expect.

Mrs. Thatcher consulted Cabinet ministers, sent her energy minister, David Howell, to a meeting with the Coal Board and the National Union of Miners several days earlier than planned, and let mr. Howell announce a major surprise.

The government is to spend more money on state aid for the mining industry, and it is considering a cutback on coal imports from the United States, Australia, and Poland.

The Coal Board then withdraw a plan to close 23 mines. The moderate union chief, Joe Gormley, told his 240,000 miners there was no need to strike at all. Some strikers continued to picket, however.

In fact, the government will still close exhausted mines in the future, as it has done in the past decade. Imports are harder to obtain these days anyway; sources here cite dock troubles in Baltimore, and the Polish crisis.

And whatever the government now agrees to spend on the industry could be less than a national stike would have cost -- and comes after Mrs. Thatcher has already provided billions of pounds for nationalized BL (British Leyland) Ltd. cars, and British Steel.

The most significant cost could end up being higher wage claims to all the other government workers now newly encouraged by the mining outcome.

Mrs. Thatcher herself often cites British nationalized industries as the biggest difference between her country's economic problems, and Mr. Reagan's task. She agrees that monetarist strategy calls for lower public spending as well as lower taxes.

But, for political reasons, she granted large pay increases to public servants in 1979 -- and at a time of recession, she has only been able to make one cut in personal income taxes so far, while raising indirect taxes. She envies what she sees as Mr. Reagan's greater freedom to maneuver.

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