Britain's civil servants serve warning notice to Thatcher government

The lines at Heathrow Airport were so long -- 300 yards each -- that even the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was deterred. She was supposed to take a VC-10 aircraft from Heathrow for an 11-day visit to India, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Instead, she had to catch her plane at a Royal Air Force base in Oxfordshire.

Stonehenge was closed for half a day (and visitors demanded their money back). Hansard, the famed daily record of parliamentary proceedings, was interrupted.

Why? Because Britain's 540,000 civil servants began aiming a series of selective strikes at the public at the busy Easter holiday period.

It was part of a battle with the Thatcher government for higher pay. The civil service unions demand 15 percent. Mrs. Thatcher refuses to pay more than 7 percent.

So passport and customs officers, attendants at Stonehenge and other tourist sites, 19 Hansard shorthand writers, as well as Coast Guard, defense, health, social security, and transport workers all downed tools to cause the greatest disruption possible.

The strikes were the topic of daily conversation all over the country as Britons tried to make plans for the spring holiday.

The dispute was angry on both sides. It symbolized the gap between government and workers -- ironically at a time when some economic experts said they could see the first faint signs of an end to the current recession.

Industrial production rose in February for the first time in many months. More houses were being built. The chemical sector showed strength. Government officials went out of their way to spread the impression that the worst recession for 50 years was either over or about to end.

Pay settlements are said to be averaging less than 10 percent nationwide since last August (The civil servants who prepare the exact figures are also on strike.)

Mrs. Thatcher is anxious to end the popular discontent that surrounded her budget of March 10 this year. She is under fire for providing billions of pounds to bail out nationalized industries such as autos, steel, and coal.

She and her minister for the civil service, Lord Soames, appear in no mood to give in to civil servants, who have already received raises of up to 50 percent in the last two years.

As many as 2 million other workers in public industries have settled within government guidelines.

Civil Service Union spokesman William Kendall hopes that making people wait at airports, delaying their social security checks, refusing to load Britain's nuclear submarines, and causing other upsets will persuade the public to bring pressure on the government.

But so far, the reverse seems to be happening. Many citizens are upset at the strikers, not at the government.

"Civil servants have secure jobs, when 10 percent of the country is out of work," commented one angry London office worker. "Their pensions automatically go up with inflation. They are pretty well off, if you ask me."

One civil servant in the Passport Office told me: "No, I don't support the strikes. My pay has gone up from L2,000 [$4,500] a year to L4,700 [$10,575] a year in the last four years. I've been promoted, and we've had big raises.

"We need more -- a bank clerk with the same 4-year experience I have earns more than I do.

"But I thi nk we should take the 7 percent now and try for more later."

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