London — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's battle of attrition with the trade unions is beginning to look like trench warfare of the 1914-18 variety. The government appears to be winning, but it is taking weeks, sometimes months, to gain control of tiny chunks of the battlefield.
The latest victory has been achieved in the nation's trouble-plagued railway network. After threatening massive disruption of train services later this month, the three rail unions have accepted a peace formula worked out by the government arbitration service.
Under the formula the strike threat is lifted in return for a pay rise of 11 percent stretched over six months. The full amount will go to the rail workers, however, only if they implement new manning arrangements enabling British Rail to pay the increases.
The result is thus linked to productivity and reflects the government's hope that British industry will be able to modernize itself. But already one of the rail unions, having helped to transact the deal, is suggesting that it made no binding productivity promises.
At this point, memories of World War I trench battles seem relevant. Just how much ground has the government gained -- and at what cost?
The rail strike threat loomed as Mrs. Thatcher was showing signs of pleasure at having gained the upper hand over Britain's civil servants. For weeks, using selective industrial action as their weapon, the men and women who keep government offices going were demanding pay increases and new methods of wage bargaining for the future.
Mrs. Thatcher, strongly supported by civil service minister Lord Soames, held out. In the end, the civil servants abandoned their stoppages, having gained only a fraction of what they had been demanding. So it was a government victory -- or was it?
The price paid by the government included a huge backlog of uncollected taxes , amounting probably to billions of pounds. In some areas it will take at least two years to recover taxes owed; other revenues will never be recovered at all.
Earlier Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers had been in confrontation with the steelworkers and the coal miners, notching up limited progress over productivity and holding down wages as much as possible.
But now these two segments of industry are threatening to create problems for the government by operating in concert.
Arthur Scargill, left-wing leader of the Yorkshire miners, is a favorite to become president of the National Union of Mineworkers at pithead ballots next year. If elected, Mr. Scargill will propose a merger between the miners and steelworkers unions, with himself as leader of the new group.
He is also threatening to pump new vigor into a currently loose arrangement known as the "triple alliance" under which miners, steelmen, and railway workers meet at intervals to plan antigovernment strategy. All three are nationalized industries.
The threat of a triple alliance dominated by Scargill is worrying Thatcher government ministers who are trying to work out a strategy for consolidating progress registered in the last 2 1/2 years in the struggle with the unions.
Following a ruling by the European Court of Justice against the trade union closed shop, government hawks want Mrs. Thatcher to ban closed shops altogether. But the Trades Union Congress (TUC), due to meet next month in Blackpool, intends to oppose anti- closed-shop legislation and new programs of pay restraint.
According to one TUC official, Mrs. Thatcher is trying to divide the unions and pick them off, one at a time, whereas the TUC is preparing to strengthen a united front.
"We are in for a long harsh battle this winter," the official said.
Shades of Verdun all right.