Steam builds in Britain over national rail strike

Sailing triumphantly up the Solent into Southampton from the South Atlantic, the liner Canberra carried Royal Marines, and a huge banner proclaiming:

''Call off the rail strike or we'll call an air strike.''

In another expression of frustration, marines wrote a separate slogan as well: ''We have done our job, so why can't BR (British Rail) - and get us home (from the dockside)?''

The vignette came as Britain fought out an epic and in many ways tragic battle between bosses and workers that is tarnishing the post-Falklands image of this country.

At this writing, the national rail strike was at an impasse. British Rail decided to escalate the pressure on drivers July 14 by announcing that the entire national rail system would be closed down July 21 unless sufficient numbers went back to work. When the rail network reopened, it could be considerably reduced.

Train drivers were expected to go court to insist that their wages still be paid. BR, a nationalized industry, would claim it was broke. The courts would have to decide whether, legally, a nationalized industry can say it has no money.

Also raised was the prospect of a major showdown between the Conservative government, buoyed by victory in the South Atlantic, and not only rail but coal and other unions, which may strike in sympathy.

Health workers are already deep in strike action for more pay. The Drivers Union went into talks with the Trades Union Congress July 14 in an apparent effort to gain sympathy strike action. It was doubtful, however, how much support it would receive.

The government is counting on public support for a tough line similar to that taken against Argentina, especially in the summer season when coal stocks are high and most people will go on vacation by car.

Monitor interviews with industrial and political sources in London indicate the depth of the passions involved on both sides of the rail disputes. Issues are complex, rooted in decades of animosity between blue- and white-collar workers. They involve class distinction, economic recession, mismanagement, and fear.

Viewed from 10 Downing Street, the strike is a national scandal, a flagrant breach of the national unity and will demonstrated during the Falklands war. It gives a poor image of Britain abroad.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Monitor is told, is holding firm behind the scenes. She has told BR chairman Sir Peter Parker that the government will not provide extra money to electrify the 11,600 miles of track in Britain or make other improvements until union members boost productivity.

A widespread impression here is that BR has little choice but to demand that train drivers accept a new system of flexible working hours as their contribution to more efficiency. BR points out that such flexible hours, within the context of a 39-hour week, is widely accepted in Europe and elsewhere by rail, police, ambulance, fire brigade, and a host of other workers.

Mrs. Thatcher's view, shared by Tory supporters, is that the Drivers Union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), is being unreasonable and overly fearful in sticking to the principle of an eight-hour day. This was first laid down in 1919 when steam trains required firemen, and journeys were longer. Viewed by the ASLEF union, the situation is very different.

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Militant and fearful at the same time, the men see new flexible rosters in which they would work between seven and nine hours a day, up to 39 hours a week, as the first step in a wide-scale reduction of their jobs.

At a time when 3 million people are out of work in Britain, they are fighting even harder than usual not to join the unemployed themselves.

''And don't forget,'' said London School of Economics lecturer Alan Marin in an interview, ''the men see flexible rosters imposed on top of shift work.''

''They also worry about losing overtime. That might seem greedy, but you should also remember that Britsh blue-collar wages are lower than in Europe, for example. To compensate for low hourly rates, men have usually been guaranteed overtime to bring their wages up to enough to live comfortably on. The men see this threatened now.''

In a thoughtful letter to The Times of London, train driver Roy Gould agreed to the ''probable'' need for flexible rostering and recognized that BR wanted the same kind of conditions as in France and West Germany.

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