London — Britain stands on the edge of what could be a period of major, if uneven, change.
The balance of power between bosses and workers has, for the moment, begun to shift. The government and management have won victories with the end of the national rail strike July 18, and the previous decision of another rail union to call off an earlier strike.
The trade union movement itself is split, and its effectiveness as a political force at a time of high unemployment and recession is cast into doubt.
The big question is whether all this can continue. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is determined that it will.
If it does, one of the main brakes on Britain's industrial and social development in recent decades will have begun to loosen.
The Conservative government will use every victory over trade unionists to appeal to investors abroad to put money into a more stable Britain.
And the opposition Labour Party, financed and dominated by the trade union movement, will be weakened still further. It is already at a low ebb in public opinion polls because of the fierce infighting between its parliamentary leadership and its far left and militant wing of young Trotskyite activists at the grass roots.
Yet this mighty struggle, already joined, will be fought on a number of fronts, and the government faces many obstacles.
Militant trade unionists, led by the coal miners and today including ancillary health workers - nurses, porters, cleaners, ambulancemen - are determined to force the government to pay higher salaries to the nationalized sector of the economy.
The miners, through their left-wing union leader Arthur Scargill, are demanding a 31 percent increase in salary in talks later this year. Ancillary health workers began three days of strikes July 19 to force the government to pay a wage increase of 12 percent, instead of the government offer of between 6 and 7.5 percent.
The Cabinet's strategy looks like this:
No quarter is to be given to unions that hold a salary pistol at government heads. Unofficially, British Rail (BR) chief Sir Peter Parker was warned he could expect no more government subsidies for the nationalized BR unless his workers stepped up their productivity.
Already the government subsidizes BR with (STR)15 million ($25 million) a week for passenger services, yet BR will lose almost (STR)170 million ($294 million) this year alone.
Since BR pins part of its hopes for better efficiency to the so-called flexible rosters, in which drivers and others work between seven and nine hours a shift for 39 hours a week, BR refused to withdraw its new rosters despite the drivers' strike now ended.
The drivers' leaders will call a union conference to vote on the new rosters, and if the vote is affirmative, as expected, they will enter new talks with BR.
The government calculated that trade union solidarity, the linchpin of union power in the past, could be broken at a time when 3 million people in this country are already out of work and the recession still bites deep.
In the end, the government was right. After marathon talks, the drivers' union discovered to its chagrin that it could not obtain united support from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and was forced to call off the strike late July 18.
The union covering other rail workers such as signalmen had already called off an earlier strike, and the two decisions, taken together, have heartened the government and made it even more determined to hold the line against other public workers' demands.
On top of that, the government plans legislation next year forcing unions to hold open, not secret, ballots, when they elect officers and conduct other union business.
And in yet another policy feared and opposed by unions and the Labour Party, the government is forging ahead with plans to sell off profitable parts of the nationalized sector to the public - in other words, to denationalize them altogether.