London — Britain's trade union leaders, only a few years ago industrial barons with enormous power, have begun an exercise in damage limitation aimed at shoring up their diminished influence.
Following the Thatcher government's successful campaign to nullify trade union power at the Cheltenham intelligence communications center, the umbrella Trades Union Congress (TUC) finds itself facing a sharp dilemma as it tries to represent the best interests of the country's 10 million trade unionists.
The TUC says Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher acted unjustly in getting rid of unions at Cheltenham, and it wants to punish her government. It has withdrawn from participating in the National Economic Development Council, the chief forum for consultation involving industrial management, unions, and the government.
But sympathizers in the opposition Labour Party are advising TUC leaders this may further weaken Britain's trade unions. The Labourites fear Mrs. Thatcher will wind up the development council altogether, arguing that it is a sham if the TUC refuses to participate.
Meanwhile the TUC is reviewing its relations with some 80 other bodies in which management, government, and the unions have tried to work together.
TUC leaders, along with some of the government's own supporters, claim Mrs. Thatcher's victory at Cheltenham will turn out to be hollow. But they fear that, having wiped Cheltenham clean of unions, she will turn to other essential services and rid them of unions, too. Her ministers deny any such intention.
But recent laws limit sympathetic picketing and restrain labor activists from imposing so-called closed shops in factories and other work places.
A clear example of the way trade union power has waned in recent years is provided by the huge Transport and General Workers' Union. At one time no government could afford to ignore the TGWU.
The union has lost one-quarter of its 2 million members since Mrs. Thatcher came to office. Although it has assets worth more than (STR)50 million ($75 million), it is having to raise its dues to make ends meet - a move expected to reduce membership still further.
It is about to choose a new secretary to replace Moss Evans, but it cannot decide how to grapple with a government determined to reduce trade union power.