Britain's ups and downs: returning miners to a climbing pound

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In isolation, they are not earthshaking bits of news. But taken together, three events of the past week point to some significant developments on the British scene.

The miners' return in record numbers. The pound decided to move up, instead of drifting down, helping to lower mortage rates. And the government's 1984 Trade Union Act was put to its first major test.

Also an admittedly right-wing union the Electrical, Electronics, Telecommunications, and Plumbing Union (EETPU), in a surprise move wanted to join the Confederation of British Industry. That's a little like France saying it wants to join the British Commonwealth. The CBI has frowned on the suggestion of a union joining an employers' group, yet the EETPU's desire to sign on is a sign of increasing fluidity in a trade union movement preoccupied with the miners' strike.

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How long the miners' strike continues is said to be less a matter of progress in negotiations - there isn't any - than of the stamina of the two long-distance runners: the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board.

There are indications that the miners have blinked first in this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

Until very recently, only a few striking miners were returning to work - not enough to drain the morale or the determination of the striking miners. Then, suddenly, some 2,000 miners returned to work last week.

This appears to have had a snowballing effect. On Monday, 1,756 returned, by far the highest single day, and doubling last Monday's return of 868. The record return to work was met by the worst outbreak of violence yet in which 35 policemen were injured.

The British pound has also taken such a beating this year that the term ''battered pound'' has become something of a journalistic cliche. At one point last summer the pound fell as low as $1.19. Some Cassandras said it might even reach parity with the dollar.

The pessimists may be thinking that, but at the moment at least they are having to listen to some contrary evidence. The pound has started moving up again in little skips and jumps. Monday it stood at $1.26.

Psychologically, that is an important boost. But it could have some practical benefit for Britain's hard-pressed home owners. Mortgages will start coming down by about 1 percent at the end of the year because building societies (savings and loans) are flush with funds.

While the pound climbed, another strike hit the British car industry. Such strikes are chronic, although nothing like what they used to be. The reasons can't all be blamed on an anarchic work force as some critics believe.

What makes the strike at Austin Rover especially significant is that it represented the first major challenge to the government's 1984 Trade Union Act. At issue here is calling a strike without first holding a secret ballot.

Austin Rover took the striking workers to court, but it failed to make one of the unions involved, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, tell its members to return to work pending a strike ballot. The judge ruled that, since the union leaders had repudiated the strike, it in effect absolved the union.

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