Britain faces threat of rail strike over efficiency plan. Rail union balks at plan to phase out guards' jobs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Britain, which has only recently emerged from a divisive coal miners' strike, now faces the possibility of a national rail strike. The issue is over a decision by the management of British Rail to introduce a new type of train that does not require ``train guards'' -- personnel who signal to the driver that all is clear for the train to leave the station.

Guards are resisting the plan, because their services would be dispensed with on many but not all passenger and freight trains.

British rail says the current proposal -- to phase out 1,760 guards' jobs -- is necessary to save 27 million ($37 million) over five years. In all there are 11,900 train guards in Britain.

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A strike vote for all guards is scheduled for Aug. 29. This offers at least the assurance that rail service will not be affected until early next month.

Guards who refused to show up for work have already forced the cancellation of some services, most noticeably in the Glasgow area of Scotland. Older-style trains may not run legally without guards.

A train strike in a country heavily criss-crossed by passenger trains could prove more unpopular than the recently-ended miners' strike, because it would directly affect millions more people than the miners' strike did.

Most labor and political experts doubt that another bruising industrial-relations conflict is in the cards, even though the possibility of a national strike is not ruled out.

Political analysts say a rail strike would boost the sagging fortunes of the ruling Conservative Party, whose popularity dropped after the miners' strike ended last March. In times of strike or crisis, such as the Falklands War, Britons tend to rally behind the government.

For the Labour Party, a rail strike could be as detrimental as the miners' strike was. Only recently, Labour established itself in opinion polls as the most popular party.

The two disputes -- rail and coal -- are not without their similarities. Both industries are classic examples of older, heavily subsidized, nationalized structures fighting change. In both cases, their chairmen, Ian MacGregor of the National Coal Board and Sir Robert Reid of British Rail, are determined to make their industries more efficient.

As management did in the miners' stike, the railway management is saying that any man who loses his job as a result of efficiency efforts can be absorbed elsewhere.

But James (Jimmy) Knapp, the general-secretary of the 140,000-strong National Union of Railwaymen is refus- ing to negotiate any agreements that would involve the single manning of trains.

(Among union leaders, Mr. Knapp was one of the most fervent supporters of miners' leader Arthur Scargill during the miners' strike.)

British Rail's tough-minded Sir Robert, after the sacking of 147 guards in Glasgow, says he is prepared to face major disruption on the railways if it is the price of getting his way. He has also announced that British Rail will stop paying all employees if the railway system is immobilized by a strike.

The significant difference between the rail dispute and the coal strike lies in the cast of principal characters.

Sir Robert of BR may come from the same cost-cutting mold as Mr. MacGregor, but he lacks the abrasive edge of the Coal Board chairman. There is also no personal feud between Sir Robert and Knapp, his opposite number on the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), as existed between MacGregor and Mr. Scargill. While Knapp, a left-winger, may share many of Scargill's political sentiments, he is not out to revolutionize society, experts say.

More significant, Knapp is not going over the heads of his union and calling a strike without a ballot, as Scargill did.

Scargill's action alienated him from miners in Nottinghamshire, who insisted on a ballot and stayed out of the strike. His action also caused divisions in the union movement as a whole and is generally regarded as one of the reasons why the miners did not win overall public support.

Aware of the controversy that the miners' strike caused, Knapp has been cautious about hastening a rail strike. He has sided with those guards who have struck in Glasgow, in Humberside, and in South Wales, but is urging his members to hold back until the strike vote is taken. If there is a decision to strike, the rail-union leader will at least have given his union's strike stance an aura of legitimacy.

Under the 1984 Trade Union Act, legislation introduced by the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a union must poll its members before calling a strike or face penalties. NUR leaders are also counting on public sentiment for retaining the guards as a safety precaution.

Several letters have appeared in the press lately from anxious commuters saying they don't like the idea of driver-only trains, because it offers no protection against molesters and soccer hooligans who have been known to terrorize trains.

While driver-only trains are commonplace elsewhere in Europe, their use in Britain has been restricted by union resistance, with the exception of a main-line train in the north of London. The experiment has worked well.

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