LONDON — AFTER more than a decade of clobbering by Margaret Thatcher, Britain's once proud and powerful trade unions are starting to regroup and rethink their future in a uniting Europe.
Faced with a drop in membership from 12.5 million in 1979 to 7.8 million today, and corresponding falls in revenue, leaders of British unions are planning mergers to create super-unions they hope will recover some of the clout that Mrs. Thatcher's curbs on their power took from them.
According to Anthony Sampson, author of "The Anatomy of Britain," a study of United Kingdom power structures first published in 1962, the trade union "barons" also are fast becoming "Europe-minded." He says they are aware that their counterparts on the continent have forged strong transnational bonds and thus have added to their influence on economic and industrial policy.
Many union leaders are recognizing that when the European Community moves to a single market at the end of this year they finally will have to abandon the "little England" approach to trade union activity.
Research has shown that workers in other EC countries are generally much better off than their British counterparts. A study published in the European newspaper last November put Germany, Denmark, and France at the top of the EC's 12 members in terms of employment conditions, with Britain ranking ninth.
Mr. Sampson thinks British unions began looking to Europe five years ago when Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, addressed the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the unions' umbrella body, and explained how the EC planned to implement a "social charter" of workers' rights.
Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC, says Delors held out a vision of partnership between trade unions and industrialists within a framework of rules endorsed by EC governments.
"The tragedy is that at the EC's Maastricht summit last December Britain alone refused to sign up to the social charter," Mr. Willis says. "That confirmed us in our view that the EC understood us better than did our own government." Closer consultation
Willis is president of the European TUC, a federation of trade unions dedicated to exchanging information and cooperating on behalf of workers Europe-wide. One of its key themes has been closer consultation on ways of restraining the power of multinational corporations.
Willis conceded that victory for Britain's Conservatives at the April 9 general election would be a setback for union leaders who, like himself, support the EC social charter and see their movement's future in European terms.
The British Labour Party made it clear throughout the election campaign that it supports the social charter, and its leader, Neil Kinnock, said he would sign it at the first opportunity if he came to power.
Thatcher's assault on the so-called "fifth estate" was one of her most heavily-publicized and successful campaigns. She refused to consult the TUC on government policy and required unions to hold secret ballots before calling strikes, and abolishing closed-shop union membership.
The current recession, with unemployment close to 3 million, has further eroded union membership, and, by reducing union dues, added to pressures for the leadership to rethink their movement's future.
The result, at one level, has been a series of initiatives aimed at bringing together groups of unions to create a small number of super-unions. Union marriages
The 1.2 million-strong Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) under Bill Morris, its newly-elected chief executive, plans to unite with Scargill's depleted and demoralized Miners' Union. The TGWU may also decide to join forces with another general workers' union, known as the GMB, which has 900,000 members. The engineers' union and the electricians' union have already decided to merge next month for a total membership of 1 million.
Next year three public-sector unions hope to negotiate a merger. The marriage would produce a union with 1.5 million members - two-thirds of them women. It would be Europe's largest service union.
A senior TUC official said that when completed, the trio of super-unions resulting from the link-ups would account for more than half his organization's members. He said smaller unions would "probably be attracted to the larger groupings," adding to the merger trend.
Bill Jordan, president-designate of the combined engineers' and electricians' union, said the marriages would "change the face of British trade unionism and forge a new kind of partnership with employers." Jordan and other leaders are now happier to entertain single-union agreements with employers along the lines of those already negotiated with Japanese car manufacturers at their factories in Britain. In pre-Thatcher Britain single-union deals did not exist.
Some trade union leaders believe the swing towards creation of super-unions will reduce the need for British unions to support their own TUC, and tilt them instead further towards reliance on trade union connections in Europe.
Gavin Laird, general secretary of the engineers' union, said that when it linked up with the electricians the new body would be prepared to "walk out the front door" if the TUC did not like the way it approached industrial questions. The TUC, he said, would "have to prove its worth."