LONDON — BRITAIN'S railways, heading out of public ownership and into the private sector, keep hitting an obstacle on the line.
It takes the form of angry signalmen determined to shatter government-imposed pay guidelines by calling 24- and 48-hour strikes. The strikes are jeopardizing the government's plan to privatize virtually the entire British railway system.
Facing mounting pressure from the government to accept a 2.5 percent pay settlement, Jimmy Knapp, the signal union leader, ordered his 4,700 men to stage another two-day stoppage scheduled for Aug. 30. If it goes ahead, it will be the 13th day of industrial action since late June. Mr. Knapp claims that despite massive disruption to long-distance and commuter services, opinion polls show that more than 50 percent of the traveling public back the signalers' pay claim.
Railtrack, which operates tracks and signaling for Britain's train system, has tried to persuade strikers to return to duty, but only a few have. With managers and supervisors forced to operate signal boxes, Railtrack has been able to run up to one-third of its services on strike days. Knapp claims the use of inexperienced signal staff is putting travelers in peril; Railtrack denies this.
For the government, the dispute is a giant hiccup in its strategy of taking the train system out of the public sector and injecting it with the spirit of private enterprise. As the deadlock has deepened, Railtrack's losses have climbed beyond an officially admitted 100 million (US$154 million). The strikers have lost more than the amount they would have gained if they had accepted the management's initial pay offer. The strike is costing individual signalers 50 a day in lost wages.
PRIME Minister John Major's officials say the government is determined to stick to pay guidelines aimed at holding inflation at around 3 percent. Transport Secretary Brian Mawhinney insists that if the signalers got the 9 percent pay rise they demand, other public-sector employees would lodge similar claims and destroy the government's anti-inflation policy.
In a series of statements explaining how a management offer had first been made, then canceled, Knapp won over much of the public. He argues that the pay raise currently on the table is not fair compensation for the signalers' acceptance of productivity agreements over the last four years. ``This dispute,'' Knapp says, ``is the direct result of government incompetence and Railtrack's acquiescence in that incompetence. The public knows that, which is why they are still supporting us.''
The government's intervention in the dispute has opened it to Labour opposition charges that it is making a mess of rail privatization. Under government plans, long-distance and regional train services will be run by several private companies.
By allowing a crisis to develop between Railtrack and the signalers, the government has disrupted its privatizing strategy. Mr. Mawhinney decided last Wednesday to call on Knapp and his members to abandon the strike and accept Railtrack's offer. Earlier, he had allowed Bob Horton, head of Railtrack, and other Railtrack managers to make public statements.
``Everyone is getting fed up with the disruption and inconvenience these needless strikes are causing to travelers, industry, and the rail industry itself,'' Mawhinney says. ``Public patience can be elastic, but even elastic can snap.''
To follow up Mawhinney's statement, Mr. Horton authorized Railtrack managers to approach all signalers individually, urging them to go back to work. It was reported over the weekend that Railtrack was calling for volunteers to operate signal boxes on strike days. A spokesman says: ``The more trains we operate, the more the signalers will see that the way forward is to negotiate.''
On a normal weekday in Britain, 15,000 train services operate. So far, Knapp's men have been able to prevent or seriously disrupt 10,000 of that total. A Railtrack source says if one-half of normal services could be made to run on stoppage days, the strike would crumble.