British steelworkers cast aspersions on competence of strike mediators

At the truck exit outside the Eastern Dock here, picketing steelman George Medlock shows me his latest pay slip from British Steel Corporation (BSC): L69 ( With the fabled white cliffs behind us turning elephant-gray in the sodden cold, his friend Jack Brannick elaborates. He is striking because inflation now stops 17 percent, interest rate increases last fall jacked his mortgage payments from L114 ($250) to L137 ($301), and BSC initially offered what he calls a "derisory" 2 percent increase.

They are members of the traditionally moderate Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC), on their first strike since 1926 -- one which many are saying will be the winter's set-piece confrontation between the government (financier of the nationalized BSC) and the trade union movement.

We'd like a telephone call tomorrow," says Enrile Yearby, gesturing to a royal-red pay phone booth nearby, "saying, 'Come on home, lads, you've got work.'" But as a father of two who has not been paid since Dec. 19 (the ISTC has no strike fund), his attitude has hardened.

Where he might have settled for 10 percent in December, he demands 20 percent now. The men have no faith in BSC management and surprisingly little in their own leader, Bill Sirs. "He doesn't recognize the militancy of his members," says Mr. Brannick. "He must be thick as pudding."

These men are "flying pickets," brought 200 miles from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, on the off-chance that foreign steel, already turned away from such major mid-country ports as King's Lynn, might slip in among the usual traffic of fruit and lumber here. So far, none has. Fifty-three men are guests of the Kent Miners, who pay their travel, room, and board. They are also supported by the National Union of Seamen, who warn them of impending steel shipments to Britain.

Ostensibly, their purpose is to "black," or refuse to handle, all BSC steel -- or any steel that might be used in place of it.

But there are increasing signs that the strike is becoming a political gesture -- intended not simply to secure more pay but to force the government to abandon its nonintervention policy and put more cash on the BSC table.

Government policy was reaffirmed in Parliament Jan 14 by Sir Keith Joseph, secretary of state for industry. He told Parliament that the taxpayer was already providing L1,800 ($4,000) of the average steelman's yearly wages -- about one-third of their pay.

He argued that plenty of money was available for improved pay, but that it had to come from productivity agreements and not from government funds.

All signs so far point to the government holding firm, although it is beset by accusations from the Labour Party of irresponsibility and aloofness.

One strengthener of its resolve may be the mid-January earnings figures, which show that the average British worker earns 19.2 percent more than he did 14 months ago -- inspite of wage ceilings under the previous Labour government and tough talking on wage restraint from present ministers.

The two sides now are meeting with the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS), a government-funded agency which commands respect as an independent mediator. ACAS spokesman Clifford Wright said that a Dec. 31 meeting found the two sides irreconcilably far apart, but progress has been made since.

But even if Bill Sirs and BSC chief executive Robert Scholey agree, they could face difficulty selling the terms to the rank and file on one hand, or the government on the other.

One longtime labor-watcher in London agreed that much was riding on the strike, which he thought might last until March. the government would make a "U-turn," he said "only if the strike spreads."

It does appear to be spreading. The Jan. 16 meeting of ISTC officials and their counterparts from the National Union of Blastfurnacemen agreed to pull out the 15,000 men from private steelmaking plants in 10 days unless the strike ends. These men make 25 percent of Britain's steel but have no quarrel with their employers. They also called for a complete freeze on all steel movements throughout Britain.

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