British government gears up for trade union showdown

"I think we're in for a winter that will make last winter look like a tea party." The speaker, a civil servant with 13 years of close association with British industry and trade, is not talking about the weather or even fuel prices. He is commenting on the steel strike, now entering its eighth week and rapidly locking the trade union movement into out-and-out confrontation with the government.

So far, the scenes of industrial disruption around the country, while peppered with scuffles, punches, and arrests, do not quite resemble those of last winter, when "secondary picketing" -- by workers not employed by the firm they are picketing -- paralyzed the nation's trucking industry.

There is even one significant sign of moderation. Some 12,000 workers at the Longbridge plant of the ailing carmaker British Leyland voted 10 to 1 on Feb. 20 in favor of management and against strike action. The rebuffed union leaders had urged them to strike in support of a communist union convener, Derek Robinson, who was sacked last fall for stirring up opposition to the corporation's restructuring plans.

But as the steel strike becomes increasingly violent and increasingly politicized, the government is finding its noninterventionist pose difficult to maintain. In particular, it is being pressured by steelmen to supply more wage money to the nationalized industry, described by a government spokesman as "busted" and "bankrupt."

But the government also faces an increasingly loud public clamor for tough measures to reduce the broad immunities from prosecution now enjoyed by the unions. The Conservative Party promised such measures during the election last spring that brought it to power. A different form of intervention would be a general wage freeze; but Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is known to oppose the idea.

So far, the government has responded in several ways:

* Mrs. Thatcher in the House of Commons said she "could not condemn enough" the scenes of picketing she had seen on television."They bore no relation to peaceful picketing," she added.

* Employment Secretary James Prior published details of his new union-damping legislation feb. 19.

Trade unionists, predictably, reacted with hostility to the Prior proposals, warning that the government is seeking confrontation instead of healing the nation. But others, including private steelmakers, some of whom are under seige by more than 1,000 pickets traveling hundreds of miles, are complaining that the bill still leaves unions far too powerful.

* Mr. Prior also has urged the Trades Union Congress (TUC), under the leadership of Len Murray, to activate its own firm code to control picketing. The code was forged with the previous Labour government last winter. But Mr. Murray, who says he finds Mr. Prior's course "damaging, divisive, aggressive, and ultimately ineffective," has refused.

* The Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, told the Commons that current criminal laws could be used by constables to deal with unruly strikers. Observing that the freedom to picket "is not a license to obstruct or intimidate ," he encouraged the police to enforce the law. He also warned pickets that they had no right to stop traffic or to "prevent access to the place they are picketing."

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