Amid the overcast of the nine-week-old steel strike, Britain may be witnessing the first rays of a new mood among its work force -- the strikers are striking against going on strike.
From various parts of a country known worldwide as strike-prone come reports of workers staying on the job in defiance of strike orders issued by national or local leadership:
In south Yorkshire, where trade unionists have a well-defended reputation for militancy, the strike among steel workers at private firms (other than those run by the state- controlled British Steel Corporation), has nearly collapsed.Following the lead of other nearby firms, workers at Sheffield's largest steel company, Firth Brown, voted Feb. 26 to return to work. They had been striking in sympathy with their counterparts at British Steel (BSC).
In south Wales, another prickly area, coal miners have voted 22,000 to 4,000 to keep working at the region's 36 pits. They had been asked by their executive to come out on strike in protest against BSC's plans to cut steel production at its south Wales plants -- a move that, miners' leaders argued, could substantially harm the coal business.
In the Midlands, heart of the country's automotive industry, workers at British Leyland voted 10 to 1 against a union recommendation for a strike to support communist shop steward Derek Robinson, who was fired for fomenting antimanagement feeling.
In Kent, where prosperity and moderation reign, workers at the Canadian-owned steel plant in Sheerness deflated the efforts of more than 1,000 pickets brought south to shut the works Feb. 20.
Their determination to continue working brought praise from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- and a quick decision by the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation to expel the 430 members at the plant. The men, still at work, are considering forming their own union.
No one is yet sure whether these signs are a new light of realism or a false dawn. Even Industry Secretary Sir Keith Joseph, asked whether a significant change was at hand, knit himself into a web of qualifiers. "I would like to hope that there is a hint of the beginning on a change," he said, "but it is only limited at this stage."
There are plenty of reasons for caution. The BSC strike remains deadlocked, with management now end-running around the union lines with a ballot mailed to the 160,000- man work force. British Leyland still faces an unsettled future in its wage negotiations. And water workers and gas men have rejected offers of up to 19 percent wage increases amid underground rumblings about a strike.
However, some observers see a crystalizing of issues. The trend may be toward using strikes only for immediate objectives like better wages, hours, and conditions, and not for the union's larger political issues.
One here sees any chance that the opposition's first no-confidence vote, scheduled for Feb. 28, will dent the government's armor. But there are concerns that the newly announced unemployment figures (5.6 percent, following the sharpest monthly increase in 4 1/2 years), high mortgage rates, inflation at 18. 4 percent, and the British worker's propensity to live for the week rather than for the decade may not allow the government another term in office.