British steel strike cools but worker tempers haven't
London — The longest national strike in Britain since World War II has ended amid bitterness and recrimination among steelworkers who believe they were sold out by their negotiators.
After 13 weeks the steelmen began returning to work although industry leaders expect more trouble to come.
But there are signs of more peaceful trends elsewhere in Britain's troubled industrial scene. Workers at the giant BL, LTD., (formerly British Leyland) carmaking firm pulled back from a stoppage that managers said might have wiped out the company's chances of recovery. And dockworkers, who had planned a nationwide strike in support of the steelmen, called their action off at the last minute.
The end of the steel strike, though welcome in itself to the Thatcher government and heads of the industry alike, contained more than a hint of menace.
The workers' negotiators decided to accept the recommendation of a conciliation committee and ordered the rank and file back to work. But the committee's wage recommendation was 4 percent lower than what union militants had been demanding.
As workers began returning to the factories, some shop stewards spoke of a stab in the back. British Steel's management admitted that there would have to be further cuts in the industry's labor force to pay for the wage rises.
In the period of the strike the industry lost L150 million ($320 million) over and above its normal losses. In addition, many steel users have switched to suppliers in continental Europe and Japan. Few are expected to switch back to British steelmakers.
British Steel will soon try to negotiate massive work-force redundancies. A leading trade-union negotiator, Bill Sirs, has said these negotiations will be Part 2 of the workers "battle with management," so the prospect is of more strife in the months ahead.
At BL, hopes continue to rise that the firm may be able to avert the catastrophe that seemed to face it as strikes multiplied and purchases of BL cars fell. In the last month or two, thanks partly to a policy of price cutting for family sedans, BL sales figures have begun to recover impressively.
The question BL car workers faced was wheher or not to accept pay raises of between 5 and 10 percent offered by management. For weeks they hesitated, but finally accepted the management argument that a higher increase would only serve to undermine the company's recovery.
The case of BL is an important test of the Thatcher government's economic plans. If the company were to collapse or to be forced into partial liquidation , tens of thousands of men and women would be thrown out of work and the symbolic effect on Britain's population would be profound.
Thus far BL, under its dynamic head, Sir Michael Edwardes, has been able to show that it can carry the day with the unions. Sir Michael believes that if strikes can be kept at a low level and if sales continue to rise, there will eventually be more in the kitty to give raises to the work force.
On present evidence his strategy must be given at least a 50-50 chance of succeeding.