At first glance, it looks like David vs. David -- or Goliath vs. himself. But the implications of the struggle, now three months old and nearing a climax, reach across Britain at a time when its battered economy needs no more bad news.
In one corner: the British government. In the other: the British government -- at least, the half-million civil servants who usually labor unseen, turning the cogs of government machinery.
They are the people you don't usually read about as they collect taxes, control aircraft takeoffs and landings, issue passports, conduct drivers' tests, staff law courts, go through suitcases at customs desks at ports and air terminals, mail out millions of social security and unemployment checks, load missiles into nuclear submarines, keep track of armed forces ammunition crates, and more.
But over the past three months, their series of selective strikes in support of higher pay has wrought havoc with international and internal commercial flights, held up about L3 billion ($6.3 billion) in taxes unprocessed by official computers, clogged passport applications, delayed and disrupted personal, vacation, and business plans, and generated a steady stream of headlines and complaints.
The civil servants want a raise of 15 percent this year. The Thatcher government has offered 7 percent.
So far, the union strategy hasn't worked. The idea was to interrupt so many personal and official plans that the government would cave in. It presupposed that public anger would turn against the government rather than the unions. It could still make life hard for overseas visitors arriving for the royal wedding July 29.
But exactly the opposite occurred in a DC-9 aircraft at Belfast airport recently. The captain apologized that our takeoff had already been delayed for three hours because of the strike. Wearily he asked us to unbuckle our seatbelts and get off again. The man behind me let out his breath and growled, "I'd like to wring their necks" -- union necks. Many flights are canceled outright at the last moment.
So the Council of Civil Service Unions (530,000 members) has come up with what strikes many here as a last-ditch plan, mixing a small olive branch with dire threats.
The immediate reaction of one senior government official: "No. We won't go above 15 percent. The issues go deep: the future relations between government and workers, in a period when Britain needs people to work harder, not go on strike."
How much the government pays its civil servants is a much larger issue in Britain than in the US. The government here is much more heavily involved with industry, much of which is nationalized.
Britain possesses a great deal of national and local government for a relatively small country: too much, many experts believe. Whatever strategy Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher adopts toward civil servants arouses interest among other unions, who begin to calculate how large a raise they can claim from their own employers.
The civil service also watches every wage claim granted by Mrs. Thatcher to others. When she allowed most members of the armed forces a 10.3 percent "catch-up" raise May 15 (and members of Parliament 18.7 percent) William Kendall , the secretary-general of the Civil Service Council, claimed his members were suffering from discrimination.
The latest council plan: It will talk about a raise without preconditions on either side. The government must agree, or submit the claim to arbitration by June 8. If not, unions will not only continue to block airline flights and hold up tax collection, but also begin disrupting checks mailed each week to the elderly, the infirm, and the jobless.
"We've said so often we won't go above 7 percent that we can't, under any circumstances," commented one senior government figure.
"The unions know the public is fed up. Business is angry. The first time the unions called a big strike only half its members came out. The second time, much less.
"In fact 7 percent is in line with the public sector as a whole. Yes, some tax money is being held up but we'll get it in the end.No, we haven't had to raise interest rates to borrow more to make do.
"Civil servants have pensions linked to inflation rates. They have steady jobs when 2 1/2 million others are out of work. They have had raises of 50 percent in the last two years to bring them up from pay levels that were, admittedly, below standard."
In reply, a spokesman for the unions said in an interview:
"We received raises of only 45 percent in the last two years. But the general wage increase index was 47 percent in that period, so we were no better off.
"For 25 years an independent Pay Research Unit compared our salaries with private industry. Suddenly the government abolished it. It was embarrassed by its findings. This year it would have shown we needed at least 15 percent.
"So far we have tried to hit the government by not processing half a billion pounds worth of taxes a week. We do deal with the public, and yes, we have affected services to the public. We don't deny that. We'll have to do more if the government doesn't change its mind."
But the unions, fighting among themselves, have failed to call a general strike. Som e here see signs of unions flagging.