Can Britain's nationalized carmaker stay on road?

The state-owned BL (formerly British Leyland) car company entered the week on the brink of catastrophe as management and the work force struggled for mastery over wage levels.

So perilous was the troubled giant's plight, as 58,000 workers heeded a stop-work call, that government, senior management, and trade union leaders all agreed this could spell the end for BL.

A weekend of almost frantic searching for a peace formula ended with the strike deadline passed, and with the BL chairman, Sir Michael Edwardes, offering a last-minute pay offer that, he hoped, would mean a stoppage of only two or three days.

(The company's manual workers vote Nov. 3 whether to accept the deal. Although an opinion poll suggested the men would accept, workers on picket lines pledged resistance, and union leaders were divided over whether to recommend it, Reuters reports.)

As the opposition Labour Party's spokesman on industry, Stanley Orme, declared, BL was at four minutes to midnight and only labor-relations statesmanship of a high order could avert an industrial tragedy.

The deadline for the strike call approached as Edwardes, struggling to make BL profitable in a time of economic recession, refused to budge from the hard-line posture he adopted two weeks earlier. In a letter to all workers he had said: ''Accept my final pay offer or face the certainty of scabbing and company failure.

But his letter, couched in the most categorical terms, had inflamed the shop floor, and according to union leaders, soured industrial relations at BL enormously. Some union spokesmen were claiming that Edwardes himself, not the BL pay stance, was the sticking point in the negotiations.

This, however, was not the government's view. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's ministers gave Edwardes solid backing as he tried to convince the BL work force that the company could not pay the wages being demanded by union bargainers and still stay in business.

In the hours leading up to the midnight Saturday (Oct. 31) deadline, Edwardes attempted to split moderate workers from radical shop floor leaders by pointing to the stakes involved in a long-term strike. He also made a slight upward revision in the BL pay offer, apparently hoping that when workers vote on Nov. 3 on whether to prolong the strike, this added incentive would change their minds and make a return to work possible.

Earlier, the BL work force, having just received the Edwardes letter, had voted by a large majority to face the management down.

Much is at issue in this confrontation between management and workers in what is probably the country's most troubled large industrial concern.

The question is seriously being asked whether BL can go on existing. At the same time it is recognized that workers in many other industries would be severely shaken by a total BL failure.

The psychological impact of the company's collapse would extend well beyond the industrial Midlands across the rest of the nation, persuading many that the British economy was on the edge of another slide.

As many as a quarter of a million jobs could be directly or indirectly affected by the closure of BL. The Thatcher government, having pumped hundreds of millions of pounds into BL in the past two years, would be obliged to admit its economic judgment was ill-considered.

Unemployment already is close to 3 million, and a BL collapse now would mean a massive new addition to the jobless total.

With the industrial and political stakes so high, the weekend crisis meeting brought together almost the whole of BL's management, a wide range of trade union leaders, and government-appointed conciliators.

Trade union leaders accused Edwardes and the government of cooperating in a display of industrial brinkmanship.

Edwardes, showing signs of the heavy pressures mounting on him, conceded that if the trade unions agreed to budge from their entrenched positions, he might withdraw the letter that had offended the work force rank and file.

Everything now will depend on the Nov. 3 vote of BL workers. If the strike precipitated at midnight Saturday continues to be endorsed by the work force, this week could, indeed, see BL go to the industrial wall.

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