Britain's kaleidoscope of blue-collar wages keeps turning

The men who drive Britain's trains earn 132.90 pounds (about $247) a week - 32.40 pounds below miners at the coal face, 31.30 pounds below men who set type for newspapers, 30 pounds less than steel construction workers.

Meanwhile, assistant stationmaster Frank Bridger in my local village earns only 100 pounds a week.

Those wage differentials sketch one of the basic reasons Britain's coldest winter for decades has also brought sharp industrial strife.

Wages in this country are a shifting kaleidoscope. The pattern of blue- and white-collar salaries has altered since 1976. They have shot up so fast that Britain has priced itself out of many an export market even while productivity has barely risen at all.

Now Britain's worst crisis of train workers in 27 years has spotlighted blue-collar wage differences, and disputes between unions, as well as between union and management. All are slowing Britain's climb out of economic slump.

Contemplating empty tracks between Guildford, in Surrey, and Waterloo Station on London's south bank, the short, soft-spoken Mr. Bridger shook his head, ''No, I don't support the national strike,'' he said. The strike is called for Jan. 13 and 14, with another two-day stoppage promised for Jan. 20 and 21.

''It's the drivers who are striking. My own union (the National Union of Railwaymen, or NUR) has already settled. So have the white-collar union people in the railway,'' Mr. Bridger said.

''The drivers already get 133 pounds a week. If I got that I wouldn't want anything more. In fact, I couldn't earn that much if I worked seven days a week.''

The NUR and the white-collar union settled for 8 percent more in salary last August, plus another 3 percent in return for working flexible hours, from 7 to 9 hours a day, in a 39-hour week.

The 20,000 drivers have the 8 percent, but won't shift from their traditional 8 hours a day of work. They demand the extra 3 percent - but British Rail says flexible hours must come first. Fixed 8-hour days, it says, mean drivers actually drive as few as 4 hours a day. At this writing the deadlock was unresolved.

Hidden behind the drivers' militancy is a sense of grievance, not only at nationalized British Rail but at other blue-collar workers whose wages have shot up faster than theirs since 1976.

In that year, drivers earned only about 6 pounds a week less than miners at the coal face. Today they earn 32.40 pounds less.

Drivers say one-quarter of their pay comes from extensive overtime weekends and ''unsocial'' hours (12 to 5 a.m.).

Overtime is only about one-eight of the earnings of other workers who earn more - print compositors, for instance.

On such resentments and rivalries do strikes such as the latest national railroad standstill hang.

Figures just released by the Department of Employment also indicate just how fast blue-collar wages and inflation have shot up since 1976. Productivity, however, has lagged badly.

Coal face workers have more than doubled their income (from 80.70 to 165.30 pounds a week).

They now get the top blue-collar wages, even as the National Union of Mineworkers is voting on its own national strike to get more pay raises of 12 to 20 percent. They are thought likely to get significant concessions.

Next come typesetters, steel construction workers, men who operate printing presses, dockers, gas fitters, electricity workers and electricians on building sites.

Train drivers rank 19th on the list, excluding last August's raise. In 1976 they were 6th. The August raise pushes them up to 7th place.

Other blue-collar workers also feel aggrieved. Some shipbuilders and engineers have sunk 12 places in the salary scale (platers, shipwrights) and others 8 (skilled welders.) Toolmakers, diecasters, and testers have dropped out of the first 25 altogether.

Yet another sense of grievance comes in when blue-collar workers as a whole compare their salaries with white-collar professions.

Medical practitioners head the list of white-collar jobs, the Employment Department figures show, with just under 300 pounds a week. University academics follow with 257 pounds a week, and company secretaries with 214 pounds a week. Journalists in Britain average 194 pounds a week.

Women still do poorly compared to men. The national average woman's wage of 91.40 pounds compared to 140 pounds for men.

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