Britain's wasteful class strife wanes

New gleams of hope have begun to appear in a home-front war in Britain that carries more long-term significance for the man in the street than the battle for the Falkland Islands.

The war is the fundamental one between unions and management, between blue-collar and white-collar, that has done much to worsen Britain's industrial decline in the last two decades.

No one here believes that the war is anywhere near won. Tough campaigns lie ahead. But:

* Significant numbers of railroad workers have broken with their left-wing union leaders. They have defied a strike call for more pay and have started British trains rolling again after a national strike that lasted only two days instead of two to three months.

The man selling tickets at a station south of London said tersely June 29: ''It is the wrong time to strike. BR (British Rail) is broke and in times like these I need to keep working.''

BR is offering 5 percent more pay but not until September, and only on condition that guards accept new driver-operated one-man trains and drivers agree to flexible shifts. The drivers are still dissatisfied, calling June 29 for a new strike this weekend.

* In a sharp break with the past, a key union leader in the British newspaper industry has told his members that unless they drop their relentless opposition to the electronic revolution that has helped to transform newspapers in the United States and elsewhere, they will not save jobs but lose them.

The controversial words, spoken by Joe Wade, general secretary of the National Graphical Association (membership: 125,000), to the union's biennial conference in Eastbourne, signal the first real hope that Fleet Street strikes might eventually be solved.

The background to both developments is prolonged recession and company losses. Labour governments in the 1960s and '70s greatly increased salaries, but worker output stayed low, especially in railroad and newspaper industries.

In these and other areas, unions have been fearful of new technology, and management has been unable to bridge the gap of social class and social prejudice to achieve real dialogue.

BR is a classic example of an ailing nationalized industry here. Not even government subsidies which now total (STR)20 million ($34.6 million) a week or (STR)1 billion a year ($1.73 billion) have been able to avert giant losses that will reach about (STR)165 million ($285 million) this year alone. Britain's once-famous network of track has dropped from almost 20,000 miles in 1948 to only 11,000 miles today. Many experts now expect it to fall by another 50 percent in the years ahead.

In all of Britain, only one daily newspaper group has its reporters using video word processors - the Evening Post group in Nottingham, which does not recognize Mr. Wade's union. All other newspapers with electronic equipment are required by the unions to use ordinary typewriters in the newsroom, while union members transfer typewritten articles into computer memories.

The Times of London and The Sunday Times have almost been forced out of business on several occasions when management tried to introduce the new technology over union objections. Meanwhile more and more British people take their news from television and from local neighborhood newspapers.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher three months ago was extremely unpopular here after two years of holding down pay increases and government spending to try to lower inflation.

Then two things happened: Her personal popularity and reputation for toughness received an enormous boost with the victory in the Falklands war - and at least some blue-collar workers began to see that strikes could not squeeze from management extra money that management said it simply did not possess.

None of this means that all the problems are solved.

National Health nurses and other workers are still planning strikes for more pay and are trying to persuade coalminers and other unions to defy a 1980 law and carry out sympathy strikes.

The rail strike has been suspended but not canceled. The underlying issues of one-man trains and flexible rostering remain to be solved.

The decision that broke the strike June 28 came on a vote of 47 to 30 at a conference of the National Union of Railway Men in Plymouth. The union voted to refer its dispute with BR to a tribunal headed by Lord McCarthy. But the union need not accept the tribunal's findings. Train drivers belonging to a different union (ASLEF) rejected the same tribunal's findings over flexible rosters after a series of national strikes last February.

Train drivers are threatening another strike of their own if British Rail goes ahead as planned and distributes new flexible work rosters July 5.

Mr. Wade of the newspaper union will also be criticized by militant members. But he insisted in Eastbourne that unless the union became more flexible and more productive, ''We shall be engulfed by a tidal wave of technology which we will not be able to control . . . even more competition from abroad and from instant-print shops at home.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.