The squeeze on jobs; Despite strike threats, are British unions losing their punch?

Conflict between workers and their bosses, a feature of western democracies, has often seemed excessive in Britain, where sturdy cloth caps and blue collars have brought down governments and dominated politics and headlines.

Today, British union workers still fill the front pages and the television screens with rhetoric against employers, and with plans of widespread work stoppages Sept. 22 in a ''day of action'' against government salary policy. This is the time of year when unions parade demands for higher pay. Miners, water workers, and others, are doing so.

Maneuvering between health workers and government began again Sept. 16, but the 18 weeks of dispute in the health service had still not been solved.

Underlying the current public debate is a different question: Are British unions losing their punch at a time of massive unemployment and industry closings.

In the course of a Monitor interview, a spokesman for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) spoke openly of an ''old-fashioned sense of fear'' among workers.

The jobless total stood at 3.2 million, and the Conservative Thatcher government refused to agree to union demands for more government spending to create new jobs.

The spokesman defended the role and status of trade unions. Yes, he said, TUC membership had dropped by about one million workers, to about 11 million, since 1980. Yes, antagonism between unions and the Thatcher government was deep.

But, he insisted, union membership remained at about 53 percent of the total work force, despite the falloff.

Yes, as he agreed, unions now spend more time on defending gains made than in improving working conditions. Workers are leaving unions because they either lose their jobs or feel unions cannot help them.

Part of the problem for British unionists is the unflinching attitude of the Thatcher government, as indicated by a source close to the prime minister.

''Absolutely irrelevant,'' this official said of the unions' ''day of action.''

''It is the reflex action of a movement which does not really know what its role is in life. . . . Many people will ignore the ''day of action'' and keep on working. The protest won't make the slightest difference to the health workers dispute which it is designed to support. . . .''

It is to be expected that a Tory government official would criticize union protests at a time when his prime minister is trying to hold down inflation and public spending.

The significant point is the vehement tone of his remarks. ''The trade unions have an appalling image in this country,'' he said.

''(Miners leader Arthur) Scargill has overplayed his hand in the kind of rhetoric he is using, calling for confrontation and strikes and militancy. . . .

''Many of his own miners don't want to strike. They are acquiring middle-class tastes: their own homes, and cars. They play golf.''

The government is also preparing to tackle the perennial question of how to make unions more democratic. Legislation soon to be revealed will force open ballots for union elections, in an effort to prevent hard-left minorities dominating union policies. The TUC opposes it strongly.

Unions demand that the government spend more money to create more jobs and give people money to spend. Mrs. Thatcher flatly refuses.

Traditionally, unions turn to the Labour Party. But that party is being torn apart by the feud between its leader, Michael Foot, and the left-wing Militant Tendency Group that Mr. Foot is trying to expel.

Leaders such as Mr. Scargill, call for another ''winter of discontent'' this year, similar to the one in 1973-74. That one, led by the miners, toppled the previous Conservative government led by Edward Heath.

But the government official I talked to reflected Mrs. Thatcher's reaction: she intends to hold down pay raises to as close to 6 percent as possible. Seeing the disarray in the Labour Party, convinced her own policies are correct, and buoyed by her display of leadership in the Falklands war, she will stand her ground.

Latest figures show that wages rose by only 10.9 percent in the year to July, compared to 12.1 percent the previous year. In addition, government statistics show that the standard of living in Britain - as measured by disposable incomes - dropped by 2 percent last year.

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