British rights and antinuclear groups bring public-works pressure

Britain's anti-apartheid groups and growing peace movement are beginning to play a significant role in opposition to major contracts being awarded to some of the country's biggest engineering companies.

A $:500,000 ($770,000) order placed by a local authority in London with the Plessey engineering company to modernize a telephone system has been canceled because of Plessey's links with South Africa. Eight rebel Labour councilors recently joined a group of 14 Liberals and one independent councilor to prevent the Labour Tower Hamlets administration from confirming the Plessey contract.

A leading Labour rebel, a former director of the Amnesty International organization for prisoners' rights, has claimed that radar equipment sold by Plessey to South Africa in 1975 could have been used for military purposes. He added that the company had ''broken the UN arms embargo'' and praised Liberal councilors for supporting the ''moral argument'' against South African trade.

A Labour majority leader has contended that local taxpayers had been offered a good contract price and that Plessey was not the only company of its kind engaged in business with South Africa. British workers needed the jobs that would have been provided by the modernized telephone system, he added.

Yet there is little doubt that political attitudes are increasingly influencing the multimillion-pound trade with South African and British companies engaged in trade for United Kingdom defense spending.

Aware of a potentially strong backlash from the government, business leaders, some trade unionists, and arms limitation spokesmen like Ken Livingstone, a Greater London Council leader, are engaged in trying to find alternative work for weapons systems manufacturers based in London. But many workers are disinclined to listen to union leaders urging a switch to nonmilitary jobs - and union men are divided over the issue. Still, real pressure is coming from local authorities who have declared their areas nuclear-free zones.

Labor leader Livingstone, who recently canceled $:100,000 of civic advertisements in London's only evening newspaper because of a cartoon which he said insulted the Irish people, has become the voice of the local authorities' anti-armaments campaign.

Many civic groups do not oppose the manufacture of weapons in their communities, however - nuclear systems or conventional arms - and actively encourage military-linked enterprises. A large number of Labour MPs support these authorities.

The steadily growing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has decided to develop a new tack in its ''Stop Cruise Missiles'' campaign at Greenham Common by trying to blacklist all companies engaged at the south England nuclear base from all local authority contracts.

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