Militant trade unionism in Britain is in retreat. For the second time this year trade union leaders on the hard left have been decisively defeated.
By a narrow margin, British rail guards upset the calculations of their own union leadership by deciding not to strike the national rail network. The vote was 4,815 (52.5 percent) against the strike and 4,360 (47.5 percent) in favor. The guards, whose job is to signal train drivers when it is safe to leave a station, argue that they are a safety factor in rail service.
The unexpected vote is a major setback for trade-union militants on the eve of next week's Trades Union Congress (the association of British unions) in Blackpool. The vote has important implications for the entire trade-union movement.
Labor experts say a new realism is entering the British trade-union scene. Workers, for instance, are not automatically following leaders and are increasingly inclined to accept management's pragmatic view that change is necessary for survival.
The British government will take considerable comfort from this vote. It had set its heart on curbing unions, feeling they were contributing to the nation's economic decline.
First, the outcome will be interpreted by the government as evidence that hardheaded managers, and not unions, should and can dictate action in state-run industries.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, the government will feel vindicated on the issue of trade-union controls.
Militant activists have now twice lost the battle over management's right to manage. In both cases the issue was over union resistance to management effort to modernize two of Britain's sluggish, heavily subsidized, nationalized industries.
Earlier this year a coal-miners' strike, summoned without a union ballot by leader Arthur Scargill, collapsed. The objective of the National Coal Board, which acts as management for this nationalized industry, to close pits and cut jobs was left largely intact. This is principally what the conflict was all about.
Then came the threat of a national rail strike over the issue of driver-only trains. Union leaders, confident of a majority, were shocked to find that they were not in step with most of the rank and file. The result so stunned the leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen that they went into hiding for more than two hours after the results of the strike ballot were made known.
The rail-guard ballot was the first taken under the new 1984 Trade Union Act, which obliges a union to hold a ballot before a strike. The government defended the act by saying that it represented worker democracy. Not voiced was government suspicion that strikes which did not necessarily carry the endorsement of all union leaders were being called arbitrarily by militant union leaders. The guard vote, upsetting the hopes of union leaders for some kind of industrial action, will only confirm government
suspicions. The vote, however, will not end the dispute. Militant guards who favored a strike may be unwilling to accept the majority's verdict.
The day after Wednesday's vote, services in and out of Glasgow, where the dispute started, were badly disrupted. There were also a number of cancellations of trains coming into London.
Before the ballot, British Rail had dismissed more than 200 guards who had refused to work on trains scheduled for the driver-only conversion. The unions insist that dismissed men must be reinstated before any negotiations can take place on productivity.