Secret balloting by mail redefines democracy for British unions

In Britain's trade unions, ``democracy'' used to have a meaning of its own. But that was before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. Secret ballots were rare, and often policy decisions were made with a show of hands. There were also many opportunities for union activists to intimidate members who didn't agree with union leadership.

Today the situation is changing. Democracy in Britain's unions has been brought into focus by two major developments:

Late last month, guards on Britain's trains decided in a secret ballot not to oppose with a strike the introduction of driver-only trains. The result stunned union leaders and activists who had assumed that the rank and file shared their strike-oriented convictions.

At the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Blackpool, Britain's second-largest trade union defied the TUC general council by insisting on its right by law to accept government money to pay for postal balloting of its membership. The legislation was enacted by Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative government.

Earlier, engineering workers voted overwhelmingly to accept government money. But at Blackpool the TUC leadership tried to force them to abandon their stance, arguing that the funding was a ploy to weaken the unions.

But the engineers held firm, receiving support from the influential electricians' union. The TUC had to compromise by having the engineers hold a further ballot on the question of accepting government money. It is expected that they will again vote to accept.

The great bitterness directed at the engineers' leader, Gavin Laird, for sticking to his union's policy, reflects union fears that if postal balloting becomes common, unions will lose much of their authority.

Mrs. Thatcher's officials verify the fear by pointing out that when secret ballots are held -- with or without government funding -- they often produce results that infuriate union leaders.

In the aftermath of the vote by train guards, one union official at Blackpool was heard to mutter: ``Only fools agree to a secret ballot when they are not sure of the outcome.'' Such cynicism typifies much of the political maneuvering inside the British trade-union movement.

But one engineering union official remarked, ``By sticking to our guns, we were not only making a point, we were advancing a cause. When there's a . . . majority for a policy, you can't just reverse it at the behest of the big battalions.''

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