Telecom pays heavy toll for nation-wide phone strike

British Telecom, the communications network privatized by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government two years ago, was caught in the grip of a nationwide strike this past week. The strike caused widespread disruption to telephone services, and threatened BT with heavy financial losses if no early end to the dispute - over pay and working conditions - was found.

Ironically, a root cause of the strike is the huge profits the network has been making. Last year its pre-tax profit was over 1 billion, and BT's workforce, 85 percent of whom are shareholders, decided to demand a bigger share of the proceeds. Calls for `flexibility deal'

One group of workers wants a ``flexibility deal'' of about 4.5 percent. Other workers want rises on top of this, and Telecom's management decided to dig in its toes.

Most of the disruption at the outset of the strike was caused when telephone engineers, who are demanding a 10 percent pay rise, withdrew their labor. This meant that phone repair work could not be done. Later BT clerical workers, who process BT's telephone bills, went on a three-day strike in support of the engineers. The effect of this seemed likely to cause confusion in the collection of BT's revenues.

The initial effect of the stoppages was to cause a moderate amount of disruption to phone traffic between London and provincial centers. Then international calls were affected.

In some towns and cities the failure of telephone links meant that ambulances and fire brigades were hampered in answering emergency calls.

At one point, the newly computerized City of London, venue for vital financial transactions, appeared to be in danger of suffering major communications failures.

Telecom managers said that although a big effort had been made to modernize the network since privatization, trade union activity in BT remained intense. Privately, they said that a program of cuts in manpower had been only partly successful. `Test' of privatization?

Commentators characterized the BT dispute as a test of the ability to push through privatization measures that would produce more efficient enterprises. One posed the question: ``What does privatization mean beyond a change of ownership?''

The Thatcher government is especially worried lest its plan to privatize the national airline British Airways be damaged by a rising public belief that, no matter what the ownership of a concern, its prospects will be harmed by unrestrained trade union demands.

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