BRITAIN'S trade union barons, until a decade ago always respected and sometimes feared by governments, are meeting this week at the seaside resort of Blackpool to try to recover their lost political clout and chart a course for the future. They want to reverse a trend that has cut the membership of the Trades Union Congress from over 12 million to under 9 million during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 10 years in power. They also want to recover the influence they have lost thanks to Mrs. Thatcher's drive to curb union power.
As it heads for the 1990s, however, the TUC speaks with two voices. The Blackpool gathering may offer evidence as to which voice will prove dominant.
There is for example the voice typified by Ron Todd, head of the Transport and General Workers' Union, whose membership is still over 1 million, making it the TUC's largest union. A former plumber, Mr. Todd salts his speech with references to the ``need for solidarity'' and denounces the Thatcher government as ``an enemy of the workers.'' He is committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament - an attitude which has helped the opposition Labour Party lose the last three general elections.
The other TUC voice is more conciliatory and seems to be growing more audible. Bill Jordan, leader of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, has urged the TUC to study what has been happening to British industry and not to try to turn the clock back to pre-Thatcher days. He is finding support from many younger trade unionists who prefer a nonconfrontational approach.
In the run-up to the TUC's Blackpool conference, Mr. Jordan gave a demonstration of his approach. His union has been trying to persuade employers to shorten the working week for engineering workers to 35 hours. He said: ``Our aim is to make our point effectively without damaging our industry. If the employers make a stupid response, it will force the unions to escalate their action.'' Jordan's strategy is to use the strike weapon only as a last resort, to keep the public on his side.
It contrasts sharply with the more aggressive Todd style, which favors early industrial action or the threat of it. A month earlier, Todd called an early strike against port employers, but the workers in a number of ports didn't respond. Eventually he was forced to tell workers to return to work.
This clash between the standpoints represented by Todd and Jordan is far from resolved.
As union delegates gathered in Blackpool they had a good example of the old attitudes in their midst - and of the reason why the TUC has been suffering severe membership losses. Traditionally at Blackpool, the TUC stays at the four-star Imperial Hotel. But the hotel earlier this year decided no longer to recognize the hotel workers' union to which most of the staff belonged. The TUC promptly canceled bookings for 150 rooms and ordered the hotel ``blacked.''
What the TUC leadership was responding to, in fact, was part of a widespread trend that has severely curtailed the influence of the trade unions.
Shortly after they came to power in 1979 Thatcher and her ministers set about seizing the initiative from the unions which, under the previous Labour administration, had boasted of their ``partnership with government'' and had been regularly consulted on economic policy. In a series of new laws the Conservative government forced union leaderships to call postal ballots among workers before deciding on industrial action, and abolished the ``closed shop'' which denied employment to workers unless they joined a union. Employers were also given the right to take unions to court to head off or reverse strike action.
Five years ago, in a highly symbolic victory, Thatcher forced the miners' Marxist leader, Arthur Scargill, to abandon a nationwide coal strike. The mineworkers' union is now so small that Mr. Scargill no longer merits a seat on the TUC general council.
The Thatcher policies encouraged employers to take the initiative against unions. Many decided to ``derecognize'' unions unilaterally. Newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch three years ago sacked print workers who opposed a move of his newspaper to a more automated plant in Wapping in East London. Soon afterward, the P & O shipping line derecognized the National Union of Seamen and began employing nonunion labor.
The escalating derecognition trend has cut deeply into trade union membership. At last year's TUC Congress, the movement lost 300,000 members in the space of a few minutes when delegates voted to expel the Electricians' Union, whose members had helped Mr. Murdoch establish his new printing plant at Wapping.
Dr. Tim Claydon, a researcher at Leicester Polytechnic, says there have been 58 cases of union derecognition in the last five years - 49 of them since the beginning of 1987.
On the eve of the Blackpool meeting, Norman Willis, the TUC's general secretary, claimed the tide was turning for the unions. He cited the success in the last two months of railway and broadcasting workers in securing solid pay rises following industrial action. He also noted that some 40 percent of workers still belong to trade unions - twice as many as in the United States. Mr. Willis pointed to a public opinion poll suggesting that 58 percent of people believe managers are responsible for Britain's economic problems, whereas only 19 percent blame the unions.
At least as significantly, however, most people still believe the unions are heavily influenced by left-wing activists. They prefer, by a majority of two-to-one, moderate leaders like Jordan to radicals like Scargill and old-fashioned bosses like Todd.
The TUC at Blackpool plans to launch a membership drive targeted at part-time women workers in the service sector. Willis said he hoped hundreds of thousands of new members could be signed up in this way. But critics note that if it wants enrollments in large numbers, the TUC will have to respond to pressures for unions to put heavier stress on providing better facilities for members, such as trade union credit cards, special union-sponsored holiday centers, and education courses.
On Monday, the TUC congress doubled the places for women on the general council from six to 12.
The left wing of the trade union movement wants to restore unions' immunity to legal action by employers. Todd is in the forefront of these demands. At Blackpool he said he wanted the opposition Labour Party to commit itself to giving the unions back their immunity. He also made it clear that he prefers the Labour Party to back anti-nuclear policies.
In response to jibes that he is a ``dinosaur'' of the trade union movement, Todd says: ``I remind you that dinosaurs ruled the world for 200 million years, and that wasn't bad.''
In holding to such views, Todd runs hard into the attitude of younger, more moderate union leaders like Bill Jordan who describes anti-nuclear policies and attempts to ban the bomb as political ``madness'' for a movement which supposedly wants a return of the Labour Party to power.
Jordan is convinced that most rank-and-file trade unionists hold moderate opinions on most issues.
``We must find effective ways of bringing the real opinions of our members into out decisionmaking. It can be done,'' he says.