BRITAIN'S ailing trade unions are taking steps to stay in the mainstream of the nation's industrial development, moving away from their traditional attitude of confronting government and big business and toward engaging in dialogue.
For the first time in its 124-year history the Trades Union Congress (TUC) invited a leader of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to address its annual conference, which ended Sept. 11. Business spokesman Howard Davies told TUC delegates that he welcomed the opportunity to have direct contact with British workers.
"Our door will be open, and we are prepared to take part in a social dialogue between the two sides of industry," he said.
The TUC is also encouraging the creation of a few super-unions to replace the current galaxy of small unions, and intends to open its own office in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Community.
Since a study was published in The European newspaper last November, which ranked Britain ninth in working conditions among the EC's 12 members, behind Germany, Denmark, and France, union leaders have begun to see their future in a European context. Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC, said this would give the organization a voice in Europe, "particularly in relation to the EC."
Only a small group of TUC hard-liners, headed by Arthur Scargill, leader of the mineworkers, objected to the invitation extended to Mr. Davies. The one discordant note sounded when Davies called for wage restraint. Some delegates jeered.
Most, however, appeared to support a proposal by John Edmonds, leader of the powerful General Municipal and Boilermakers' Union, that the TUC should invite a senior government minister to address its conference next year.
Geoffrey Goodman, an industrial relations analyst who has followed TUC affairs for more than 40 years, described the latest developments as "part of a series of steps the trade unions must take if they are to avoid being marginalized in British society."
"The TUC took many knocks during Margaret Thatcher's premiership," Mr. Goodman said. "They lost many of their privileges and much of their influence. What we are seeing is an attempt to find a new role."
Mrs. Thatcher's assault on the power of the deeply entrenched "fifth estate" was one of her hardest-fought campaigns. She passed laws requiring unions to hold secret ballots before calling strikes and abolished closed-shop union membership. In 1984 she confronted and defeated Mr. Scargill, who had called a coal strike with the stated aim of bringing down the government.
Mr. Edmonds, whose union has 900,000 members, is typical of a new breed of union leader in the post-Scargill era. He thinks the TUC has interests in common with the CBI. "We agree for example on the need for better training in British industry and a more progressive policy on energy prices," he said. "If we can present a common argument on specific problems, why not eventually a common package on investment in infrastructure and stimulating the economy?"
Part of the background to the new industrial realism of the TUC's strategy is its ever-decreasing membership. From 12.5 million in 1979, when Thatcher came to power, it stands at 7.8 million today. In 1979, 53 percent of British workers were union members. Today the figure is 38 percent, and falling.
Lord McCarthy, an industrial relations specialist at Oxford University, says the fall in membership has brought a fall in revenue, and leaders of British unions are having to plan mergers to create super-unions.
One merger - between engineers and electricians in May 1991 - produced a union with a total membership of 1 million.
Next July an even larger merger will take place when central and local government employees and health workers get together to form Unison. With 1.5 million members, two-thirds of them women, it will be Britain's largest union, at least for a while.
"The trend is toward a few super-unions," Goodman says. "Their leadership promises to be moderate, reflecting the sentiments of members."
Some delegates to the conference noted that the TUC's traditional ties with the Labour Party were waning while contacts with employers were waxing.
"The Labour Party is trying to distance itself from us, because of public perceptions that the TUC pays the party's bills," one union official said privately. "We may have to find new partners."