BRITAIN CURES ITS LABOR AILMENT

The "British disease" has been cured. The popular image, both at home and abroad, of factories manned by strike-happy workers ready to seize on the flimsiest excuse to walk out is outdated.

The number of working days lost through strikes in the 12 months to May fell to the lowest level since 1967, according to the latest government statistics. The days lost last year were less than a quarter of the total in 1984 and just under half the average for the previous 10 years.Worldwide press and television coverage of the violent year-long miners' strike in 1983-84 confirmed foreign perceptions of a country being dragged into anarchy by militant labor unions.

But the miners failed to enlist the support of other workers, and their eventual defeat probably signaled the end of the major set-piece labor disputes that have earned the UK its unhappy title as the world's most strike- prone society. Earlier strikes by locomotive engineers, dockers and steelworkers, the vanguard of the labor movement, also ended in humiliating defeats.

The ebb of union militancy results from several factors: the decline of the smokestack industries such as steel and shipbuilding where militancy was a way of life, the rise of employment in new high-technology and service industries that unions have failed to penetrate and probably most important of all: the growing fear of unemployment.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was carried to power in 1979 on a wave of public revulsion at an outbreak of strikes in the so-called winter of discontent, also played a major role by drastically curbing union power. Legislation on secret strike ballots was her most powerful weapon, shifting power away from union leaders and activists to the less politically-motivated rank and file members.

The opposition Labour Party, which won only 40 percent of the votes of trade union members in the last election, is committed to repealing the Conservative legislation but will bring in its own controls on unions - something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The weakening of union power has been accompanied by tougher attitudes by British management, which had earned a reputation for giving in to union demands at any price to avoid a strike.

The arrival of foreign managements, particularly Japanese, also quickened the pace of change, notably by obtaining no-strike, single-union agreement - again, something that was unthinkable a few years ago.

The unions, in retreat, adopted a more pragmatic stance, rapidly shedding their ideological baggage, as evidenced in the loss of power by the left-wing candidates in recent union elections.

The Trades Union Congress, the central organization of the labor movement, speaks earnestly about the "new realism" in its ranks. Says Gavin Laird, a moderate leader of the engineers and a pioneer of the single union, no-strike agreements: "trade unions are a mirror image of the production process. If industries change, so must we. When workers' aspirations and needs alter we must reflect this too."

Dramatic evidence of the change in the industrial climate in the United Kingdom came when Komatsu, the Japanese earth-moving equipment company, announced that the 250 employees at its new plant in northeast England will have to perform five minutes of exercise every day before work. A few years ago this would have been dismissed as a joke.

Meanwhile, the latest propaganda booklet from the Invest in Britain Bureau entices foreign companies with a vision of a "skilled and adaptable" work force geared to working in close cooperation with its employers.

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