UNEMPLOYMENT REMEDIES VARY

It is not unusual for Britain's trades unions to differ with the Conservative party - particularly when that party is in power, and their present discord over the reasons for the country's continued high level of unemployment is no exception.

At a recent meeting of the National Economic Development Council, a think tank of government, business and union leaders, Chancellor Nigel Lawson angered the unions when he claimed that the country's 12 percent unemployment rate might be eased if the labor market were more mobile.This call for greater worker mobility, in itself nothing new, was not so much what caused the stir. It was rather the chancellor's claim that a more mobile labor market might be created if rates of pay differed more between areas of high and low employment around the country.

The Trades Union Congress, an association of most of the country's major unions, vehemently disagrees.

It has never forgiven Norman Tebbit for his alleged statement in 1981, soon after he was appointed the Conservative government's employment secretary, telling workers to "get on their bikes" to look for work.

Unemployment in Britain is largely the result of the Conservative government's economic policies under Margaret Thatcher, and has very little to do with lack of labor mobility, argue the unions.

Even if workers were willing to uproot themselves and their families, there are few jobs most of them could go to, they argue.

The TUC backs the finding of a recent study undertaken by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that the major cause of European unemployment is an inadequate rate of new job creation.

It points to the U.K. Department of Employment's own figures on unemployment and vacancies, which show that even in the prosperous southeast of England there are currently some 11 unemployed people for every notified job vacancy.

What point would be served, therefore, if workers from Northern Ireland (where there are 61 unemployed for every job vacancy) or the northwest of England (26 unemployed per job vacancy) were to come south to an already oversupplyed market looking for jobs?

The great differential in house prices, with properties in the southeast costing easily 40 percent-50 percent more than comparable homes in the employment black spots of the north, is another matter that makes it difficult for people to move.

Some employers have even found that when they ask their managers to move

from the south to areas where property is cheaper they are now having to assure compensation should the managers want to return at some later date and need help getting back into the south's high-priced house market.

Never wavering from its long held beliefs on jobs and the labor market, the TUC insists that the government has got its jobs reasoning backwards. The best way of encouraging greater mobility would be to substantially reduce unemployment, not the other way around, it argues.

And the way to create more jobs, says the TUC, is to invest more in infrastructure and construction projects.

Financing such projects could be arranged by the creation of a National Investment Bank, whose funds would be earmarked for just such ventures.

The government has in turn argued that the rise in the level of unemployment since it took up office is an unfortunate byproduct of its tight money policies, which have successfully brought down the level of inflation, making life a lot easier for those who still have jobs.

But as long as unemployment exists on such a large scale, the situation would be eased if greater labor mobility could be achieved, believes the government.

The TUC objects to this line of reasoning largely because the government wants to achieve the change by ending national collective bargaining, which it sees as a reason for the relative similarity in pay scales around the country.

Such a move is anathema to the unions, which dread the thought of their power being further eroded by having to pay bargain at no more than a local level.

"We're not against employees and unions reaching pay agreements locally. What we are against is the government pushing the pattern of pay bargaining they want to see in order to promote their own economic theory," claimed David Lea, assistant general secretary of the TUC, last week.

The unions know their bargaining position has already been curtailed by legislation brought in by the current government and by economic changes and the high unemployment level. Since the disastrous national miners' strike of 1984-85, which ended in total defeat for the workers, TUC membership has dropped from about 54 percent of the country's work force to around 48 percent.

While Mr. Lea believes this represents a "rather stable standing," there is little doubt that the TUC is concerned about anything that would further weaken its position.

It is strongly hoping that in the next general election, widely tipped to take place in mid-1987, the Labour Party, with which it is more akin, will gain control.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe