LONDON — Weary British commuters were braced for yet another rail strike. The issue, staffing levels, was depressingly familiar, as was the rail union leadership's refusal to even discuss any reductions in personnel.
Then came the surprise. The National Union of Railwaymen's 11,000 members stunned their bosses and delighted the public by voting not to support a strike. They urged negotiations instead.
This incident, which occurred last August, reflects one of the most significant changes in British society since World War II: a decline in the trade union militancy that for years had dogged industrial relations, sapped the country's economic strength and made the term, "the British disease," a euphemism for labor troubles.
The new mood can be traced in part to cyclical factors--unemployment at a record 13.3% and the reduced bargaining leverage that such a level implies for unions.
But other developments bear the earmarks of more permanent change and many students of British industrial relations are convinced that the days when trade union leaders could topple governments or bring the country to a standstill are gone for good.
"I believe we've experienced a watershed," Charles G. Hanson, a Newcastle University economist who has specialized in industrial relations, observed the other day. "There is a sense of economic realism among both blue- and white-collar workers that we've fallen behind other nations and that part of this is due to class antagonism and trade union disputes."
Figures recently published by the Confederation of British Industry underscore the extent of this change. There were 882 official strikes in Britain last year, the lowest number in half a century and less than half the annual average of 1,830 over the period 1974 to 1985.
Statistics also show that the rate of manufacturing output per employee is growing faster in Britain than in any of its main competitor countries. Relatively high unit-wage costs remain a drag on Britain's international competitiveness, but the new climate in labor relations has made for economic optimism.
"It means faster economic growth and a more vigorous economy," Hanson said.
The most important aspect of the new climate in industrial relations is a series of laws that, among other things, have democratized unions and sharply diminished the union leaders' ability to take action without consulting their members. Another of these laws removes legal immunity for secondary picketing, a major source of trade union power in the past.
The legal package, assembled over the period 1980 to 1984, has had such a major impact that many call it the single most important change to British society in the 6 1/2 years since Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.
For example, it was the legal requirement that a union membership be polled before a strike that averted the national rail strike looming over the country last summer. Union officers, once selected by an active, often-militant minority of the membership, must now be elected by the entire membership and by secret ballot.
After coal miners undertook a long and bitter strike in 1984, funds belonging to the National Union of Mineworkers were seized because the strike had been called without a union-wide vote. The funds have still not been released and, as a result, the union is severely limited in its actions.
Other legal provisions have enabled press entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch to defy militant printers' unions and start publishing his new national newspapers using computerized technology.
The crushing defeats suffered by the traditionally powerful miners' and printers' unions are indicative of the changing environment. And they have had an enormous psychological impact on Britain's labor relations climate, generating unusual caution among militant union leaders who once reveled in confrontation.
The Thatcher laws have been strenuously opposed by the Labor Party and organized labor's central organization, the Trades Union Congress. But even if Thatcher's Conservatives are defeated in the next election it would be impossible, the opponents admit, to overturn these laws completely, mainly because much of the legislation is as popular with the union rank and file as with the Conservative politicians who drafted it.
"Workers expect a greater say in their affairs and want to be consulted before going out on strike," said Michael Smith, a Trades Union Congress spokesman. "We know it cannot be the way it was in 1979."
The Trades Union Congress, after threatening to expel member unions that accepted the offer of government money to finance the election of national officers, was forced, earlier this year, to reverse itself in order to avoid splitting the labor movement.
This week, it plans to hold a special consultative conference of its major member unions to draw up legislative proposals of its own. The working document accepts significant portions of the Thatcher laws.