The national strike, for so long a fixture of British industrial life, may soon be a thing of the past. Paul Routledge reports
SOCIAL change sometimes arrives by a circuitous route: unexpectedly, held up by errors of judgement, but hurried on by events. This erratic process was to be seen at work last week in the train drivers' dispute. One day, passengers were bracing themselves for wholesale national dislocation of the railways. The next, commuters and footplatemen alike were heaving a huge sigh of relief as Aslef's campaign of one-day strikes was put on hold pending another secret ballot.

The outcome is scarcely in doubt. The drivers will settle for the "going rate" of 3 per cent maximum pay rise, plus a less-than-iron-clad promise of a shorter working week in two years. As settlements go, it is a classic compromise between push and shove. The money fits the Treasury's outer limit for public-sector pay rises, while the recommendation to secure the union's objective of a 37-hour week will bring some satisfaction to footplatemen compelled to work unduly long hours for a living wage. Behind this haggling, something else is going on, something much bigger than the resolution of another pay dispute on the railways. Unless a providential general election supervenes, this is the last time that Lew Adams and his union executive will be able to call a national strike that brings the railway system to a halt across the whole country from Wick to Penzance. Once the railway system has been privatised into dozens of small train operating units, the 12,000 Aslef members will no longer be working for a single employer. They will have at least 40 agreements, and under Conservative labour law they will find it virtually impossible to stage legal, concerted national action for better pay and conditions in disputes with the various individual train operating companies. And walkouts for any other reason are already outlawed.

The railways are not alone in this. Across the public services and the privatised industries that were once grand industrial battlegrounds, similar changes are taking place. Without fanfare, an important if unloved element of the post-war British way of life seems to be vanishing. Is this the end of One Out! All Out? Are we witnessing the last hurrah for the national strike, the comprehensive disputes that were such a dominant feature of the Seventies?

IN THE old days, one great industrial dislocation seemed to follow another. The dockers came out like clockwork. The miners either struck, or threatened to, for more than a decade. Once, the post office worker didn't collect or deliver letters for nine weeks.

It was like Italy without the sunshine. If it wasn't the staff at social security offices, it was petrol-tanker drivers. Or the "dirty-jobs" workers, whose stoppage left mountains of rat-infested rubbish accumulating in the streets. And if it wasn't them, it was workers of whom most people had never heard. The blastfurnacemen, for instance, without whom state- owned British Steel could not operate for more than a few days. "Look you," announced their grinning leader, Hector Smith, "we don't just post letters, you know." His employers did know. They caved in pretty smartly.

The national strike habit was not confined to "the manuals". It proved catching in banks and commerce, and it did not end there. Staff walked out at the most high-profile, high-security locations, such as GCHQ, the Government's spy centre, and among civilian support staff for military centres - simply because "the leaders" in London demanded it. The security of the West, it was claimed, was put at risk. The financial viability of the state most certainly was, by the civil service strike of 1980.

How things have changed. The Aslef strike is as good as over. Yet this had been billed as the summer's big one. Mr Adams boasted of his readiness to endure public obloquy for many months. His union's rapid retreat from the battlefield has prompted labour movement insiders, and the frankly curious, to ask whether anybody has the stomach for a national strike, if the traditionally militant drivers do not.

In one sense, the answer is already in the making. The proposition is being put to the test. Over the next few days, 250,000 NHS hospital staff belonging to the public service union Unison will receive ballot forms inviting them to take part in a one-day walkout, or action short of a strike. The dispute is over the Government's 1 per cent pay offer, plus unspecified extra cash that might be available through local bargaining. Voting papers must be returned by the end of August, and we will then know whether nurses, ancillary workers and a host of other NHS employees are ready to stage what some observers believe would be the last big act of national defiance by organised labour. Bob Abberley, the union's health organiser, is confident. "We expect a Yes," he said. "We had a consultation process, and 91 per cent of members voted to say that they didn't want local pay, and said they would support action including strike action."

Pointing to a Unison-commissioned Mori poll which showed a large majority of public opinion opposing local pay bargaining as "the start-up of the breakup of the NHS", Mr Abberley added that the union expected widespread public support for a national walk-out. He will almost certainly get it. Generally speaking, the public rallies to the NHS (although the ambulance dispute crushed a few years ago by Kenneth Clarke, then secretary of state for health, showed that such support is not always enough).

More to the point, perhaps, the ideology of national industrial action is not dead. Rodney Bickerstaffe, associate general secretary of Unison, insisted: "As long as there is a national union, getting rid of national action cannot be on the agenda. There will be a continued struggle to retain national bargaining in the NHS. Getting rid of it is part of the plan to end the NHS itself, but I cannot see national bargaining disappearing altogether. In any event, I think it is cyclical. We have been here before. The absence of national bargaining simply leads to poaching of staff between hospitals, bidding up for staff and too much time spent at local level on this issue."

He may be right about the time-consuming and costly bureaucracy now settling into place within the NHS. But the trend cannot be ignored. Politics, the business culture of "human resources" and finance are all pushing hard towards local pay, curbing the scope for national disputes. National action requires a national target. But both public and private sectors of employment are inexorably moving to abolish national wage agreements that could attract any form of national response. Under current law, any "action"must be against the direct employer. Yet where there is a multiplicity of employers, real or simply invented "profit centres", it is virtually impossible to conduct one common dispute with all of them at once.

Hence the flight from national pay deals. The engineering employers got rid of theirs six years ago. After privatisation, the rail unions will be talking not to one but perhaps 40 employers. In the civil service, where there was once one boss - the Treasury - there are now 34, and next year there will be 150. The many and various branches of government departments that are being hived off as Next Step agencies, often as a first step towards privatisation, tend to conduct their own bargaining. The NHS trusts, all 412 of them at the last count, cannot wait to follow suit. In teaching, collective bargaining gave way to wage-fixing through a national pay-review body, and similar arrangements were established for nurses. Both bodies are now under threat, from the drive to introduce local bargaining in the NHS and from the delegation of financial power directly to schools. Pay-review bodies for the armed forces, the police and the judiciary will almost certainly remain, partly because they have never had any bargaining rights, but the similar arrangements for doctors and dentists could well go the same way as those for other professions.

Progress towards devolution of wage bargaining is not proving a trouble- free experience. The government-funded Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service last year posted "a record year" for problems in the workplace. It received requests for conciliation in 1,312 collective disputes - mostly in its regional offices - a 100 per cent increase on 1993 despite the downward trend in officially recorded stoppages. Overall, Acas received half a million calls for help in that year, scarcely a testimony of industrial harmony. Some observers believe that the shift away from national conflict could embolden some groups of workers to be more confident about "having a go" at local level.

Other statistics do not support this view, pointing instead to a sharp drop in collective bargaining of any kind. The latest and most authoritative survey indicates that between 1980 and 1990, the number of employees covered by national bargaining fell from 32 per cent to 26 per cent. The number is probably now down to 20 per cent. However, this trend is overshadowed by the fall in the number of workers whose pay is determined by any kind of collective bargaining. That figure tumbled from 65 per cent to 45 per cent, and has certainly fallen since. Even in the highly unionised public sector, the proportion of people's pay negotiated by unions decreased from 91 per cent to 78 per cent, and may now be much lower.

The overall picture is one of relentless - and deliberate - pressure to move away from national bargaining so as to diminish the strength of the unions and drive down wages. Barry Reamsbottom, general secretary of the largest civil service union, the CPSA, said: "It is quite clear there is a partially hidden agenda - to try to end totally the unions' ability to organise national strike action. There are members of the Cabinet who get quite considerable enjoyment, private or otherwise, at the extra pressures it throws on us. It is another step to drive more and more people out of trade unions, and make it more and more difficult to provide good service because there is a limit to how much we can put subscriptions up."

There is some irony here. Mr Reamsbottom is correctly regarded as a moderate union leader. In 1968, in the full bloom of the second Labour government of Harold Wilson, the Donovan Royal Commission on Trade Unions identified a dangerous shift towards unstructured, shop steward-driven pay militancy on the shop-floor. While recognising that the drift of power to the shop- floor could not be reversed overnight, it proposed measures to restore the authority of people like Mr Reamsbottom, a "responsible" step in the direction of corporatist wage-fixing between union leaders and employers' organisations. In other words, national bargaining was thought to be desirable because it would reduce the influence of hot-tempered union members and increase the influence of moderate union leaders. At the same time, competition between unions was singled out as a failure of the post-war bargaining system. As long ago as 1961, the Organisation for European Economic Co- operation, later to become the OECD, complained that in Britain "the haphazard fragmentation of collective bargaining and the weakness of central organisations has facilitated competitive bidding between the unions". In the late Sixties and Seventies, this inter-union rivalry and shop-floor militancy - rightly assumed to be a proving-ground for the hard- and ultra-left - came to a head over determined moves to establish national bargaining. Companies such as British Leyland fought the stewards to recoup their "right to manage", often in an unstated pact with moderate union officials. Similar moves took place in the electrical contracting industry and in construction.

That trend has now been stood on its head, not least because the politicians' faith in union chiefs proved misplaced. The great set-piece confrontations - the steel strike, the civil service strike, the strikes at Ford, the blastfurnacemen's strike, the post office strike and the year-long pit strike of 1984-85 - were all the product of union executive decisions on a national level. Neither capital nor government (not even Labour ones), it seemed, could trust organised labour.

THE EROSION of national bargaining systems is not confined to Britain. Labour lawyers in Italy are concerned at similar shifts there, while in Germany the threat by engineering employers to break up the national agreement with the powerful IG Metall union is regarded as a portent of enormous change.

Here, there are signs of some fresh thinking. Last week, the TUC brought out a thoughtful new policy on union representation which bids fair to be included - in part, at least - in Labour's election manifesto. It calls for a "representation agency" to award and restore collective bargaining rights to employees who vote for them. But Your Voice at Work is not a rash document, speaking only of bargaining at "company, plant or business unit" level. Except by implication that some companies operate countrywide, there is no mention of a return to the heady days of national bargaining, with its intrinsic risk of national disruption.

Other voices, concerned that the pendulum has swung too far in the favour of employers, are less reticent. Lord Wedderburn, a Labour peer and professor of commercial law at the London School of Economics, stated flatly: "The law should not allow employers to determine unilaterally the levels and units of negotiation without reference to the unions which represent their employees. Decentralisation of bargaining should be a matter of agreement in sensibly run workplaces."

Graham Mather, member of the European Parliament , right-wing economist and author of Striking Out Strikes, a controversial pamphlet published in 1988, sees things differently. "The national strike is usually effective only where there is a monopoly of supply," he said. "What most scandalised the public in the Seventies was the use of secondary picketing and secondary action generally to enforce that monopoly. National strikes only really flourish when monopoly suppliers exist, and if those on strike can effectively prevent alternative sources of supply emerging. Both of these are anti- competitive and anti-democratic.

"The shift away from the national strike is a perfectly healthy development. It stems from the distortions of typically public monopolies and of course it has also faded since secondary action was made more difficult, and since the miners put to the test the preparedness of society to enforce its laws."

The next step, Mr Mather suggested, should be to call into question the need for strikes at all. "The starting point must be whether the strike is a normal part of the industrial relations system or whether it is, in fact, a mistake. As Hayek suggested, it has turned out that the socialist form of economic organisation, especially public ownership on a significant scale, is a large-scale mistake. In a few years' time, the strike will also be seen as a distortion, an error and an unnecessary feature of any sensible bargaining relationship. We are seeing through privatisation and decentralisation the natural coming to an end of the use of the strike threat. We are also seeing other forms of negotiation of dispute resolution developing which make it very unlikely that we will ever see the resurgence of strikes."

However, organised workers have traditionally shown themselves to be nothing if not inventive. The train drivers are already turning their attention to ways of exploiting their local bargaining opportunities. Aslef will submit claims to the train operating companies and freight operators aimed at consolidating their existing average earnings, paid from an enormous variety of basic rates, overtime, rest-day working, flexible rostering and allowances, into a pensionable salary. The possibility of disruption company by company remains. The days of the national strike may be drawing to a close, but Mr Mather's vision of a strike-free environment is still some way off.