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Flying pickets on the superhighway

THE AGE of the techno-strike has arrived.

At a time when strikers are becoming a rare and endangered species, those few workers in dispute are resorting to highly unusual methods.

Last Friday, the first anniversary of their industrial action, workers at Critchley Labels at Croespenmaen in south east Wales called for an "electronic picket" of the plant.

For 24 hours sister organisations of the British Communication Workers Union throughout the world "jammed" the company's faxes, e-mail addresses and Internet web sites to stop the business receiving orders.

Union activists kept on sending spurious messages to the company in an attempt to prevent potential customers getting through.

After a year standing outside the Critchley factory on a wind-swept business park high above the former pit villages, strikers were keen to try anything. It is a potentially powerful tactic which will no doubt be tried elsewhere.

Tony Young, joint general secretary of the CWU, said he thought the tactics could prove a potent new weapon in the hands of the Labour movement. "We would prefer not to have to interfere with the company's business but we see no alternative."

Critchley management has consistently refused to negotiate over its decision to withdraw recognition from the union and the company claims that a replacement workforce is operating efficiently.

Traditional industrial techniques for putting pressure on employers seem to have borne little fruit elsewhere. Magnet Kitchens at Darlington, County Durham is a case in point. Around 18 months ago, 300 workers were fired for going on strike and since then management has resisted attempts to start talks.

It took a bunch of redundant Derbyshire miners to concentrate the minds of management. Having visited the picket line, they decided that less orthodox action may be required.

Inspired by a recent episode in Coronation Street, they decided to mount a round-the-clock "fat cat" protest outside the Cambridgeshire mansion of Alan Bowkett, chief executive of Berisford, Magnet's parent company. The "campers" pointed out that Mr Bowkett was last year awarded a pounds 124,000 salary increase, more than the pounds 114,000 needed to meet the three per cent pay demand which triggered the walkout.

Generally Britain now provides desperately slim pickings for the aficionado of industrial unrest.

While there may be a great underswell of discontent among British workers, it is rarely expressed by walkouts, overtime bans and the legendary flying pickets.

It was not always thus. In 1979, the year of the so-called Winter of Discontent, a staggering 29,474,000 working days were lost through industrial action. In the 12 months to November the figure was just 246,000.

Unions are hoping that a forthcoming White Paper will redress the balance in their favour. One provision is expected to be that workers involved in lawful industrial action will have the right to claim unfair dismissal if they are sacked. Meanwhile, however, union activists are beginning to think laterally.