15 MARCH 1957, Page 4

Power and Prestige

ON both sides to the engineering and ship- building dispute, the determination has grown to make a fight of it. This is not because of any particular rancour between them; nor from any illusions of prospective benefit for the victors. Before battle begins both sides know they are likely to lose. But they do not feel they will lose very much. The workers will eventually accept a wage increase of a few pence a week more than they might have got without fighting; almost enough to make up for the cost of going on strike. The employers will put up their prices and hope in time to recoup their losses. Neither side has any great economic incentive for a quick settle- ment; both have psychological reasons for rejecting it.

This has little to do with the actual differences between them. The arguments they have been using have become tediously familiar over the last decade: indeed they might now, with benefit to all concerned, be taken as read. The unions say that wage rates have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living, and that the industry, with cheerful order books and profit margins, can well afford to increase them. The employers reply that earnings have more than kept pace with the cost of living, and that order books and profit margins will soon look gloomy when higher wages price British industry out of export markets. Neither side really believes in its arguments: indeed some of them are school debating society stuff—Mr. W. J. Carron, after producing quan- tities of loaded statistical material 'himself, dis- missed the employers' statistics with 'We all know what can be done with figures.'

The real cause of the dispute is the struggle for something which might be described as lying midway between power and prestige. Both the employers' and the unions' federations were con- structed for fighting, not for figureheading. It is transparent in both their arguments that what they want to prove is not their case, but their strength. In so far as such disputes have a begin- ning, the employers began it last summer by rejecting a wage claim in advance; though they had some right to be annoyed at the speed with which wage claims were coming up, they could hardly have chosen a surer way to make certain that the unions would soon put in a claim for a fat increase and be prepared to fight for it. If, as the President of the Employers' Federation has since claimed, this rejection was only meant to be an 'appeal,' then the President has a lot to learn About labour relations. It has since 'provided the excuse for the beefy intransigence of Mr. Ted Hill, of the Boilermakers' Union, who has been rushing around chopping off the head of any move for conciliation, whenever one appears.

In such cases it is the two-tiered structure of industry, with Federation bellowing at Confedera- tion across imaginary canyons, that is really to blame; but as strikes are now more a matter of bad blood than of bad conditions, the employers must bear the main responsibility. It may be hard for them to realise that they no longer represent only themselves and their shareholders : that the engineering industry is too vital to the com- munity's health to be allowed to become a battlefield wherein some foolish men work old spleen out of their systems. The denunciation by one employers' representative of government intervention—We want to fight it out ourselves'— is neanderthal talk, utterly irresponsible at such a time. There is some slight excuse for the unions, which are much troubled by internal difficulties, partly due to their organisations becoming too cumbersome, partly to the need not to let the Communists make all the running. But the employers, who have had it so good for the past decade, ought to have learned more sense.