29 APRIL 1955, Page 4


IF skill and responsibility were the only test for worthiness to receive wage differentials, schoolmasters would be better paid than solicitors, and the curate's stipend would far exceed that of the candlestick-maker. But schoolmasters and curates continue to be wretchedly paid because their vocations give them little bargaining power; they cannot twist the Slate's arm whenever they are feeling poor, weary. or frustrated. It is meaningless, therefore, to base a claim for higher wage differ- entials for engine-drivers and firemen on abstract justice. If justice were done, the people who would benefit would he not the members of the powerful trade unions, but the millions whose jobs for one reason or another deprive them of the right or the capacity to embarrass the community by going out . on strike.

Yet it was hard to blame the footplate men for chancing their arm on this strike threat. Two successive Governments have surrendered rather than face a stoppage on the railways, Labour once, the Conservatives twice. If the NUR could do it, why not ASLEF? The footplate men's union bank balance may not be so healthy, for strike purposes, as the NUR's; but on the other hand the chances of the footplate men of getting their way without a strike ought to be greater. After all, people like engine-drivers—feel that they deserve more, much more, than porters and gangers and the rest. Public opinion should be on their side : and with a general election in the offing, the Government would be in no hurry to irritate public opinion. Surrender, surely, would be inevitable, provided that somebody could find a formula to prevent it looking too abject. For these reasons the footplate men felt justified in breaking the wage agreement they had recently concluded with the British Railways executive—in repudiating the arbitration verdict that they had pledged themselves to accept. They were able, of course, to argue that the agreement had been invali- dated by the executive's grant of increased wages to the NUR, which automatically reduced the footplate men's differentials. But if this argument were to be accepted, it would mean that no group of men in an industry could be given a rise without the wages of everybody else in the industry going up propor- tionately. And very soon (since the railwaymen's claims have been based largely on the need to restore parity with wages in other industries) this would mean that as soon as wages went up in one industry they would have to go up in all.

This is not just a derisive speculation : it is, in fact, what is happening. The wage structure is gradually becoming ossified, in the attempt to keep everybody's wages proportionately in step with everybody else's. This is not to say that the footplate men's case is frivolous : the fact that differentials can become a fetish does not mean they are no longer needed, and the rank and file clamour for a tougher policy against the employer.

The engineers' demands are not unreasonable; most of us will have every sympathy with the desire for greater leisure whether it be used, as one delegate wanted, 'to show their children Park Lane and Mayfair, where the parasitical class live,' or. as another preferred, to see the sun rise behind moun- tains. But the tone behind the demands was more arrogant, more akin to the past utterances of the Communists than to those of the TUC. Prosperity has its frustrations; even if the engineers are earning more than ever before, they can still feel disgruntled; and they can always excuse fresh demands on the grounds that they must buy new cloaks against a coming bliz- zard. But these demands, echoed in almost every industry today, will themselves promote the blizzard, unless unions and employers can find their way back to the road of industrial co-operation from which they have begun to stray.