12 AUGUST 1972, Page 14

Government &unions

Sir: The Government has now taken emergency powers to ensure that essential services and supplies are maintained whilst the dock strike lasts. But what do these emergency powers amount to? When workers strike in the essential services troops cannot be sent to dig coal, or operate power stations, or run the railways, or even be used in the docks except to unload a few of the ships lying there. Dockers abroad would black cargoes to Britain if troops were used; but apart from this the Government, without the dockers, cannot operate the docks so as to pass through them the normal volume of imports and exports.

It is Idle for the Government to pretend that emergency powers enable it to maintain essential supplies and services. The Government could not maintain essential electricity supplies during the recent coal strike, and had to give way to the miners. Nor could it prevent homes being blacked out and essential services interrupted if power workers, encouraged by the success of the miners, decided to strike this winter. All that the Government can do if the dock strike continues is to ration supplies until the workers decide to return.

A basic social change and shift of power has occurred in recent decades which accounts for the weakness of the Heath and Wilson governments in the face of industrial militancy. This change has three elements: (a) Technical progress has produced complex and highly integrated industries on which the whole community has come to depend (e.g. electricity), so that the population is now at the mercy of the efficiency and goodwill of a few score thousand workers, and more especially on the leaders who are able to sway them.

(b) Social security in the welfare state has removed from the minds of most of these workers the fear that hardship for themselves and their families might result from their actions.

(c) Liberal democratic governments cannot shoot the ringleaders and decimate the strikers, as Hitler and Stalin would have done, and have failed to bring them within the jurisdiction of the courts. They have no coercive powers to fall back on, and starvation and unemployment are no longer feared. They must therefore appease the unions and come to terms with them, more or less meeting their demands, though this will not satisfy militants with political objectives.

The current situation is a compound of technique, libertarianism, and social security in the welfare state. Technique gives workers the power to disrupt industries on which the whole community depends; libertarianism encourages them to be wilful and gives them the right to strike irrespective of consequences to others; social security gives them a cushion on which to fall back and protects them for the time being from the ultimate penalties of industrial indiscipline.

N. A. Smith

12 Braemar Avenue, Bournemouth