The truck drivers' strike, headlined here as a potential crippler for Britains economy, appears to be dribbling to an inconclusive end.
In this nation where muddling through is an art form, it is imposible to say who has won or lost.Some truckers are signing for the $120 a week their employers originally offered. Some are settling for the $130 the union demanded. Others are coming back for a figure in between, and a substantial number are putting the whole affair to an arbitration panel. The drivers now gross $106 for a 40-hour week.
About the only clear point to emerge is that the strike has hit the economy with less force than the severe blizzards raging across the country, the worst in 15 years.
Today, Home Secretary Merlyn Rees told the House that industrial output has fallen to less than 85 percent of normal and layoffs have idled an extra 250,000 workers, about one in 80. But the government's damage estimates have been notoriously unreliable. Rees, moreover, did not attempt to measure how much of this was due to weather and to industrial over-capacity.
The strike never did bring out more than one in four of Britain's truckers and its biggest impact was probably on exports piling up in port warehouses. Although several thousand strikers are now working again, precisely how many is also impossible to track down. Rees figured 10,000 of 40,000 or 50,000 have gone back to work. But unless some new crisis thits, most of the strikers could all return to work by the end of the week.
[The strike appeared closer to an end tonight after an independent rribunal recommended that the trucking companies ignore the government's anti-inflation wage ceiling and grant a 20.75 percent raise, the Associated Press reported. AP quoted union leaders as saying they expected many truckers to return to work Tuesday.]
The stoppage is ending much as it began, in confusion. Perhaps 25,000 truckers walked out on their own as early as Jan. 3. The union did not get around to calling for a national strike until Jan. 11, eight days later.
Financial markets, not always calm here, have treated the dispute with a marked lack of concern. Since Jan. 3, the pound has lost only 4 cents, to $1.99 1/2; the Financial Times index of industrial shares has fallen only 2 percent, from 473 to 463.
The settlements, however, ranging between 15 and 22.6 percent, indicate the country may well again suffer price increases above 10 percent before the year is out.
Workers held back on pay demands for the past three years, but many are angry now because their restraint did not stop inflation cold. So they have taken the lead away from their leaders, staging spontaneous walkouts.
About a dozen union chiefs, none from the ideological left, have been meeting privately in an effort to regain control. They favor an incomes policy, or pay guidelines as it is called in the U.S., and hope to work out a more coherent policy for the future.
Today, Prime Minister James Callaghan, who must call an election before the end of 1979, met with leaders of the Trades Union Congress, Britain's AFL-CIO. Both sides hope to still the unrest in the ranks through some from of paper pact so that Britons will not vote against a background of industrial unrest. Len Murray, the TUC general secretary and the nearest thing here to a George Meany, told reporters Callaghan wanted "industrial calm" and still clung to his 5 percent goal. But Murray, went onl, "we are not going along with that norms line at all."
Meanwhile, some of the other, aggravating disputes here have been settled or at least postponed. Journalists outside London have gone back to work. Their strike produced a 14.5 percent rise. Commuters, hit with rail strikes on three days in the last two weeks, are also breathing easier. The Union of Locomotive Engineers has agreed to submit its demand for a 10 percent "bonus" to arbitration.