HE BRITISH FIREMEN are, in a manner of speaking, striking over oil and the wealth that it brings. That's not the firemen's view of it, of course. They see it as purely an issue of fair wages. For a good many other Britons, it's only another painful example of the dilemmas created by the right of public employees to strike. But behind all the other questions lie the coming decisions over spending the stream of new wealth from the North Sea oil fields.
The combinations of rapid wage increase and low productivity in the early 1970s brought the British economy into increasing peril until, in 1975, the inflation rate was approaching 30 per cent a year. As an emergency measure the government, with the full cooperation of the labor unions, imposed drastic wage controls for two years. The inflation rate has come down steadily. It's now around 14 per cent and, with luck, the government hopes to have it under 10 per cent next year. But the wage agreements with the unions expired last summer. The government is now trying to hold wage settlements with a guideline of 10 per cent, and that is the limit that the firemen are protesting.
Britain has had a lot of experience over the years with wage guidelines, and the present challenge fits the familiar pattern exactly. Guidlines are usually cracked first by unions very much like the firemen's small, highly visible, engaged in a vital public service, entitled to a degree of public sympathy for special reason. The past examples range from the nurses to the people who run the power stations. The firemen have evidently come out of the two year's restraint at a disadvantage compared with other people in similar lines of work, like the police. Even with the 10 percent increase that the government proposes, the firemen would still earn less than the average for all British workers. They think that they are entitled to more than the average, and a good many other Britons agree. But the government knows that if it gives in, other unions with less substantial claims will come pushing through the hole that the firemen have made. That's the trouble with guidelines.
The government's position is doubly difficult because everybody knows that shortly it will be able to afford a little more for firemen and the other public services. The North Sea oil will bring the British Treasury from $5 to $10 billion a year for the next decade. How is that money to be spent?
The government has been discussing the subject with the unions, and early next year it is to publish a statement of policy. The money could be used to expand public services, or to cut taxes, or to increase investment in industry. The government, like most economists, considers it essential to use a lot of the oil money for industrial development. But it will require a tremendous demonstrations of political determination to hold the money for investment instead of spending it on current benefits. Nobody fully intended it, but the firemen's strike has now turned into a preliminary test of that determination.