The current burst of strikes in Britain is powered by worker resentment against three years of pay austerity many of them regard as a wasted sacrifice in the battle agsinst inflation.
The big increases they are now demanding and winning will almost surely push the country back into double digit inflation, wiping out much of their money gains. Their current unrest also is believed likely to help put the Conservative Party, which two of every three workers oppose, back into power in this year's election. That would make Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first woman prime minister.
Union leaders -- conventionally described as "power-mad bosses" by an overwhelmingly Tory media -- have in fact been scrambling to keep up with their militant members.
This became nakedly evident on Monday when several hundred thousand garbage collectors, school janitors, hospital kitchen help and other low paid local government blue collar workers staged what had been planned as a one-day walkout. A substantial although unknown number ignored their leaders' plan and insisted on staying out for the rest of the week or even indefinitely, until they got something resembling their demand for a minimum wage of $120 a week.
Union officials promised that striking ambulance drivers would answer emergency calls. In London, Glasgow and other cities, the officials were howled down. So army ambulances and volunteer agencies had to fill the gap.
The outbreak of strikes has caught the government, economists, pundits and many union leaders by surprise.
Three years of restrained pay demands helped bring inflation down here from a frightening 30 percent to a more tolerable 8 percent. The policy seemed, at least in the abstract, to have worked. But that is not the way it looks to workers, whose real incomes over the period have shown no gain.
A Birmingham garbage collector who broke off from a demonstration Monday to drown a beer, earns $84 a week. He described his feelings succinctly:
"They told us we'd stop inflation if we didn't push hard. But prices are still going up and my missus can't make ends meet. The lorry [truck] drivers are going for 22 percent. How can I take the $7 they offer us"
A picketing truck driver stomping his feet outside a factory in the snow at Hull said:
"Don't look at the percentage. Look at the wage. My basic is 52 pounds ( $103). After overtime, I get 70 or 75 pounds ( $140 to $150). A basic of 65 pounds ( $130) will just put me even."
Last spring, when an American reporter asked Mrs. Thatcher, the conservative leader, whether the Labor Party had not made great political gains with its successful fight to bring down inflation, she replied in characteristicaly cool, school mistress tones:
"The average housewife is not concerned with relative rates of inflation. She worries about prices in the shops. If they are going up at election time, this will not help the government."
In this election year, the media has become almost hysterical about the daily effects of the strikes. Headlines have shrieked "Famine Threat," "The Road to Ruin," "Chaos," and "No Mercy." Business leaders predicted that the truckers alone would throw two million out of work. Spokesmen for big farmers cried that pigs, cattle and chickens would be cannibalizing each other for lack of feed.
Now, apologetic business leaders put strike-cause layoffs at a maximum of 200,000 -- one tenth the panic estimate -- or about one half of one percent of the labor force. The press has looked but cannot find animals that have eaten each other. Truckers have been shrewd enough to let needed supplies move through their picket lines. On Monday, skeleton crews kept hospitals and other vital services going. As The Guardian, one of the two politically uncommitted national newspapers, said this morning, 'The more lurid forecasts of ten days ago have come spectacularly unstuck."
To be sure, the strikes have caused inconveniences. Commuters may have suffered most, from blizzards and the twice-a-week rail strikes called by engineers, who want a 10 percent "productivity bonus" even before their contract expires. This demand, moreover, has brought furious protests from other rail union leaders, another sign of how leaderless the whole strike wave has become.
Coal miners, electricity workers and white collar civil servants are also demanding large increases.Today, settlements are averaging about 12 percent, according to the best informed business economists. But the striking truckers are likely to lift that higher, and others will demand as much or more.
As a result, inflation could double and the pay gains could disappear in the supermarkets.
Not until this happens, however, will trade union leaders be able to impose what many want -- an orderly-year-by-year, institutionalized division of the pie. The relative success of the incomes policy of the last three years now must be demonstrated another way, by the failure of free-for-all demands to enlarge workers' buying power.