Belabored Britain

For Britain's conservatives, it came as a pre election gift: workers at British Airways are staging a series of strikes that threat-en to cripple the airline. Civil servants walked off the job last week, and railway staffers plan work stoppages in April. Cue loud taunts from the Tory leadership about a return to the bad old days of the 1970s, when Britain was a byword for poor industrial relations and Labour politicians kowtowed to the union bosses who bankrolled their party. A vote for Labour in this May's elections will be a vote for more of the same--or so the Conservative message goes.

It's an easy charge to make--but it's also wrong. These days organized labor is a spent force in Britain. Union membership has slumped from 55 percent of the workforce in 1979 to 27 percent today. The number of days lost to strikes averaged 10 million a year in the '70s; over the last decade the equivalent figure was just 500,000. The heavy industries that once provided the unions' power base have largely disappeared over the past 30 years. At the same time, legislation introduced in the 1980s has robbed the unions of much of their old clout. Whatever the bluster from the Tories, smart voters know that the danger of union dominance belongs in the past.