European Labor in Retreat

The British miners' strike ends amid a Continent-wide decline in union clout

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At 9 a.m. last Tuesday, 2,000 men marched through the black tarmac streets of Grimethorpe (pop. 5,237), a proud coal-mining town in the north of England. Led by the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band, in blue blazers with shiny brass buttons, the marchers filed past rows of two-story red brick houses darkened by decades of coal dust. Lining the streets to watch and join the procession were 1,500 of the miners' supporters--wives, mothers, fathers and, after a half-day school holiday had been declared, most of the town's children. Though the band boomed out stirring oompah strains and the miners walked with heads held high, an air of sadness marched with them. They had fought the good fight --and lost.

Across Britain, in towns much like Grimethorpe, tens of thousands of miners were striding back to work, ending a 51-week strike that ranks among the most bitter, violent and costly labor battles in the country's history. Before it was over, the dispute had resulted in at least 14 deaths (including two suicides and the killing of a taxi driver who was taking a strikebreaker to work), 9,808 arrests, countless injuries on the picket lines, as well as an estimated $3 billion in lost output and other economic consequences.

Perhaps the biggest losers were the mine workers and their stubborn, militantly Marxist leader, Arthur Scargill, 47. Despite nearly a year on strike, the miners failed to achieve anything resembling their key demand, the end of a British government plan to close unprofitable mines. As their members' resolve began to crumble in the face of the authorities' continued unwillingness to compromise on the closures, the delegates of the National Union of Mineworkers two weeks ago voted 98 to 91 to overrule Scargill and end the walkout.

The surrender was a stunning setback for British miners, but it was also much more. It symbolized a new era of turmoil and austerity for organized labor throughout Western Europe. After years of slow economic growth, high unemployment and sweeping industrial change that has closed hundreds of mills and mines forever, unions in France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium and other West European nations are on the defensive--and perhaps on the wane. Says Franz Steinkuhler, second chairman of IG Metall, the 2.5 million-member West German metalworkers' organization: "One hundred years ago, when trade unions were first formed, their songs were about dawn and the rising sun. Now, suddenly, we seem to have lost faith in a bright future."

Union leaders are watching helplessly as their membership rolls dwindle and their political clout withers. In Britain, the number of workers represented by the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella organization, has dropped 20% since 1979, to about 9.6 million. Membership in France's Communist-led General Confederation of Labor has dropped in the past five years by at least 40%, to an estimated 1.2 million.

Many of those union members fell from the rolls because their jobs simply disappeared during the recession. Unemployment in the European Community has jumped from 6.1% to 11.8% since 1980. Moreover, the nature of many of the available jobs is changing. Like the U.S., Western Europe is undergoing a fundamental transformation in its economic mix. Old-line industries such as steel and coal are shrinking, while fields like computers and telecommunications expand.

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