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Heirs to union thrones

Who will be the leaders of Britain's major unions in 1993?

NEW Year changes in the trade-union movement will definitely see the early retirement of civil servants' leader Mr Leslie Christie and possibly an announcement that TUC general secretary Mr Norman Willis will follow suit.

Meanwhile, NUM president Mr Arthur Scargill -- as if he did not already have enough on his plate -- seems set to defy the law requiring him to stand for his first postal election, unless he too is contemplating going early.

Leslie Christie, younger brother of STUC general secretary Campbell, has decided to relinquish the general secretaryship of the National Union of Civil and Public Servants he has held since NUCPS was formed in 1987 by the merger of the Society of Civil and Public Servants and the smaller Civil Service Union.

Apparently disillusioned after fruitless attempts to conclude the eminently logical merger of NUCPS with the Civil and Public Services Association and the prospect of facing a prolonged period of pressure as the Government promotes devolved pay bargaining and widespread contracting out, the 53-year-old left-wing Glaswegian has decided to opt out of the struggle.

Subject to the inevitable ballot, the reins, and the NUCPS seat on the TUC general council that goes with them, will probably be handed over to the former CSU general secretary, Yorkshireman Mr John Sheldon. One year Mr Christie's junior, he will lead NUCPS into the difficult skirmishes ahead with the lack of the oft-proposed but twice-rejected merger with the CPSA serving to exacerbate the many problems.

Many within the TUC's Congress House HQ are awaiting Mr Willis's 60th birthday on January 21 with anticipation. Since he let it be known that he intends stepping down before his retirement date in five years, they now hope that he will be more specific.

Gathering speculation that he might announce his intention to retire after the 1993 September Congress, although maybe retaining the presidency of the European Trades Union Confederation for a year or two, will need to be addressed in order to remove the air of uncertainty that pervades Congress House.

The heir-apparent is his deputy, Mr John Monks, although there is a school of thought that NUPE general secretary Mr Rodney Bickerstaffe might be in the running. He has become decidely less militant and more statesmanlike during and since his recent one-year stint as TUC chairman and is currently due to be number two to Nalgo's Mr Alan Jinkinson at the new Unison ''super union'' being created in July from the amalgamation of Nalgo, NUPE, and the health union Cohse.

Miners' president Arthur Scargill appears to be courting controversy by seemingly dodging laws that were specifically tailored to ensure that his future is submitted to a secret postal ballot of NUM members.

Although elected NUM president for ''life'' in 1981 in a landslide 70% majority in a pit-head ballot, Mr Scargill evaded early Tory legislative attempts to force him to face re-election by renouncing his casting vote on the NUM executive.

In 1987 he outmanoeuvred impending legislation insisting on postal ballots by opting for an early election under the old pit-head balloting system -- which saw him returned by a much tighter 54% majority over moderate North Yorkshire NUM miners' agent John Walsh.

He was thus restored to office for a five-year period taking him 11 days beyond his 55th birthday on January 11, 1993, which, under NUM rules, would have allowed him to stay on until retirement at 60 without further recourse to the ballot-box. That would have been the case but for late amendments to the 1988 Employment Act enacted specifically to ensure that the NUM president would have to face a full postal ballot by January 22, 1993.

For reasons best known to himself, Mr Scargill has not started the election process even though the high profile which the current coal industry crisis has given him should surely see him romp home, probably unopposed.

Anti-Scargill forces within the NUM, including the leadership of the Scottish area, had hoped to come up with a credible candidate in the form of Derbyshire miners' treasurer John Burrows (John Walsh being precluded on age grounds). Reluctant to put his name forward in the first place, Mr Burrows has said only that he is considering requests to stand, and as Mr Scargill has not called for nominations, a legal challenge may be the only way to force an election.

Whether Mr Burrows, or any other NUM member, would be prepared to mount such a legal challenge, especially at a time when the bulk of the mining industry is under threat of closure, remains to be seen.

Earlier this year the NUM's annual conference, with the full support of the president, endorsed a policy of ''refusing to co-operate with laws which are designed to render ineffective the rule books and constitutions of trade unions, together with the democratic rights of members.''

Mr Scargill seems to be stepping down that confrontation path -- but why? Has he calculated that there is political capital to be gained from being seen to be dragged into an election against his union's rule book or does he fear the vagaries of a postal ballot in which only 20 to 25% of members tend to participate compared with the almost 100% turnout in pithead ballots?

Perhaps Scargill has secret plans to bow out within two years, in which case he could probably avoid a ballot without breaching the law. With NUM members plummeting to about 30,000, the bulk of whom would be displaced if the present drastic pit closure programme goes ahead, who could blame him?

Quitting is not his style, however, and I would not be surprised if the whole episode was designed to pile pressure on prospective challengers to stay their hands and leave the field clear for King Arthur to return unopposed.

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