The Times and The Sunday Times, two of Britain's most notable papers, will lock their doors on Nov. 30 unless a miracle in labor relations takes place.
Few on hard-boiled Fleet Street believe in miracles. There are even fewer believers on Gray's Inn Road where the two papers are published.
Dugal Nisbet-Smith, general manager of The Times newspapers said, "There is a very strong possibility we will have to suspend. I would hope for not more than a few days."
Does that mean he thinks the odds favor a shutdown?
"If I had to bet,he replied, "yes."
Owen O'Brien is general secretary of the National Society of Operative Printers, Graphical and Media Personnel. He represents 2,200 of the two papers' 4,300 employees and he is as gloomy as Nisbet-Smith.
"They [management] have gone to the brink," he said. "It will be very difficult to stop them from going over."
It is almost inconceivable that the Times and The Sunday Times would remain shut forever. A dispute as complex and bitter as this one, however, could produce consequences that none of the parties now forsee.
This remarkable state of affairs has come about because the Times management, plagued by constant stop-pages, has decided to clean out at one stroke all of Fleet Street's historic make-work practices, stop wildcat strikes, and win acceptance of the newspaper industry's new labor-saving technology.
The Times, said Nisbet-Smith, is "standing up to the troublemakers and saying enough is enough."
"It's not all one-sided," O'Brien countered, "they are really being pig-headed."
Until last year, the daily Times, with a circulation of 293,000, has been a consistent money-loser. The Thomson family, which has owned it since 1967, and the tax authorities have sunk an estimated 40 million into The Times. Staunchly conservative and erratically edited, the paper is the preferred reading of older academics and clergymen, higher civil servants, policticians and some businessmen.
Both papers, in turn, are part of a Thomson empire that includes lucrative provincial papers as well as a travel agency, insurance companies, hotels, an airline, a television station and, above all, a rich slice of North Sea oil. The new Lord Kenneth Thomson, who took over a the death of his father Roy in 1966, has made it clear he has the death of his father Roy in 1966, has made it clear he has the resources to support an indefinite shutdown of the two papers and won't sell out to any of the many would-be buyers who want their prestigious name-plates.
The Sunday Times, with a circulation of 1.4 million, makes money more years than not. One of the world's liveliest serious papers, it is famous for detailed inquiries into sensitive subjects usually swept under the British rug.
"We are making a very bold attempt to achieve reasonable industrial behavior, to negotiate against severe overmanning and to bring in a new technology," Nisbet-Smith said.
"Our people will have some hardship but against this kind of attack you have got to put up a defense," O'Bruen replies. "It's a question of take it or leave it. we won't go cap in hand."
Last April 26, the Times management notified the general secretaries or national chiefs of the five major unions it bargains with that the two papers would suspend by Nov. 30 unless management won all the changes it sought.
To speak of five unions, however, oversimplifies Fleet Street's quaint practices. The Times in fact deals with 54 different locals or chapels, each representing different steps in newspaper production. The chapels are fiercely independent, and each must approve its own deal.
The Time's proposals would do the following:
"Wipe out 200 of the 450 jobs in the composing rooms of both papers. Linotype operators, sterotypers, copyreaders and others would be eliminated by the new, computerized typesetting systems that enable reporters to set their own stories.
Eliminate two-fifths of those now manning presses, a move that would affect about 350 persons, many of whom work just one night a week at The Sunday Times.
Reduce a clerical staff of 850 by 100 to 200. Even now management cannot say how many will go because of the switch to computer operations.
An unbreakable guarantes against wildcat strikes that cost the two papers one copy in five during the first three months this year.
In return, the company says it will not force any full-time worker to leave but will let natural attrition achieve management's goals. In addition, Nisbet-Smith is offering to share what he says are two-thirds of the savings with the remaining staff.
Wages, pensions, vacations and sickpay would all increase. Nisbet-Smith refuses to say how much, but he does figure the package is worth millions of dollars - $11 million alone for pension improvements - and will increase the pay and fringe benefits of those who remain on the payroll by more than 20 percent.
The pay structure on the papers is wildly complex. Experienced reporters make from $260 to $400 a week; linotype operators earn up to $560; proofreaders from $160 to $230, and pressmen from $240 to $340.
Why has The Times decided on so many radical changes now? Nisbet-Smith figures that the papers have lost $3.5 million in profit from unsanctioned strikes this year, equal to both papers' combined earnings last year. In the first three months alone, there were 21 stoppages at The Times, nine at The Sunday Times and seven on the three literary and education supplements.
"It was a totally unprecedented level of industrial disruption," he says.
Union representative O'Brien has another theory. "The new Lord Thomson is not so much interested in newspapers as the first lord.
The first Lord Thomson delighted in the glory of owning the two Times newspapers and dining with editors and prominent people at the plant. His son rarely leaves Toronto.
Some journalists on the papers think that management's frustration at implementing its new $5 million computerized technology also spurred the decision. Nisbet-Smith acknowledges that teething problems especially with software, sharpened management thinking.
Finally, the successful efforts of U.S. papers, such as The Washington Post, to reduce pressroom personnel were carefully studied by Times executives.
"We recognize change is taking place, that new technology is coming in," O'Brien said. "But the company is trying to clean up the sins of Fleet Street overnight."
Nisbet-Smith replies that everything must be solved in one bold stroke or "management credibility would run out.
If each of the problems - technology, unbroken output and overstaffing - had been tackled one at a time, the deadline technique could not have been invoked, Times executives say. "It would be like three successive open-heart operations." says Marmduke Hussey, the managing director of both papers.
The strangest feature of this industrial drama has been the absence of serious bargaining.
After Hussey sent out his April 26 ultimatum, there was no meeting with the unions until late September, since it took the managers five month to reduce their general propositions to specific demands.
The first were not ready until mid-October. The last were not received by some locals until Nov. 1.
Recently, Nisbet-Smith agreed to show the electricians and telecommunications union precisely what the company proposes on pay for the first time.
"They stumbled into this," O'Brien said. "They had no conception of what they wanted. Now we're approaching zero hour. They are pushing out paper [demands] by the reams. They expect us to take them as they are. You can't reach agreement by Nov. 30 because they wasted so much time."
Nisbet-Smith said the time for negotiations is ample, and that he is already "very close" to a deal with the Lithographic artists after just "six or seven meetings."
Nisbet-Smith almost sounds like a man who welcomes confrontation; words like "war" and "battle" mark his conversation.
O'Brien, for the unions, contends that Fleet Street's longstanding feather beds cannot be blamed entirely on the unions. He cites the famous "ghost wages" paid to nonexistent workers and divided up among those actually at work. They were invented, he says, by publishers who wanted to beat curbs on wage increases. Many other "Spanish customs," as the unorthodox Fleet Street practices are known, grew up at the initiative of publishers.
If the two papers close at the end of the month - and that seems probable - the 4300 staff members will be paid for two weeks to four months, depending on their length of service and which union represents them.