The future of Britain's venerable Times newspapers, silenced since last November by a protracted dispute between management and unions over the introduction of new printing technology, is now more uncertain than ever.
The picture was further confused today when The Times made a surprise announcement that it would try to publish a new weekly international edition outside Britain-possibly in Netherlands.
The suprise announcement followed the laying off of 3,000 employes who had been breifly rehired a month ago in an agreement to resume negotiations. The negotiations broke down, however, and resumption of publication of the daily and Sunday Times in Britain was postponed indefinitely.
The unions representing the 3,000 employes will begin picketing next week, posing a problem for 1,300 other employes, including reporters and editors, who have been kept on because their unions agreed to contracts incorporating new work rules.
The new weekly international edition will be distributed by mail subscriptions and newsstand sales in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
Times Editor William Rees-Mogg said the overseas weekly, which The Times hopes to start before Britain's May 3 national election, "is a way of serving our overseas readers and keeping The Times active in a very difficult period."
To provide stories for the planned overseas edtion, reporters would have to cross picket lines of other union members who are angry about the planned weekly.
Barry Fitzpatrick, chairman of an umbrella group of unions at The Times, warned that the deadlock in talks here and the planning of the overseas edition "inevitably mean the prospect for a negotiated settlement becomes more remote each day."
Management, union and outside observers all believe that many more months are likely to pass before the issue is resolved, if ever. The Times journalists are investigating the rather remote possibility of forming a cooperative to take over The Times, and management is reported to be considering a number of options including eventually shutting down for ever or selling the daily and Sunday Times and their several supplements.
The suspension of publication since last November has already cost the Thomson organization, which owns The Times, $24 million in salaries and overhead. Thomson is reportedly ready to wait out the unions at least into the next autumn.
Positions and emotions have now hardened considerably, however.
The management of The Times had decided to do something about big losses it had suffered for years, in part because of overmanning and wildcat union work stoppages that frequently prevented publication of enough copies to reach all the readers. Management set a deadline of last Nov. 20 for all the unions to agree to new work rules that it said would decrease manning, prohibit sabotage and allow the gradual introduction of new technology.
Management wanted to switched to computer-based printing technology already in use in many other countries including the United States.
The Times offered to protect the jobs of all printing employes working there if the printer's unions would agree that computer terminals could eventually be manned by reporters, editors and advertising personnel. But the unions, backed by their national leaders whodo not want to see a precedent set at The Times, would not budge.
So The Times' management shut the newspaper down in November. Negotiations began again last month under an agreement arranged by the British employment secretary that set this past Tuesday as the target date for resumption of publication. These talks also deadlocked.
Although there were many other sticking points in the negotiations, the computer terminal issue was the one that ended talks this week. The Times asked the National Graphical Association printers to agree to have it settled by arbitration, but they refused.
"There have been miscalculations on both sides," a Times spokesman said today. He acknowledged that the newspaper mistakenly expected the November shutdown to shock the unions into making major concessions. Then, when negotiations were restarted last month. "The unions misjudged our intent. They thought maybe we would collapse our negotiating position just to be able to start publishing again on April 17."
M. J. Hussey, the chief executive of the Times Newspapers, said, "this situation is not just about technology, but about the right of managment to run its own business. We simply are not prepared to accept that Britain cannot be allowed to use this technology in the way it is used, for instance, in the Middle East, Africa, Australia, North and South America, and in Europe."