London — How much power should Britain's trade unions have? The issue brought the country's national press to a halt over the weekend and called into question the Thatcher government's approach to unions.
It started with what experts see as a fundamental test case in the town of Stockport near Manchester, Britain's second city. The Messenger group of newspapers, bent on expanding, began hiring workers who were not members of the National Graphical Association (NGA), the country's most powerful print union.
NGA members on the staff went on strike, and from then on the offices of the Stockport Messenger became a flashpoint of industrial dispute.
Last week the English high court ruled that NGA members from other centers had been illegally picketing the Messenger premises, and fined the union 50,000 pounds ($34,000). This figure was more than trebeled when an appeal court again ruled against the union.
The NGA leadership then ordered its members in London's Fleet Street to withdraw their labor. Result: two days without Fleet Street papers, and a threat by national newspaper proprietors to sue the NGA for revenue lost because of the shutdown.
The dispute is much more than another confrontation between newspaper managements and the powerful NGA, which has halted printing on national newspapers many times in the past few years.
The real issue concerns trade union responses to the Thatcher government's strict industrial laws, especially at a time of high unemployment. Two acts passed since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979 have put limits on union rights to picket and to offer support to other unions under pressure.
The Stockport dispute encapsulates a crucial point of principle: are trade unions bound to obey the new laws?
The NGA and its supporters are saying that a vital trade union right is being defended: the right of union members to support fellow members when they come under pressure from an employer. The Messenger group of newspapers counters by saying the law gives it the right to resist NGA pressures.
At the weekend, except for provincial newspapers, there was no printed news in Britain. Caught in the middle of the dispute is the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an umbrella organization. Last week it gave conditional support to the NGA, but that backing came before the stoppage spread south to London.
The TUC is in fact split. So far a majority of its council has favoured talks with the Thatcher government, calculating that an administration with a large majority in Parliament can usually get its way.
But a vocal minority in the TUC prefers confrontation, glimpsing perhaps not only a victory in the newspaper dispute but the opportunity to force the government to rescind its tough trade union laws.
Mrs. Thatcher believes much of Britain's industrial weakness can be explained by the power of trade unions. That is why the government has tried to ban secondary picketing and to limit the effects of the closed shop.
At Stockport, the Messenger group of newspapers has stuck to Thatcher doctrine. If the Messenger management had to back down under trade union pressure, it would be a major setback for Thatcherite thinking on limiting trade union power.
If the NGA was to get its way in Fleet Street, the impact on the government would be much more severe.
TUC general secretary Len Murray has been careful so far to limit the support he has given the NGA.
One TUC official said, ''We are damned if we do, and damned if we don't.'' He pointed out that if the TUC came down completely on the side of the NGA, it would be opposing its own policy of dialogue with the Thatcher government. But if it denied the NGA its full support, it would be conceding a vital victory to the prime minister.
Moreover, if the TUC fails to support the NGA, managements in other industries will see this as a sign that they can put the squeeze on trade unions and employ non-union labor as and when they wish.
The NGA has an estimated 11 million pounds ($16 million) in savings which, in theory, gives it the ability to face a long dispute. In fact, however, employers now have the right to sue unions, and it is conceivable that the NGA nest egg could disappear in court actions.