The Times of London shuts down over pay dispute with journalists

Once again The Times of London is shut down -- this time by the first jounalists' strike in the newspaper's 200-year history. Proprietors of "the Thunderer" have warned staff that if they do not abandon "excessive" pay demands quickly, Fleet Street's most famous daily may never appear again.

The strike comes only nine months after an earlier stoppage closed The Times for nearly a year. Then the journalists wanted to work but could not do so because of a dispute between management and printing staff.

This time the paper's board of management appears to be prepared to act speedily to terminate the conflict. Jake Ecclestone, leader of the striking journalists, believes the threat to close The Times for good is a bluff.

A minority of the journalists are not so sure and fear The Times will be a casualty of Fleet Street's abysmally bad labor relations.

The standoff at New Printing House Square, where The Times is produced, has come only a week after the Sunday Observer narrowly averted permanent closure following a lengthy struggle between its owners, Atlantic Richfield, and a handful of key printing staff.

At the Observer the printers backed down at the last minute. The head of the organization that controls The Times and its sister paper the Sunday Times, Lord Thomson of Fleet, hopes his journalists will back down also.

But the paper's editorial staff say they have been outraged by management's handling of a pay dispute.

In an attempt to settle it, both sides earlier this year agreed to the appointment of an independent arbitrator. When the arbitrator recommended a 21 percent increase, management refused to pay it, offering only 18 percent.

The journalists say the arbitrator's recommentation must be honored. Lord Thomson's executives say the paper cannot afford to do so.

Both The Times and Sunday Times, like most other Fleet Street newspapers, are running at a loss. Shareholders in the Canada-based Thomson parent company are reported to be unhappy about continuing losses. Some of them want the organization's British managers to crack the whip and, if this has no effect, shut the papers down.

Times journalists do not deny The Times is losing money, but they argue that if labor relations at New Printing House Square were better, losses could be cut heavily.

They also point out that when the Thomson family bought The Times and Sunday Times, a promise was given to keep them going for at least 21 years. That undertaking still has five years to run.

The Times journalists may be in danger of finding themselves isolated in their struggle. Their counterparts on the Sunday Times seem happier about the management's 18 percent offer, but they have delayed a final decision until The times men have had further talks with management.

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