The year-long dispute between Rupert Murdoch's London-based newspapers and the print unions is officially over, and Fleet Street proprietors are saying that a new era is about to begin in the British newspaper industry. Government ministers believe that the end of the dispute, which produced scenes of unexampled violence at Mr. Murdoch's Wapping press plant, is also a turning point in industrial relations in Britain.
Legislation to curb trade union power, first introduced six years ago by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government, is credited with creating the industrial- relations framework in which Murdoch and his four British papers - The Times (London), Sunday Times, News of the World, and The Sun - were able to withstand a 54-week siege by print union workers and their political supporters.
Mrs. Thatcher says she plans a new round of trade- union curbs if the ruling Conservative party wins the next general election.
The end of the confrontation came in two stages. Last Thursday leaders of the printing and clerical union (SAGOT) voted to end the conflict. The smaller but tougher National Graphical Association (NGA) joined them in the following days.
Both unions backed down because Murdoch's News International company was threatening them with contempt of court proceedings which, if successful, would have led to seizure of union assets and probable bankruptcy. The legal action threatened by Murdoch's group was based on allegations of unlawful mass picketing outside the Wapping plant.
The dispute began last January when News International sacked 5,500 print workers after they voted to go on strike. Murdoch immediately switched the printing of his papers from central London to a new plant at Wapping, which ever since has been festooned with razor wire and steel barriers to keep violent demonstrators out of the grounds.
Despite continuous efforts by pickets and demonstrators to prevent trucks carrying Murdoch's papers from leaving the plant, News International was able to maintain continuous distribution of all four papers.
Murdoch authorized a number of offers of compensation to the sacked workers if they called off the protest, but all were rejected.
Last week News International said that individual SAGOT and NGA members sacked last year would be able to apply for compensation for a four-week period. But the two unions cannot expect to be given official recognition inside the Wapping plant.
On Saturday Thatcher called the violence at Wapping ``a terrible chapter'' in industrial relations and accused the opposition Labour Party of siding with the demonstrators against the police during the long dispute. More than 570 police officers were injured in Wapping-related disputes last year.
Thatcher made it clear this weekend that she will go into the coming general election on a platform that includes a package of additional trade-union reforms. She plans the appointment of an independent ombudsman to act as a point of appeal for union members who believe they are victims of trade-union malpractice. The ombudsman would be able to order re-runs of union ballots. New trade-union legislation also would require unions to open their accounts to members and to hold secret ballots before strike action was taken.
Newspaper proprietors believe that Murdoch's victory at Wapping will contribute to the waning of traditional trade union power and the restrictive practices that went with it.
On Saturday, following the unions' capitulation, there were at first no pickets at all at the entrance to the plant. In the evening about 1,200 demonstrators gathered, but the majority of them were not print workers but leftwing activists.
Two weeks earlier there had been violent clashes between 12,000 demonstrators and police. Adverse public reaction to the tactics used by the demonstrators was a major factor in the unions' decision to call off the protests.