LONDON — Militant print union workers Friday soundly rejected newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch's "final offer " to end a bitter, often violent, five-month-old labor dispute at his four British newspapers.
Murdoch's offer had included $75 million in compensation to 5,500 print workers plus the gift of the offices and printing presses where many of them had worked until last January.
In addition to the prestigious Times of London, Murdoch's newspapers include the country's largest circulation tabloid, the Sun.
The vote to reject the offer was unexpected and appeared to surprise union leaders as much as it did executives of Murdoch's British holding company, News International Ltd.
"The majority is bigger than I thought we'd attain," said Tony Dubbins, general secretary of the most aggressive of the three unions involved, the National Graphical Assn.
Picket Line Violence
Union representatives indicated that their leaders would meet soon to plot future strategy, but outside observers saw little hope for an early end to the dispute, which has divided the trade union movement and led to picket line violence but has failed to halt production of Murdoch's newspapers.
The dispute is part of revolutionary change under way in Britain's national newspapers, triggered by a confrontation between a new, aggressive breed of publisher and Britain's powerful print unions.
Efforts by these publishers to end financially crippling overmanning, reduce vast union powers in the industry and implement new computer technology are at the heart of the dispute.
After protracted negotiations collapsed last January and printers walked out on strike, Murdoch fired them all and transferred the editorial and printing operations of all four papers overnight to a modern technology plant in East London. He had built the new plant supposedly to produce a new newspaper.
Murdoch's ability to negotiate agreements with the more moderate electricians union to operate the new plant and lure unionized journalists there with large bonuses, enabled him to make the move without missing a day's production.
Since the move, however, the fired printers have picketed the new plant heavily and violence has broken out on several occasions. On Feb. 15, 10 people were seriously injured, eight of them police officers.
Routine Weekly Battles
As frustrations grew at their inability to halt Murdoch's papers, pickets attacked police with crowbars, lead pipes and broken bottles in what have become almost routine Saturday night battles.
Last Monday night, a warehouse storing 20,000 tons of newsprint owned by Murdoch was destroyed in a fire that witnesses claimed began when fire bombs were thrown into the building.
Under government pressure, Murdoch first offered a settlement package of $22 million to end the dispute, then tripled the compensation pay and added the old plant, which he said could be used to produce a labor newspaper.