On the eve of the opening of an Exhibition at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. Also a planned public meeting at the same venue on Wednesday 23rd November, Stephen Hall an NGA FOC (National Graphical Association Father of the Chapel) who took part in the picketting at News International’s Wapping Plant at the time, asks the question: “What lessons can present day trades unionists learn from the printworkers’ defeat in 1987 at the hands of Rupert Murdoch?”
I suppose after the defeat of the heroic Miners a year earlier, the repercussions of which had not yet sunk in at that point, it was always going to be an up hill battle to secure a victory at Wapping against the Australian Newspaper Magnate. Especially, given he had additionally the full backing of the Law, the Thatcher Government, and the Metropolitan Police to go with it.
However, for those of us who were involved at the time, and who had even been involved in both the Messenger dispute against Eddie Shah at Warrington (a struggle which the NGA also lost) and the year long Miners’ strike, there was not the slightest thought of that. We’d show him we thought. How wrong we turned out to be!
Despite the union’s efforts, not a single day’s production was lost by News International, and all four of its titles, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News of the World, were all published without a break throughout the entire 13 months long dispute.
As a result this, and both the NGA and SOGAT (who had more than four times the members involved in the dispute than the NGA) finding themselves the subject of litigation from News International which held them responsible for the picket line violence, lacking funds to continue, and facing increasing defections, in the case of SOGAT, additionally the threat of the sequestration of its funds, the struggle came to and end in February, 1987, when the NGA, reluctantly, after SOGAT’s General Secretary Brenda Dean (now a Labour Peer) urged her own members to settle, recommended that its sacked members accept a redundancy package from News International.
With that however, the power of the print unions was irrevocably broken. Within two years all national newspapers had adopted the technologies News International had introduced and adapted their working practices accordingly, leading to the demise of Fleet Street as the centre of the British newspaper industry.
Andrew Neill described the dispute as “…a necessary watershed” that enabled the British newspaper industry to modernise. Peter Chernin, President of News Corporation, went so far as to say that Wapping was “…the most significant labour event in the World during the past 40 years”
Whatever it was, what it resulted in, combined with the earlier defeat of the NUM in 1985, was a long period of major retreat of the trades unions throughout Britain, and two and a half decades of the lowest strike figures in recorded history.
What went wrong?
Scabbing on the part of a minority of NUJ Journalists, and most notably Eric Hammond’s EEPTU members obviously didn’t help, a union which ironically as a result of a series of amalgamations, is now part of UNITE along with the NGA, SOGAT & AUEW whose members all stood on the other side of the picket lines alongside a majority of NUJ members during the dispute. It had a major impact on the outcome in fact, for if they hadn’t done so Murdoch’s plans would have been scuppered at the outset.
The Tories new anti-union laws were also pivotal to Murdoch’s success as was a massive police operation to go with them to ensure the free movement of buses, lorries and vans to and from the plant, dubbed “Fortress Wapping” and to protect the plant’s barbed wire perimeter. For those people who think ‘kettling’ by the Police, by the way, is some recent phenomenon, well let’s just say it took place on a regular basis at Wapping, and not just of the pickets but local residents as well, most of whom were deemed by the Police as being supportive of the strikers.
Why did the Print Unions think they could beat Murdoch?
Thanks to existing closed shop agreements, SOGAT not only enjoyed a monopoly over all semi-skilled workers employed in the national newspaper printing plants (the NGA had a closed shop amongst more skilled Compositors and Machine Minders) but also over all those employed of the three main wholesalers of national newspapers. As a result there was the widespread belief that it didn’t matter whether Murdoch could print his newspapers at Wapping or not, neither did it matter whether he could move them from Wapping to the distribution centres, since SOGAT members working at the distribution centres would stop his newspapers from ever reaching the newsagents.
This confidence proved misplaced for two reasons. Firstly although individuals working at the distribution centres where indeed members of SOGAT, they were paid a lot less than their printing comrades and generally unenthusiastic about supporting what they saw as a bunch of overpaid thugs who hadn’t done them any favours in the past. Secondly, and more significantly, since SOGAT was not in dispute with the wholesalers, the instruction to its members in wholesale distribution not to handle News International titles constituted secondary action which was unlawful. News International was thus able to obtain a high court injunction against SOGAT, instructing them to withdraw this instruction. When the union declined to comply it was fined £25,000 and found itself subject to sequestration.
Instead of appealing for the wider trades union movement at this point, to rally to the defence of SOGAT and the printer workers in general in the event of such a sequestration, and to call for the mobilisation of the entire trades union movement to demand the repeal of the anti-union laws via more generalised strike action. The leadership of SOGAT, no doubt mindful of the NUM’s inability only a year earlier to secure more widespread support for their heroic fight, instead decided to throw the towel in.
This decision to a certain extent let the leadership of the NGA and the other two unions, almost entirely off the hook for the responsibility for the defeat at Wapping, but it is difficult to say, whether, if our members had been in the majority of the workers involved, they would not have also adopted a similar course of action. Certainly, following the subsequent amalgamation of the smaller NGA with the several times larger SOGAT union nationally, to form the new GPMU (Graphical, Paper & Media Union) the responsibility for the defeat, not withstanding all the other reasons for it, resting primarily on the shoulders of Brenda Dean and SOGAT’s leadership was reflected in the election of Tony Dubbins and other former NGA leaders to all the new union’s leading positions nationally.
What lessons can be learned? Never be over confident about winning. Defeats spurn defeats, are demoralising and have negative influence on the fighting spirit of ordinary rank and file trades unionists and the wider working class as whole. We need the greatest possible solidarity of the workforce and of the wider working class as a whole in order to win. We need union leaders prepared to mount a fight against the most repressive anti-union laws in the Western so-called democratic World rather than simply accept them to win. We need a great deal of ingenuity, forethought, advance planning, resoluteness and stamina to win.
Hope to see some or all of you at the Public meeting in Salford on the 23rd November.