Wapping exhibition review
Leadership failed print workers in vital battle
Throughout May the Marx Memorial Library (MML) in Clerkenwell Green, London has been largely given over to the 'News International Dispute; 25 years on' exhibition. Print and media unions Unite/GPMU sector and the National Union of Journalists organised the event alongside the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) and the MML.
25 years ago print boss Rupert Murdoch set out to destroy the Fleet Street print unions and in the process make himself the biggest media mogul on the planet. The CPBF's involvement shows that this dispute was not only about jobs and trade union rights but also about the monopolisation of the press and broadcasting in Britain and worldwide.
As the exhibition shows, in 1969 Murdoch persuaded the print unions to back his bid for the Sun from the owners of the Daily Mirror. Up to then the Sun had been a Labour-supporting paper. Under Murdoch, along with his recently acquired News of the World, it became a rabidly pro-Thatcher newspaper.
The exhibition displays a secret letter that Murdoch's lawyers, Farrer & Co wrote to Murdoch before the dispute in 1986. It says: "If the moment came when it was necessary to dispense with the present workforce...the cheapest way would be to dismiss employees while participating in a strike".
In 1983 Murdoch managers engaged the unions in talks about moving production of the papers from Fleet Street to Wapping, with the use of new production methods. But in 1985 Murdoch broke off the talks and served six months' notice on the unions to effectively end union presence in the papers.
Murdoch aimed to introduce legally binding 'no strike' agreements, to end the closed shop and to end in particular the influence of the chapels (the local union branches which were the real source of workers' control of Fleet Street.) After all it was the Daily Mail printers' refusal to print a vicious article against the miners in 1926 that was the signal for the general strike to begin.
The national press unions at the time, Sogat, NGA, AUEW and the NUJ called a strike ballot on 24 January 1986. Murdoch then implemented his plan to smash the unions and began the process of sacking what became over 5,500 men and women.
For a whole year the local print unions called for regular mass picketing/demonstrations outside the fortified Wapping plant in London and the Kinning Park plant in Glasgow. Every Wednesday and Saturday for 12 months thousands of workers descended on Wapping. There they met with vicious charges from mounted police in full riot gear, fresh from the state's war against the miners in 1984-85.
Workers in the wholesale distribution outlets for the Sun and News of the World refused to handle the papers. Pickets chased the "white mice" (the vans which delivered the papers to the news agents) and many other actions took place. The mass picketing of Wapping was aimed in particular at the TNT juggernaut lorries that brought the newspapers out of the Wapping plant.
The unions were taken to court for secondary picketing and other so-called "illegal" actions. Massive fines were imposed on the unions and Sogat had its funds sequestrated by the courts (in effect the union's bank accounts were frozen).
The Metropolitan police hospitalised hundreds of pickets and demonstrators. Over 1,400 trade unionists were arrested during the dispute. In an inquiry afterwards by Northamptonshire police, the Met were found to have acted in a "violent and undisciplined way" but nobody was put on trial as a result.
Disgracefully Eric Hammond, the general secretary of the EEPTU (electricians' union) was proved to have been in secret talks with Murdoch well before the strike. He had been responsible for recruiting a strike-breaking workforce mainly from southern England and bussing them into Wapping every night.
Despite this the TUC refused to throw the EEPTU out of its ranks for this crime against the print workers, (it was thrown out a year after the strike for negotiating single union deals with other employers).
Following the attacks on the union funds the national print unions called off the strike in February 1987.
The exhibition is well worth visiting (and it's free). It is a reminder that the 1980s was a decade where the unions were under systematic attack from the employers, the state, the police and the courts.
Fleet Street print unions were some of the best organised in any industry but it was not enough to stop the defeat. All the capitalist system's resources were used against them. It would have required the mobilisation of the whole trade union movement to win this battle but it would have needed a political answer as well.
The TUC's right wing leaders in effect stood by, as they did with the miners earlier, as the printers were driven into defeat. This is the main lesson from the battle of Wapping.