1986 Wapping strike - Defeat of the print unions
Workers' struggle undermined by bankrupt union leadership
On 24 January 1986 print unions went on strike at the News International titles. Press baron Rupert Murdoch was determined to break the unions' 100% membership ('closed shop') by sacking 6,000 print workers and using scab labour. His confidence came from having the support of the bosses' Thatcher government and its anti-union laws, backed by the full force of the police and judiciary. In contrast, the national trade union leaders were unprepared and timid, leading to the collapse of the strike on 5 February 1987. Peter Jarvis (above) - Socialist Party member and at the time a trade union activist on the London Region committee of the National Graphical Association (NGA) - reflects on this historic strike.
Although it was a battle fought a generation ago, its lessons are just as relevant for our movement today.
Before the strike the print unions, in some areas, had control over hiring. This was a form of workers' control and a powerful weapon in industrial negotiations.
Being a shop steward, called an FoC/MoC (Father/Mother of the Chapel), gave you a sense of the unions' power. Any member applying for a vacancy would introduce themselves first to the FoC and produce a card from the union. Only then would they go and talk to the management. If the employers wanted to reject the member's application they had to explain their reasons to the union.
The press barons hated our power to stop the presses - a form of workers' oversight. For example, during the 1984-85 miners' strike, the Sun wanted to portray Arthur Scargill doing a Nazi salute under the headline 'Mine Fuhrer'. It appeared with the picture missing.
No wonder the likes of Murdoch wanted an end to the influence of print workers.
On 23 January 1986, the print unions voted by 82% for strike action. On the same day, Murdoch announced massive job cuts with no unions or union members at Wapping. At the weekend, the News of the World and the Sunday Times were printed by scab labour at the new Wapping plant, in east London.
These scabs had been provided with the connivance of the leaders of another trade union, the electricians' union, EETPU.
News of the EETPU's scabbing role was leaking out. Scabs were being trained to replace the print workers but our union leaders did nothing.
The battle against the newspaper barons came as no surprise. The Militant (now the Socialist) wrote: "The whole trade union movement must be prepared to rally behind the print unions in the battle to defend the closed shop. Defeat will represent a setback for every trade unionist" (August 1985).
Later: "A campaign of explanation to the rank and file of the dangers if the introduction of technology is on the bosses' terms must be waged.
"This must then be followed up with mass membership meetings. The message must be made clear to every employer who attacks even an individual union member that standing behind them is the full force of the print unions" (October 1985).
Unfortunately, none of this was done. Murdoch's plan for the move to Wapping was well known. But instead of preparing, all the union leaders tried to get an agreement with Murdoch at the expense of other unions' members. They should have formulated a common approach, rather than following their self-interest.
It was suggested that action should start before Christmas, thereby undermining Murdoch's most profitable period. Instead our leaders called for 'reasonableness'. They believed in their ability to negotiate a settlement. No one else did!
The unions showed disunity while Murdoch plotted. The Tories' anti-trade union laws were planned for such a battle with the print unions - including the sequestration (confiscation) of union funds which was used with success during the Stockport Messenger dispute* in 1983.
The strike started on 24 January 1986 and in the issue dated the same day, Militant's front page headline proclaimed, 'Fort Murdoch - Strike for union rights'. The article outlined our programme:
■A united fight by all print unions
■For a complete shutdown of Fleet Street
■All-Fleet Street union rank-and-file FoC and MoC committee to run the strike
■24-hour print strike
■Conferences of FoCs and MoCs throughout the trade to discuss the strike
■If any union is fined or its funds sequestrated by the courts an immediate print strike to be called
■Trade Union Congress (TUC) to mobilise maximum support including industrial action
■Expel the EETPU immediately from the TUC unless they stop their strike-breaking role
■Defend the closed shop
■Maintain manning levels
■Nationalisation of the press facilities under workers' control and management
Re-reading the demands 30 years later, the strategy still makes as much sense to me now as then.
The demand for a complete shutdown of Fleet Street was crucial for victory. Restricting the battle to the News International workers meant appeals for solidarity would be difficult. It was a fight to save the jobs in Fleet Street, therefore, it needed to be spread to other newspapers first. Other workers are reluctant to support action if those with most to lose are still working.
However, the idea was stonewalled. First it was 'impractical'. The union tops had an alternative answer - a boycott of the scab papers. A correct tactic but alone it would never work. The tops believed in it so much that it was relaunched a number of times and in the end its failure was one of the reasons for calling off the strike.
Another problem was that the TUC and the union tops were preaching the class collaboration policy of 'new realism'. 'Wait for the return of a Labour government' was the message. Eventually, we got a New Labour government and the same anti-trade unions laws remain on the statute books.
In July 1986 the TUC, desperate to resolve the dispute, sent the 'scab master general' Eric Hammond - general secretary of the EETPU - off to Los Angeles to discuss with Murdoch. Nothing came of it, apart from that Murdoch was emboldened. The print workers needed solidarity.
Solidarity action would make the unions fall foul of the employment laws and lead to the sequestration of our funds. Sogat's (the largest union involved) funds and all its resources were sequestrated within days of the strike because their wider membership took solidarity action.
What was the response of Sogat? They 'purged their contempt' (ie agreed to abide by the law) and things went back to normal. Without solidarity the unions had no effective strategy. Sequestration was inevitable, so why no counter-plan? Later, it was used to distance members from their press colleagues.
By March, Militant raised the call for a one-day strike of Fleet Street. The argument against was that it would give the Murdoch titles a free run as they would be the only papers on the streets. We suggested a Saturday night for the strike with all newspaper workers picketing Wapping for the whole night. Murdoch's papers would never have got out.
Eventually the TUC supported a mass picket and the turnout stopped the papers but they ended it at midnight and as the numbers dwindled the papers escaped. The lesson was that large numbers of pickets could stop the papers and stop the police violence.
One demand that did not appear on our original list was the call for an inquiry into police violence.
As soon as the pickets became serious, the police tactics became clear - to ensure that the papers were distributed at any cost. But the violence of the police was something I had never experienced. The mounted police rode at a group of marchers which included children. Away from the main roads and cameras, attacks against individuals were as vicious as anything I had ever seen. Once they were caught by a TV crew but their solution was simple - smash the camera!
Our NGA chapel moved a motion calling for an inquiry into the police brutality, which was duly passed at regional level. But there was little response.
The leaders had no other strategy to offer. They just sued for peace. This was rejected by Murdoch time and time again and eventually the print leaders walked away.
What made the leaders' lack of strategy puzzling was that three years earlier the NGA fought against the Stockport Messenger where similar tactics were employed by management, especially sequestration.
Although Militant had a strategy that would have given a better chance for victory, unfortunately, we never had the forces to enact it. The idea of an all-Fleet Street strike was rejected by some on the left, especially the Communist Party who had influence in some Sogat branches.
The most important lesson of the dispute was that without a clear strategy and bold leadership, the struggle against the press barons, backed by Tory laws, could not be won.
Today, a new generation is facing attacks from a Tory government hell-bent on placing further restraints on trade union power. The question which must be asked: 'Are today's union leaders up to the task?'
- The NGA strike at the Stockport Messenger, owned by Eddie Shah, was to stop the company breaking the industry-wide closed shop. In July 1983, six NGA members took strike action and were sacked. Paramilitary style policing was used against mass picketing. Shah successfully used the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts to stop a union work boycott and secondary picketing at its other plants in Bury and Warrington. When the NGA ignored court injunctions, it faced heavy fines and sequestration of funds.
Police violence at Wapping
The following letter was published in Militant.
"On Saturday 15 February the London Young Socialists organised a march from Tower Hill to Wapping. The march was peaceful and good natured until the police moved in.
When the march tried to picket the plant the police charged in, knocking anyone in their way to the ground.
Snatch squads were sent in to frighten the pickets off... I saw police kicking, pushing, swearing, punching and pulling people's hair.
I was arrested. After I had been fingerprinted, photographed, searched and locked in a cell on my own for one and a half hours I was allowed to go.
I am a teenage girl who does not live in London and it was one o'clock in the morning."
Many people were arrested on the picket line. But as Militant reported, police harassment went further:
"On 13 August two police officers arrived at the home of Peter Jarvis, London NGA member and Militant supporter, and arrested him. Peter was held in custody for ten hours. This was an act of gross political victimisation".
As a result of mass pressure he was released by the police.
Peter had been named in an injunction by TNT, the firm used by Murdoch for distributing his newspapers. Without a shred of evidence the injunction restrained Peter and five other union members from "encouraging", "participating in" or in any way "facilitating" any 'unlawful gathering' outside TNT premises.
Jim Brookshaw (AUEW FoC - the Times) wrote the following in Militant.
"Rallies and demos are being used to increase the pressure at Wapping. But the necessity for wider action in Fleet Street and the general trade will become unavoidable.
From that we can make an appeal to the rest of the labour movement for solidarity action and force the TUC to organise a national day of industrial action. That's the certain way to make Murdoch retreat.
Such a call would receive wider support than any of our trade union leaders suspect."
Costs of the strike
"The year-long fight put up by the sacked printers had shown the lengths to which the bosses' state would go to defend their interests. More than 120,000 police days were given over to the struggle to defend 'law and order'.
£14 million had been spent on the policing bill... There had been 1,462 arrests on the picket line and one death.
Murdoch in effect doubled his profits to £2 million a week by the use of scabs."
Rise of Militant, chapter 31
Rise of Militant, by Peter Taaffe
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