2018 04 – the 1986 Print Workers Dispute


by W. J. Haire

The recent death of Brenda Dean (Lady Dean of Thornton—le-Fylde), former General Secretary of Sogat (Society of Graphical and Allied Trades), brought back memories of the Wapping Dispute of 1986 for W. J. Haire.

The Wapping Dispute involved print workers in a lengthy strike in 1986 against the new computer technology in newspaper and magazine printing versus the old hot-metal linotype method, which had been on the go for over a century. It allowed journalists and others to input copy directly rather than involve print workers.

Production was transferred to a new plant at Wapping, East London, in January 1986 by Rupert Murdoch’s News International group.

The first dispute involved trying to prevent the distribution of the Sunday Times along with other newspapers of the Murdoch group which had been printed at Wapping. This plant had been clandestinely built and barricaded in expectation of a siege. That siege resulted in 1,500 arrests, 547 policemen injured (injured striker figures unknown or disputed) and 1,100 attacks by the strikers on TNT Newsfast vehicles, a new distribution service which broke the old Spanish Customs method of the print unions. 670 printers were all that were needed now to print the same number of papers originally printed by 6,800 print workers at the Grays Inn Road and Bouverie Street (near Fleet Street) plants.

News International activated its new plant with the assistance of other unions, the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, EETPU.  Members of the Transport & General Workers Union, T&GWU, also crossed the picket line to work for TNT. At the time it was reported that electricians were operating the new technology after a few weeks training on computers. What was seen as mercenary unions siding with Murdoch led to a heightened atmosphere which involved yet more violence upon those working within the besieged plant. They were followed into pubs while on their break, some of them were punched and one or two glassed.

The print unions consisting of the National Graphical Association, NGA, the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT 82), and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, (AEUW), ran a closed shop. Most were the sons of members who would one day introduce their sons to the print business. An outsider could apply for their son to have an apprenticeship in the print business but first the father had to be interviewed in a print union chapel, and if accepted, a heavy donation to a print union was required. Most working families didn’t have that kind of money. The new Wapping plant didn’t have a closed shop.

Closed shops have been necessary in the past especially on construction sites where an interview by a shop steward was the norm even after the worker was accepted by the company. The company could be prevented from employing non-trade union labour. A union card had to be produced and it had to be no more than six weeks in arrears. These sites were militant with a strong influence of the Communist Party of Great Britain, CPGB. What is not generally known is that it stopped migrant labour from the West Indies, then being brought into the company to fill vacancies in transport and building., from being exploited as cheap labour. Everyone who had a union card was equal with equal wages.

The print unions rejected non-white labour, and most Irish labour for membership. An Irishman could still get his son into the print unions if he had the money. It was to me ironical when a shop steward, a Dubliner, working in the NHS told me that he had tried to get his English-born son into SOGAT and therefore into an apprenticeship. Though he had the militancy he didn’t have the money.

This wasn’t the only industry where non-white and Irish labour was rejected. You had it in the old meat market of Smithfield and in the old Covent Garden’s fruit and Veg. market. They were also heavily unionised.

Spanish Practices in the print industry got out of control with highly inflated wages obtained through lightning strikes and threats of strikes. There was enormous over-manning in work places, so crowded at times that nightshift workers took turns to sit in all night cafes, awaiting their turn to return to the machines. Many had extra jobs as taxi drivers, or they might do two days on the vans delivering the papers to various venues and make a whole week’s wages at that. A lot of the extra money they were making was invested in property. One member was even able to buy a pub while others invested in Italian vineyards.  Income tax forms were returned with names such as Mickey Mouse, Mr Roadrunner or Brer Rabbit.

When news of this broke out in the media many middle-class professionals choked with rage at being out-waged. They mostly likely thought the working class was becoming too demanding and making inroads into their monopoly in acquiring a better lifestyle where their children would receive a private education.

Much was made of corrupt workers and corrupt unions by the media who said that new technology was brought in to end this. But new technology in the print business was coming in anyway.  The problem was Murdoch made his move with the new stuff as an anti-trade union demagogue. But he did have to accept trade unionism within the new plant at Wapping. But he could still remain anti-trade union by using the Wapping unions against the outside print unions.

The tragedy was that the printers had been offered redundancy payments ranging from £2000 to £30,000 to quit their jobs. The print union rejected this offer and on the 24th of January 1986 its 6,000 members went on strike. They ended up with nothing. The print unions were not unaware that new printing methods were coming in and that the old hot-metal linotype method was doomed. But they wanted control of the new methods and they wanted their union membership to fulfil those roles. That would be impossible with less workers required. The print unions themselves were fighting for survival. A drastic reduction in the membership and the funds for running them wouldn’t be enough to continue. Terms for their members to be accepted by International News was: flexible working (probably meaning no demarcation) a no-strike clause, the adoption of the new technology and an end to the closed-shop. The print unions didn’t accept those terms.

The picket line failed to stop TNT transport workers from crossing it so the T&GWU tried an illegal secondary boycott and was fined in court, losing all its assets.

Fleet street had been living with poor industrial relations for years with Spanish Practices in place that put restrictions on owners they considered intolerable.

It was the Thatcher era and the miners had been defeated during their strike of 1984-1985, a 51-week strike which didn’t have the main support of the British trade union movement.

Now it was the printers turn a year later with their 54-week strike. It was the end of militant trade unionism however flawed and the British trade union movement can be said to be now a shadow of itself, though most seemed to have had built quite prosperous looking headquarters. The old weekly branch meetings are long gone where you could replace indolent branch secretaries or chair people through a branch vote. A union card was once something to be treasured. Before I retired the day job I could have joined any skill union without having that skill. I wasn’t an electrician or a plumber, but I had a EEPTU card almost forced on me by a union rep. because he needed to make up the numbers if the company was to recognise his full-time union rep. job on site. The Wapping dispute might have revealed corruption but at least it had life instead of the insidious quiet type now reigning.