Return to Wapping Dispute (idea)

The Wapping dispute, otherwise known as the News International Strike, has been described as a watershed in the history of British labour relations, and was certainly a key event in the development of the British newspaper industry. It began on the 24th January 1986, when around 5,500 employees of News International (publishers of The Times, the Sunday Times, The Sun, and the News of the World) went on strike in a dispute over new working conditions and the proposed move from Fleet Street to new premises in East London.

1. Spanish Practices and New Technology

Rupert Murdoch was an Australian media tycoon who first established himself in the British newspaper industry in 1969 acquiring first the News of the World and then The Sun. Some years later in 1981 Murdoch acquired Times Newspapers Ltd after its previous owners the Thomson Organisation became tired of funding the apparently inevitable annual losses. By this time the British newspaper industry had become characterised by what Robert Maxwell liked to call the industry's 'Spanish Practices', a reference to the various arcane customs that had developed over the years, whereby the slightest change to 'normal' working practices required the payment of large under the counter cash payments. Coupled with general overmanning, and strict union demarcation, this often made it difficult to produce any newspapers at all, let alone produce profitable newspapers.

As far as management was concerned there was indeed a solution to all these problems, in the form of the fabled 'new technology' which offered the prospect of dramatic reductions in costs, if only they could persuade the unions to agree to its adoption. One particular sticking point was the insistence of the National Graphical Association (NGA) that only their members should be allowed anywhere near a computer keyboard. This meant that whilst News International had managed to introduce computerised typesetting to replace the old-fashioned hot metal typesetting, journalists where obliged to print out their copy and hand it to NGA members for re-keying.

As it happened Murdoch was more impatient than many of his fellow proprietors. He had ambitions to expand in North America and had recently acquired Metromedia for £670 million, using money borrowed from Citicorp Bank. He now needed to be able to squeeze more profit out of his British news operations in order to service the loan and repay Citicorp.

2. The Myth of Wapping

For a period of some eighteen months prior to the strike the management of News International had been in discussion with the trade unions over a new agreement. The management wanted to the unions to agree to a no-strike clause and an end to the closed shop, together with the introduction of flexible working and of course the fabulous 'new technology'. Both the NGA and SOGAT were however unwilling to make any substantial concessions that would involve redundancies, or indeed loss of income for their members. Negotiations became somewhat fractious. Andrew Neill, then editor of the Sunday Times, recalled a union official hurling a box of matches across the table during one particular session and shouting: "Why don't you just burn the place down? Don't you understand? We're never going to go there!"

The 'place' in question was Wapping in the London Docklands where News International was building and equipping a new printing plant. Although in public the company claimed that Wapping was being built in order to produce The London Post, a new paper intended to compete with the Evening Standard, privately News International intended to relocate all its operations at Wapping. In contrast to what some accounts have claimed, this was not that much of a secret, neither was it much of a secret that the company had recruited members of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU) who had been "lured from unemployment blackspots with a promise of a prosperous future", to man the printing plant.

There were moles within the News International organisation who were keeping the unions informed of developments within Wapping, and it was as a result of this 'inside information' that Brenda Dean of the Society of Graphic and Allied Trades (SOGAT) met News International management on the 30th August 1985 to discuss some of these concerns. She appears to have accepted management assurances that the electricians and engineers working at Wapping were only engaged on the installation of electrical wiring and equipment, and that they were not carrying out any work that would normally have been performed by SOGAT members.

Whether or not Ms Dean truly believed these protestations of innocence is unclear, but it does not appear that she or her union were unduly concerned, any more than they were concerned about reports that a dummy newspaper run had taken place in Wapping on the 5th September, nor indeed by the news later that month that News International had put in place an alternative newspaper distribution system, using the road haulage company Thomas Nationwide Transport (TNT). (Thereby bypassing the railways where distribution might be blocked by the traditionally militant rail unions.) In case there was any doubt about the matter SOGAT were told quite bluntly in November 1985 that "News Group were capable of carrying out newspaper production at Wapping without the involvement of the traditional printing trade unions". Various reasons have been offered as to why this news failed to excite the interest of the unions at the time. Partly this was because they were otherwise engaged in a protracted dispute with Robert Maxwell, the owner of the Mirror Group of newspapers, but the main reason was simply that they believed that they were irrelevant in the context of any likely future strike action.

3. Why the unions thought they'd win

Thanks to existing closed shop agreements, SOGAT not only enjoyed a monopoly over those employed in the national newspaper printing plants 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 or not Murdoch could print his newspapers at Wapping, 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.

Therefore when the NGA, led by Tony Dubbins, and SOGAT, led by Brenda Dean called the entire workforce out on strike on the 24th January 1986, they did so in the belief that they would soon force Murdoch back to the negotiating table.

4. Fortress Wapping

In retrospect it can be seen that Murdoch had both anticipated and provoked the strike, or as one account puts it, "He goaded the unions into walking out". On the day the strike was called News International simply dismissed all those taking part in the industrial action and switched production of its newspapers to Wapping. Journalists working for the four papers were given the choice of working from Wapping or not working at all. With very few exceptions they all put their own careers before any notions of 'solidarity' and duly reported for work at Wapping.

Once the unions realised that their attempts to black the movement of newspapers at the distribution centres had failed, they were reduced to calling on the public to boycott News International titles whilst falling back on the tried and tested tactic of the mass picket in an effort to blockade the Wapping plant and at the very least disrupt the movement of newspapers. And faced with legislation that only permitted six pickets at the gates of the plant at any one time, the unions therefore organised a series of regular demonstrations to be held in the streets surrounding the Wapping plant which were intended to achieve much the same effect.

These tactics largely failed thanks to a well organised and rather formidable police presence. There were over one hundred police officers on permanent duty at Wapping, with numbers rising to between fifteen hundred and two thousand during the daytime demonstrations. Police barricades were established at the site entrances, local roads were closed to the public, and some local residents even found their cars towed away; all tactics which were dedicated to ensuring that there was at least one route open for the TNT vans as they sped out of the Wapping plant. The National Council for Civil Liberties felt sufficiently concerned to publish 'No Way in Wapping' to complain of the widespread abuse of civil liberties.

Thus was born Fortress Wapping. Every day staff were bused in through the lines of demonstrators, every day the police fought to keep the streets clear so that deliveries could move to and from the Wapping plant, and every day the strikers would try and stop them. The efforts of 5,000 or so striking printers to blockade the Wapping plant inevitably led to an increasingly violent and bitter battle between the strikers and the police. The confrontation reached an early crisis point on the 15th February 1986 when fifty-eight people were arrested and one officer taken to hospital with head injuries. The police deployed in riot shields for the first time during the dispute and also brought in mounted police to break up the crowd.

During the course of the dispute there were 1,262 arrests made and a total of 410 police officers were injured (Not to mention the likely greater number of protestors who were also injured, and of whom there was no official count.) There were some that blamed fringe elements within the demonstrators for the violence - shadowy "anarchist sects" were the favoured scapegoats at the time - whilst others blamed 'over-enthusiastic' policing. It is undeniable that the police did 'over-react' on occasion, as even the BBC lodged a complaint that a "number of BBC staff covering the Wapping dispute was continually harassed by a small group of police officers and equipment belonging to camera crews was damaged". A later inquiry conducted by the Northamptonshire Police concluded that some of their Metropolitan Police colleagues had acted in a "violent and undisciplined way". However there was not much enthusiasm even amongst the ranks of the Labour opposition to pursue this matter, and indeed apart from the Labour MP Peter Shore who later complained in Parliament of the "appalling three-year delay" in bringing charges against the police officers who are accused of violence in the Wapping dispute in 1987. (No charges were in fact ever made.)

5. The end of Fleet Street

Despite the union's best efforts, not a single day's production was lost by News International and all four of its titles were published without a break throughout the dispute. Both the NGA and SOGAT eventually found themselves the subject of litigation from News International which held them responsible for the picket line violence. With little to show for their efforts, in February 1987 both unions capitulated and recommended that members accept a redundancy package from News International.

The rest of Fleet Street tutted with disgust at such confrontational tactics (even Robert Maxwell complained that this was not the 'British way' of doing things), but once Murdoch had broken the power of the print unions, they all followed his example. Within two years every other national newspaper had used the threat of implementing their very own Wapping to reduce their workforces and introduce new technology. Every national newspaper was to follow Murdoch's lead and closed their old Fleet Street homes and moved to bright new shiny locations in the London Docklands.

Thus Andrew Neill has described the whole Wapping dispute as "a necessary watershed" that enabled the British newspaper industry to modernise, and even Andreas Whittam Smith, founding editor of The Independent has claimed that, "Until 1986 nothing had changed in newspaper publishing, The industry was in a time warp. What Rupert Murdoch did was break the log jam and bring us into the 20th Century." Although not everyone would go so far as to claim, as did Peter Chernin, president of News Corporation, that Wapping was "the most significant labour event in the world during the past 40 years"


Journalists belonged to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), skilled workers such as compositors were organised by the National Graphical Association (NGA), whilst the printers and other workers deemed to be at best semi-skilled joined the Society of Graphic and Allied Trades (SOGAT).


SOURCES

  • Nic Oatridge, Wapping '86: The Strike That Broke Britain’s Newspaper Unions See http://www.oatridge.co.uk/wapping.shtml
  • Mike Richardson, Leadership, Mobilisation and the 1986-87 ‘News International’ dispute;
    Paper submitted to the Historical Studies in Industrial Relations and the Society for the Study of Labour History Joint Conference 2002
    See www.uwe.ac.uk/bbs/esru/Wapping.pdf
  • Wapping: legacy of Rupert's revolution The Observer January 15, 2006
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,,1686500,00.html
  • Albert Meltzer, Chapter XXIII of I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels (AK Press, 1996)
    http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angels23.html
  • 1986: Printers and police clash in Wapping
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/15/newsid_3455000/3455083.stm
  • Hansard, Thursday 25 January 1990
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm198990/cmhansrd/1990-01-25/Orals-1.html
  • Peter Wilby The press gang News Statesman, 05 December 2005
    http://www.newstatesman.com/200512050039
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