January 2016

January 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the thirteen month long Wapping Printworkers

To commemorate the heroic stand taken against Rupert Murdoch’s News International Ltd by 5,500
printworkers then we have pleasure in featuring two books that have been written by strikers
themselves. The first is BAD NEWS: The Wapping Dispute by John Lang and Graham Dodkins and which
was published in 2011 by Spokesman. The second is WAPPING: the Great Printing Dispute by John Trow
and which was printed in 2012 and republished two years later.

.John Lang and Graham Dodkins: Bad News - The Wapping Dispute
Illustrations - the late Tony Hall of Strike Graphics, whose life features in the November 2015 book of the month
£15.00 from Spokesman Books 
Bad News book cover
As he also had the Tory Government, police and the whole state apparatus supporting him then standing up to one of the world’s most powerful men wasn’t easy. It’s therefore pleasing to read a book about the thousands of print workers who in the mid 1980s resisted Rupert Murdoch’s attacks on their jobs, wages, working conditions and trade union bargaining rights.

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was still fresh in people’s minds when Murdoch moved against his London Fleet Street employees at the Times, Sunday Times, News of the World and the Sun. His motivation was simple - to maximise his profits.

The man who loved Maggie [Thatcher] prepared the ground well. Hiding exactly why he had purchased a new building at Wapping.

Then installing and testing, with the assistance of - to their eternal shame the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union - new machinery to ensure he could keep publishing when his employees were left with no alternative except to take strike action to defend themselves.

Within minutes of doing so, on January 24th 1986, Murdoch had sacked all 5,500 of them including the Bad News authors. John Lang and Graham Dodkins were amongst 600 clerical workers dismissed, half of whom were women. The pair, using interviews they conducted during the industrial dispute that raged for the following 13 months, have done an excellent job in bringing to life the courage and dogged determination of those who fought for their jobs and trade union rights.

Doing so meant putting a picket on the Wapping plant. The hope was that those inside would join them once they’d heard how their actions were damaging fellow workers and their families. No one thought it was going to be easy. But what most hadn’t considered was just how hard the Metropolitan Police, with Thatcher’s full support, would make it and the book recalls how many print workers and their supporter’s were harassed, attacked and criminalised.

As Tony Benn writes in the foreword “I saw the police in action in a way that was violent and unjustified.”

The courts too were used against the strikers when their union, SOGAT [1], had its assets sequestrated. Funds for strike pay and campaigning activities were lost. Disturbingly too, in an industry where trade unionists at rival newspapers had historically shown solid support for one another this time there proved little appetite for a fight. Striker’s attempts to get their union to organise solidarity action failed. Meanwhile millions continued to buy Murdoch’s papers, a fact that often produced dismay when strikers’ saw someone reading a copy of the Sun.

At times it seemed that everything was against them, but the formation of dozens of support groups across Britain, thousands of invitations to speak at trade union meetings, huge collections and massive rallies that frequently hampered operations at Wapping showed that as long as the print workers’ battled on then there would be plenty to give them their unqualified support.

In the end it wasn’t enough. Redundancy money did little to cushion the blow, trade unions were wiped out at Wapping - even the EETPU’s scabbing didn’t get them a recognition agreement - and plenty hardly worked again. One local young lad was crushed to death under the wheels of a TNT lorry racing to deliver papers. No one was ever charged.

This then is no story with a happy ending. Yet even at the end the majority of striking clerical workers  couldn’t support a vote to call off the dispute with vast numbers abstaining. [2] And whilst no one liked losing there wasn’t anyone who regretted fighting for what should be everyone’s right - namely a decent paid job in a workplace where workers can join and be represented by a trade union.

“This is a book that should be very widely read as it is relevant to those in current struggle.” Tony Benn.

[1] SOGAT is now part of the Graphical, Paper and Media industrial sector inside UNITE.

[2] When members of the TNL/NGN clerical chapels met on February 9th 1987 the vote to 'consider the dispute at an end' was accepted by 30 to 3 with an estimated two to three hundred abstaining.

John Trow: WAPPING - The Great Printing Dispute

Wapping - The Great Printing Dispute book coverJohn Trow was employed as a Linotype operator on the News of the World (NoW) for 32 years before being sacked by Rupert Murdoch for going on strike on 24 January 1986. This diary account movingly portrays his view of a momentous event that dislocated the lives of 5500 workers and their families.

For the first decade and a half of Trow’s working life at the NoW it was a decent place to work where skilled workers were proud of their craft and willing to go the extra mile in or-der to get the paper out on time. Things began to change when Rupert Murdoch arrived in 1969 and began telling people that he had no time for trade unions and would do as he wanted without any discussion.

Soon after Murdoch acquired the NoW he gained control of the Sun newspaper and moved it into the Bouverie Street NoW premises.  The workplace became overcrowded, hot and dangerous. There was therefore a positive response to the news that a new printing works was going to be opened in Wapping. This was despite the fact that all the older workers, including the author, thought that with new tech methods certain to be introduced they would be made redundant.

As such seven years before Wapping was set to open safety representatives at the Sun and NoW asked management about retraining opportunities. Management refused to dis-cuss the matter over the following years.

In around 1984 there were increasing disciplinary measures taken against workers, particularly union reps, often for reasons that were unexplainable and lacking any semblance of common sense. Trow states that looking back he felt that what had happened was a softening up exercise designed to knock the workforce off balance and undermine moral.

As building and construction work at Wapping began, anticipation and anxiety amongst the workforce rose about their futures. There was therefore relief when in late 1985 they were assured by the company that the new works would undertake the printing and that, at least for the next couple of years, the production processes would remain at Bouverie Street.

Murdoch then announced that he intended introducing new working conditions at Wapping that included no strike agreements and non-union labour. Trow and others speculated about who would distribute non-union newspapers if, as he expected, members of the NUR refused to be involved. No one knew that at the time there was being developed a distribution network by road via the TNT company.

Workers were guaranteed that work that was being undertaken in Wapping by EEPTU members was work that such members  would normally undertake. There was also the assurance that once all the work in the new building had been completed it would go to people to whom it traditionally belonged.  Yet any attempts by the printing trade unions to negotiate decent terms and conditions at the new complex were rejected by the manage-ment, who in early January 1986 announced they wanted to end all previously negotiated workplace agreements and further demanded a no strike clause amongst all its employees.

This appeared a clear attempt to intensify an already heated situation and bring about strike action. When NGA and SOGAT union members attempted to attend meetings to discuss their concerns they were intimidated by management.

When meetings between Murdoch and the print unions thereafter failed to resolve the major differences, both NGA and SOGAT members voted heavily in favour of industrial action. Union members walked out on 24 January 1986 and the huge majority thereafter never returned to work for Murdoch. Picketing began immediately and was maintained 24/7 throughout the year-long dispute. Trow describes how picketing, especially on winter evenings, was cold and boring.

In his book, Trow recalls numerous examples of police brutality against strikers, how Mur-doch’s vans and trucks were driven at pickets and how police assisted these delivery vehicles to jump red lights and exceed speed limits without any consideration for other drivers or pedestrians. Unsurprisingly it led to the death of a pedestrian late in the strike.

There was phone tapping by the police of strikers home phones. High powered micro-phones that were installed around the gates of Wapping were designed to pick up any plans by pickets for action. The police also acted as agent provocateurs on the picket lines and demos, whilst ambulances were prevented from leaving with those the police injured. Trow also witnessed, when he attended court, judges who were biased against those who had been arrested after being attacked by the police.

Trow was a regular picket and extremely active throughout the dispute but he felt - that despite examples of successful attempts in blockading different gates at Wapping - the picketing was ineffective as it was failing to prevent Murdoch’s papers being delivered on time. Some of his fellow pickets he felt were unwilling to come to terms with this fact but everyone agreed to battle on to secure jobs, trade union recognition and redundancy pay.

When attempts by print workers to get the EEPTU to instruct their members not to cross picket lines failed there then followed an unsuccessful fight to get the TUC to expel the union. A boycott campaign of Murdoch’s newspapers was set up but the papers continued to sell in large numbers.

Then as Murdoch made a series of offers designed to end the strike the fear that such offers may eventually be withdrawn persuaded more people to end their involvement by taking the cash on offer. As the oldest worker on the NoW many asked John Trow what he would do. Others recommended he should accept - he didn’t. What helped in this was the steadfast support of his wife and the fact that he was close to retirement age and had sufficient resources to ensure his life would be comfortable.

Despite the obvious hardships the vast majority of striking printworkers refused to cave in and they were buoyed by a great Christmas party. This was made possible by donations from unions and supporters including numerous support groups that were established across the country.  

Although News International had in July 1986 been granted an injunction restricting picketing - and was aware that this was being ignored - the company chose not to act on this till just after the anniversary march in late January 1987. The likely outcome of any court case would have been the sequestration of the NGA and SOGAT funds and with this in mind both unions called off the strike.

Trow has a conclusion to his book in which he states: “I was no more than one of the thousands of ‘foot soldiers’ but we were never an army, just ordinary people, forced into an unenviable situation. We were actively involved in an important episode of our industrial and social history. The loyalty to our beliefs in what was right should be respected.”