Andrew Neil of the Sunday Times called it “the most audacious plot in newspaper history,” whilst others saw the dispute as a move to break the Trade Union movement with Murdoch being aided in these attempts with the full use of the law and Police at his disposal.
Thirty years on the Wapping dispute is just seen as a footnote within the pages of history but it is certainly an important part of modern history in terms of workers rights and the changes within the press and media.
Change within the industry was overdue considering that other countries were using the modern technology whilst the newspaper industry within the UK were still using hot metal to produce the newspapers. Many felt that the printers union was holding back progress with Murdoch describing the unions of having a “noose around the neck of the industry, and they pulled it very tight.”
Nevertheless Murdoch had no intention of trying to bring in changes amicably but to be provactive and erase the power of the trade union.
A letter featured in a exhibition about the Wapping dispute this year shows a letter from news International’s lawyers advising on how to provoke a dispute and in turn fire five thousand people without any legal repurcussions.
It was a plan that had started as far back as 1980 when news international had bought the land in Wapping and ‘secretly,’ began building a new printing plant. From the outside it with its barbed wire and high walls it looked a maximum security prison, but the official line in 1985 was that it was to be used to launch a new local newspaper called the London Post.
Five hundred workers had also been recruited but crucially they did not belong to the SOGAT union but to a more compliant workforce that belonged to a rogue union the EETPU thus ensuring that in the event of any dispute there would be no walkout.
The next move was the announcement of moving four prominent titles of news international to Wapping. Further demands made to the Unions was the acceptance of flexible working, agreement to a no-strike clause, adopt new technology, and abandon their closed shop.
Despite the union offer of promising no walkouts, flexible working, and binding arbitration news international insisted on compulsory redundancies, minimum compensation and the end of a closed shop. It was at that point that Dean the General Secretary of SOGAT began to understand that there was no real effort from news international in reaching an agreement by stating “I rather got the feeling the company did not want a settlement.”
Inevitably a strike was called with the five thousand five hundred newspaper workers who went out on the 24th January 1986 were immeaditely given their notices. The next move by news international was to ensure that none of the journalists would strike in support of their print colleagues. In what was described as ‘project humiliation,’ news international journalists were told to go to Wapping and get a bonus or be fired.
Without any strong support from the NUJ and journalists either fearing for their livilihoods or simply believed that the printers union was holding back progess a large majority crossed whilst some like Paul Webster of the Sunday Times simply refused.
The final part of news international’s plan was to hire TNT vans to distribute the newspapers in case the rail unions refused to to transport the papers in a show of solidarity of the strikers.
Mass demonstrations ensued outside the Wapping plant as the EETPU shepherded in the strike breakers in an attempt to minimise disruption to the plant. Even then due to the Conservative government a court order was submitted to limit picketers. Added to which TNT vans were used to distribute the newspapers for fear of the rail unions refusing to transport the papers.
Just like in the miners strike the Police were drafted in with heavy handed tactics used that at times they were accused of of being a law onto themselves. Barry Fitzpatrick a then SOGAT union official recalls Police on horse back with no regards for safety charging at the pickets.
Local residents also complained of the actions of the Police as they found themselves caught up in the violence and in some instances were refused access to their street to enter their home. The BBC had also lodged a complaint as they covered the skirmishes after attacks on journalists and camera crews.
Despite the strikers strong resolve in continuing the strike, disruption was seriously limited due to the strike breakers entering the plant with not one day of production lost. This also wasn’t helped as some NUJ members crossed the picket line and despite vocal support from other unions no practical support was given. So with funds exhausted the sacked printers accepted a weak redundancy package on the 5th February 1987.
The aftermath of the struggle had a massive effect on the newspaper and workers rights as a result of Murdoch’s victory. Many felt that the actions of news international had allowed the press to prolong its life for the next two decades and even allowed new titles like the Independent to flourish in its early years.
Others felt that rather than the start of a new prosperous era it allowed not just Murdoch but other newspaper proprietors to cut costs and cream off bigger profits. In turn wages for journalists have slumped with the lack of investment in quality journalism. Other critics also point out Wapping also led to Murdoch increasing his control on the media.
Other critics of the dispute felt that just like the miners was more about breaking trade union power and reducing workers rights that Wapping was more than a fight to move with the times. They cite the use of Government help in terms of anti-trade union legislation and the manner in the way the Police was used to help break the strike.Murdoch it is argued would most certainly have found it harder to have won the dispute and certainly may not as been as provactive.
Wapping may not be discussed as much but the ramifications that it had on the press, media and further anti-trade union laws meant that workers rights were greatly diminished as a result.
Comments & views from those involved:
Andrew Neil, Editor, The Sunday Times
It was the most audacious plot in newspaper history. The other day I was trying to explain Wapping to young journalists and I put my finger on a computer keyboard and said: “In 1986 I would not have been able to do that.” They were amazed. They just couldn’t believe it. Wapping was pretty harrowing, but what kept me going was that I was a true believer.
Roy Greenslade Assistant Editor
If that revolution hadn’t occurred, some papers would have gone to the wall: the 1990 recession would have wiped out four or five. For us on the left, the failure to effect the revolution we wanted and the realities of the 1980s meant we had to know we’d lost the battle. The only way John Pilger ever spoke to me afterwards was by spitting at me.
Paul Webster, Chief Sub, Sunday Times Business Desk
I was summoned with colleagues to a London hotel to be told I must report for duty at the secret new newspaper plant at Wapping in return for a bonus – or be sacked. The brutality with which the printers were fired and the casual contempt of the company towards its journalists persuaded me that I had no choice but to refuse.
Brenda Dean, General Secretary, SOGAT
I was very angry. I felt that there had been a betrayal of the trade unions. Given a little more time we could have negotiated but the die had been cast by Murdoch, his supporters and the Thatcher laws. The power was all on one side, and then it switched straight to the other. It was like a pendulum, and all the moderates like myself just got swept away.
Ian Griffiths, Business reporter at the Times
With the printers and support staff dismissed and the journalists in denial, Murdoch was ready for his final confrontation with the scribes and sub-editors. The idea had been to hand-deliver to each journalist’s house on Saturday morning an ultimatum – come to Wapping or be fired. Through Wapping Murdoch set the tone for a compliant and non-confrontational press. He dealt a body blow to journalism from which we have not yet fully recovered.
Quotes obtained from the Independent & Observer newspapers.