Trade Union and Employment Forum: Related Events

Wapping and the role of Murdoch reconsidered in international context

There were two main speakers at this meeting at the University of Westminster Marylebone Road campus: Linda Melvern, a former News International Sunday Times investigative journalist, and Franz Kersjes, Chair of the German Print and Media Union.

Linda Melvern, based her remarks on the material in her 1986 book, The End of the Street which was one of the earliest exposes of Rupert Murdoch's operations, showing how he had secretly outmanoeuvred the print unions in his preparation to go to Wapping. She recalled that Murdoch was then close to financial ruin and so his Wapping venture was 'the gamble of his life'. The minutes of his meetings with the senior journalists on The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News of The World, out of which his plans to break the unions developed, have been shredded, but she had managed to secure a copy which she still has in a private archive. She offered to make this archive available to serious researchers.

Contrary to the image widely propagated then and since that the Fleet Street printers and their 'Fathers of the Chapels' were like a mafia, she found them to be a decent, much misunderstood lot. She attributed the poor industrial relations situation on 'The Street' as being more due to the outmoded system of pay and conditions negotiations, for which the management and proprietors were mainly responsible. The system had never been reformed, for which she also blamed the full-time union officials of the NGA, NUJ and SOGAT.

She claimed that there are significant gaps in the narrative of what had occurred and mentioned especially the whistle-blowing activities of two SOGAT health and safety reps, whose disclosures about the plant being set up at Wapping were not taken seriously by their leaders, who preferred to believe Murdoch and his senior management's assurances. They had installed about 350 PCs at the Isle of Dogs premises, supposedly to print a 'dummy run' London Post . In her book, she sought to highlight this union official failure, but nobody seemed to want to know: this account can be contrasted with Brenda Dean's account in Hot Mettle (1992).

Linda also identified Mrs Thatcher's role as Prime Minister in refusing to refer Murdoch's purchase of The Times to the Monopolies Commission and claimed that it highlighted her complicity in Murdoch's anti-union schemes. She said that Frank Dobson MP saw that as the start of Murdoch's unimpeded rise. Murdoch's use of the Conservative government's employment laws was another, by which his lawyers' advice enabled him to sack all the 5,500 staff in January 1986 without recourse to industrial tribunals. This 'detonated' over 200 years of Fleet Street history and of the unions, especially the NGA and it craft union predecessors.

In another chapter, the book had dealt with the scenes on the print floor, especially the machine-room of The Sun. These had been described as 'gang warfare', with printing plates being broken into metal fractures. Again, she claimed that the 'anarchy' described by other authors was largely due to the outmoded system of local, chapel negotiations, with the national officials uninvolved.

In the discussion which ensued, John Bailey, an ex-Sun/NGA rep for a 'chapel of 778 members', confirmed that it was the members on the shop floor who decided matters in Fleet Street, not the full-time officials. He claimed that their General Secretary was not involved and that all hiring and firing was handled by the Fathers of the Chapel (FOCs). Disputes were often about peripheral issues, e.g. the rate of payment for staff on jury service, in which Murdoch had personally intervened to overrule his managers! The key compositors, the linotypers (numbering about 60), pooled all bonus earnings and wielded tremendous power. Nonetheless, he believed that, by and large they had usually exercised it reasonably having regard to the circumstances of Fleet Street production. They had played a positive role in ensuring freedom of the press, by inhibiting some editors and proprietors from indulging in extreme anti-union, anti-Labour propaganda, by threatening industrial action which often got particularly offensive and extremely biased items withdrawn. He also recalled the 'yobbo' nature of Sun editors. He said that towards the end of the protracted Wapping dispute most FOCs had wanted to continue, contrary to the officials' recommendation. They saw this as a way of preventing Murdoch getting into television, but the General Secretaries had ended it in a deal with him, without consulting the FOCs or compositors, he claimed.

Michael Gold, of BUIRA, who chaired the meeting, wanted to know more about the introduction of new technology in Fleet Street before the dispute - how the process worked (or hadn't). In response, Linda referred to the 'Programme for Action', as the official union stance. [This was developed by the TUC Committee of the senior print union officials in the early 1980s (Bill Keys, SOGAT General Secretary chaired it and John Monks was the TUC officer). They had anticipated this development after 'seeing the future' on visits to the US. They sought to develop a coherent negotiating strategy for the unions which involved adapting to the change by negotiating away many of the practices for which 'The Street' had become a by-word. However, the divisions between, and within, the two major unions - NGA and SOGAT - prevented the adoption of this strategy. They could not persuade the powerful FOCs in Fleet Street to recommend it to their members. It seems to be common ground today that this was a lost opportunity, though there is no general agreement as to why the 'Programme of Action' was rejected by the Fleet Street members/FOC leaders. JM]

From the floor Lew Britz, one of the EETPU national officials, with responsibility for the London electricians in Fleet Street, made a much more controversial contribution. He referred to Sean Geraghty, lay official for The Mirror Group, and his critically provocative role in taking this large branch out of the EETPU, as the cause of their hostility to the print unions. He also mentioned the enormous earnings of the compositors for inputting data to the newspapers (around £175 per week by comparison with £25 per week for the average secretary) as explaining their unwillingness to change. The EETPU had been advised by their solicitor from Lawfords, who was present at all the meetings, that they could not instruct their members not to work when the printers 'downed tools'. Most controversially, he argued that the print unions deserved some of the opprobrium heaped upon them and blamed the power of the FOCs and their unwillingness to negotiate with senior management. They did not take instructions from union HQ and their attitude was 'bugger you, we aren't going back to work until we get what we want'. He also claimed that the print union General Secretaries did not want to know about what was happening in Fleet Street, as they had no power over their own lay officials.

He thought the demise of the printers was bound to happen, as electronics was moving so fast in the industry and it was not possible to stand in the way of change as the printers had tried. He had watched the Wapping strike with horror. Britz also claimed that, although he was the national EETPU official for the Fleet Street electricians, he knew nothing of the activities of their Southampton branch who assisted Murdoch in breaking the strike with substitute electricians working at Wapping throughout the 1986 dispute. The late Eric Hammond, General Secretary of the EETPU, in his book Maverick (1992), provided further material on that union's role and attitudes. Needless to say, these claims drew strong protests from the former print-union activists present.

There were other contributions from the floor, one suggesting that there were still serious gaps in our knowledge of what happened during the Wapping dispute, particularly as regards the police role. The release of public records after 25 years should also facilitate further information about the links between Murdoch and Eddie Shah, whose earlier Stockport Messenger dispute is seen as a dry-run attempt to defeat the print unions using new technology. Reference was also made to a clause in the 1989 Employment Act, known as the 'News International clause', but this was not explained fully. Murdoch's 'Atlantic agenda' and his political relationships were also seen as an important dimension which had not yet been explored sufficiently.

What would have been a heated debate ended there as the chair had to bring on the second speaker, Franz Kersjes of the German Print and Media Union to provide an international comparison with his country's newspaper industry over the same period.

Franz gave a similar picture of a once powerful unionised industry facing unprecedented challenges with the introduction of the new technology from the 1980s. Germany has 134 newspapers with an edition of approximately 20 million copies daily, but most are small ones with a regional distribution area only. Only nine newspapers appear nationally - Bild, Die Welt etc. Most belong to ten newspaper groups - Axel Springer Verlag etc, which are journalistically and politically very active and have many publishing and printing presses. They have a lot of power in Germany.

Industrial relations there follow a different pattern to the UK. Where they are reached, wage agreements between unions and companies or associations of employers are legally-binding and usually govern hours and holidays as well as wages. There are also industrial relations scheme laws whereby employees can choose a Works Committee to protect their interests with influence on many personnel matters, e.g. dismissals. Works Committee members do not have to belong to a union and they cannot make collective agreements or call for industrial action.

In the newspaper companies a variety of wage agreements exist covering the whole of the sector in Germany. However, in the publishing companies there are regional wage agreements which are valid only in the respective federal states e.g. North Rhine-Westphalia. Since 2001 a Unified German Service Sector Union of five independent unions has negotiated agreements for the entire media, print and paper industry. Unions can call on members to take industrial action legally. Franz's union was very successful in its bargaining for a long time, but he said that from the 1980s it became more and more difficult to improve the wage agreements. This was largely due to the rapid introduction of new technologies, e.g. digitization in text production, because far fewer employees were needed. They tried to anticipate this contraction of work for their members by negotiating a shorter working week from 40 to 35 hours. However, the employers resisted strongly and in 1984 they had a violent dispute which lasted 13 weeks across all newspaper companies. This strike - the biggest dispute in the union's history - was extremely effective, preventing the production and distribution of all papers. The outcome was a compromise with hours being shortened to 38.5 a week, without cuts in payment. Many years later, after many other fights, they came to agree on 35 hours and improvement of other employment matters, including wider health-care regulations, professional and continuing education, and advanced training.

Today, employers are pressing for a return to a 40-hour-week and threatening not to conclude a new wage agreement without it. However, after a strike, any increase in hours has been successfully resisted.

Franz explained that there have been considerable changes in the employer-employee relationships in the last 10-20 years. In the past, employment contracts were for an unlimited period but half of all new contracts these days are for a limited time, sometimes for only a few months. Young people are particularly affected. Temporary contractors also feature strongly. They receive a lower wage than the permanent workers and are often used as substitutes - 'wage dumping' they call it. In newspaper companies there are less and less permanent employees. The unions have demanded the same wage for both categories, but only IG Metal have been able to enforce this, in the steel industry. Works committees in companies with more than 20 employees have to approve the use of temporary workers to prevent the loss of jobs by permanent ones. In practice, this veto has not been always been effective.

Another development has been splitting companies along the lines of different printing functions, e.g. in Magdeburg a newspaper employing 400 in production and distribution has split into a series of independent companies. 'There are no more wage agreements and no Works Committees', Franz said. This is part of a general worsening of pay and conditions and major job losses in Germany, as elsewhere in the advanced capitalist countries. The legally-binding feature of their wage agreements are increasingly being watered down to meet 'the operational needs' of employers and there is less protection, less rights, income losses and often degrading working conditions.

As in Britain, many politicians favour the employers' arguments, seeing labour costs as too high, and a threat to the competitiveness of German enterprises. He said that the 'extortion' methods of many enterprises work, as the fear of job losses has led to a loss of solidarity amongst workers and the loss of power by the unions. Many employers have left the responsible employers' associations to escape the obligation of their legally-binding wage agreements and unions have not been able to resist this tendency. Only 39% of companies in the West and only 24% in the East now have wage agreements and in numerous business sectors there are no agreements. In the federal regions also a growing number of newspaper employers no longer want binding wage agreements and seek to make them subject to operational requirements. The Works Committees have no power to reject such dilution. This only leaves the union industrial action option to enforce those agreements, but the loss of worker solidarity has also seriously weakened this remaining countervailing force. Far more powerful is the threat of job losses and closures from employers aiming to maintain or improve competitiveness through the reduction in wage costs. 'The fear of the loss of the job often paralyzes every form of objection or even opposition', Franz gloomily said, and many employers increasingly question whether unions should be involved at all in employment relationships. He warned that if wage agreements are replaced by one-sided 'extortion', it will destroy the social foundation of the market economy.

Employees in publishing companies and editorial staff are also worried about the future, as profits and their jobs and conditions are also threatened by lower circulation and advertising as newspapers face strong competition from other media. The quality of reporting about political, economic and other events has also been affected. Young readership is a particular worry as not even half of those aged 14 to 19 read a newspaper, getting their information mainly from the internet. A drastic job reduction has already taken place in many newspapers, particularly amongst editorial staff and work pressures and stress levels have increased. 'There is virtually no more time for a careful research of information and news.' Numerous local newsrooms have closed or merged as freelance journalists are increasingly used for little pay. Franz saw this trend as damaging to the necessary public property of vigorous journalistic scrutiny of society's democratic structures. But commercially-financed media, geared to maximising profit like any other business, endangered this public service role. So, freedom of speech and of the press is limited by growing dependence on advertisers, in Franz's opinion. He called for a right of co-determination for the employees in the editiorial staff in publishing companies and a statute which regulates the relation between publishing company and editorial staff.

In the discussion of this topic, there were contributions from the floor about UK parallels. One NUJ official referred to their website as a good source. They had 'reporting status' at the Leveson Inquiry and were using that to ask questions of the key witnesses. They sought to link the hacking scandal with the diminution of trade union rights on the national press and wanted to limit ownership to 25%.

Linda Melvern commented that Murdoch's influence had 'poisoned the well of Fleet Street journalism' leaving us without the press we deserve.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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