Trade Union and Employment Forum


Going to the Press: Wapping 1986

History & Policy Trade Union Forum


This meeting set out to examine the events leading up to the Wapping dispute between print workers and News International; the course of the dispute; and its aftermath. Tony Burke (Assistant General Secretary, UNITE) made some introductory remarks. Tricia Dawson (Senior Lecturer, University of Westminster) put the Dispute into context from a historical perspective. Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde (Brenda Dean; former General Secretary, SOGAT) discussed her perspective on the dispute and her experiences as SOGAT's General Secretary at the time. Finally, Greg Neale (former Wapping refusenik; member of the NUJ and founding Editor of BBC History) spoke in a personal capacity on his perspective and experience as a journalist at the time.

Jim Moher, as Chair, welcomed everyone and began by introducing all four speakers.

Tony Burke

Tony Burke (who had been President of the local NGA branch during the preceding dispute with Eddy Shah at the Stockport Messenger), began by refuting two of the most widely circulated myths about the Wapping dispute. First he argued that the print unions were not resistant to the introduction of new technology into Fleet Street. He cited the discussions concerning both the introduction of new technology and the move to Wapping at chapel and sectional levels that had been going on for some time prior to the dispute.

However, whilst the unions were negotiating in good faith, they were actually being strung along by News International whilst Rupert Murdoch got his plans in place for a move calculated to break the traditional power and influence of the print unions in Fleet Street. The prospect of work at a new London evening newspaper (The London Post) was dangled initially as a carrot and ultimately as a poisoned pill when the terms and conditions that the unions were expected to sign up to were finally revealed. As TB said, a legally enforceable no-strike agreement with a no closed shop deal, where TU representatives were subject to management discretion and unions were obliged to repudiate any action with immediate dismissal for strikers, was never going to be acceptable. Neither was it intended to be. The London Post was no more than a stalking horse whilst Murdoch lined up an alternative source of labour for his Wapping plant and ensured that the legality of his move was beyond challenge.

Second, TB emphasised that the print unions were interested in a settlement at Wapping. Both Brenda Dean and Tony Dubbins were active throughout in trying to find a way to settle the dispute. By contrast, Rupert Murdoch - backed by a government keen to follow the miners' defeat with a second crushing victory over powerful unions - was in no hurry. A public defeat for the print unions was in both his short- and long-term interest.

TB concluded by emphasising that the dispute was an exercise in Murdoch's power and an important staging post in the development of his global media ambitions. As a result of the dispute, Murdoch was able to dismiss 5,500 workers and resuscitate the finances of News International. By way of a final 'sting in the tail', TB pointed out that the Wapping plant is now closed: printing was transferred to a super fast plant at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire.

Tricia Dawson

Tricia Dawson (Senior Lecturer in Human Resources Management at Westminster Business School; formerly Equality Policy Adviser at GPMU) made it clear that she was drawing upon her recent research into the ways in which the print industry labour market had changed in the post war period. This provided an important context to the Wapping dispute.

In contrast to the relative stability during the interwar period, the print labour market saw a maintenance of the craft/non-craft split after 1945. Women increasingly worked in jobs which had hitherto been exclusively male, such as typesetting in provincial newspapers. Whilst the print unions' policy was to 'follow the job' through technical change, they were nevertheless slow to recognise the 'white collarisation' of print work. The consequences in terms of wages were soon apparent as women workers displaced highly paid male compositors. The impact of the Equal Pay Act in the print industry in the early 1970s was muted by the 5-year phasing in period. This gave print employers enough time to juggle with job descriptions and job evaluation that for the most part ensured no real challenge over equal pay in the industry and ensured the downward pressure on wages continued unabated. This was hidden to an extent by the fact that many women print workers nonetheless felt well paid compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the economy.

Strategically, TD felt that the maintenance of the craft/non-craft split had been upheld beyond its useful life - ensuring that the print unions were divided at a time when unity was essential. As a result, the print unions were not best placed to counter the cheap pool of labour that women workers presented to print employers. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, collective bargaining has continued to weaken. Furthermore, the arrival of even lower cost migrant workers has exerted further downward pressure on wages in the industry whilst globalised restructuring ensured that employment continues to shrink in the UK. In the meantime, Murdoch's power over the media has been reinforced.

Brenda Dean

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde (formerly Brenda Dean Gen Sec of SOGAT at the time of the Wapping dispute) began by calling for a serious academic study of the Wapping dispute which, she argued, was even more important than the miners' strike of 1984/5. She argued that the dispute was so significant that it was absolutely essential for trade unionists to learn its lessons - especially in the context of the current Coalition government.

BD emphasised that the roots of the dispute extended back some time before 1985 and derived from the jungle of casualisation, bad labour relations practice and poor management that had been the reality of the Fleet Street 'village' for many years. Bill Keyes, her predecessor as General Secretary of SOGAT, had, she said, worked tirelessly to get agreement for the TUC print unions' Programme for Action, which was designed to get rid of casual labour in Fleet Street. Unfortunately this ran into resistance from the Fathers of Chapel (FoCs) in Fleet Street, who saw this as undermining their local power base - and who, crucially, believed that they could carry on as they had always done on the basis of the uniquely disruptive effect of failing to get the paper out each day. This effectively stalled the Programme for Action.

Switching to what was in her view a crucial factor in the drama to come at Wapping, BD spoke of the tacit agreement in Fleet Street that saw the print unions brazenly poach a significant group of EETPU members. She acknowledged that this action was indefensible and that it had bruised the pride of the EETPU: it was inevitable they would look for a way to extract some form of revenge in future. Speaking of the low trust in Fleet Street, BD nevertheless noted that there had been very few official strikes in Fleet Street - there were, instead, many unofficial disputes. Local management were, in her eyes, universally poor.

BD acknowledged that, although any newspaper baron could in principle have followed Murdoch's example, it had taken an outsider in the shape of Rupert Murdoch to break down the walls of the Fleet Street 'village': in terms of planning and single-mindedness, Murdoch was way in front of the print unions. She noted that Murdoch as well as conniving with the EETPU, had signed distribution deals with TNT (a non-union company) - meaning that his newspapers would henceforth be beyond the reach of the rail unions. He had bullied other distributors and retailers into submission and had instructed a team of lawyers to ensure that his actions in forcing through the move to Wapping would be within the law. On the other side, there were five separate unions involved in the dispute: getting them all to agree was proving impossible.

Reflecting on the actions of the EETPU at Wapping, BD said that the TUC should have had more power and influence to resolve internecine union spats. She believed that our Press was at a crossroads today, thanks in no small measure to Murdoch's triumph in the Wapping dispute. Would it hold to an honest, analytical role or continue its recent, somewhat besmirched one? That should be a matter of concern far beyond the union movement. But if the unions want to influence that debate, she said, they needed forward looking policies based on a calm and objective assessment of the lessons of the past. This was part of the reason for her call for a fully-researched study.

Last of all, BD pointed out that Eric Hammond of the EETPU did not, in the end, get a recognition agreement after the dispute! She concluded by recalling that the Wapping dispute had broken up families, brutalised workers and the poorest had suffered most from its fall out. In her view, a detailed case study to learn the harsh lessons of the dispute was long overdue.

Greg Neale

Greg Neale (member of the NUJ, Wapping refusenik and later founding editor of BBC History) emphasised that he was speaking in a personal capacity. He quoted his co-author Tim Gopsill in saying that organising journalists was a "bit like herding cats": the NUJ was thus somewhat marginalised in the run up to the dispute. He stressed that the Wapping dispute was important for London as well as for the media and the print unions generally. For journalists in particular, the shift to Wapping signalled the end of the 'village' atmosphere that had hitherto symbolised Fleet Street and had given rise to a particular way of working for journalists. As an aside, GN ruminated whether the recent phone-hacking scandal would have taken place (or at least taken so long to uncover) had the more collegiate atmosphere amongst journalists in Fleet Street persisted.

It was, in his view, too simplistic to characterise Wapping as 'devils versus angels.' The details of the dispute revealed a more complex and deeper rooted set of causes. He emphasised that many News International journalists found themselves in a particularly difficult position. The long dispute with The Times and The Sunday Times plainly dulled the appetite of some for a further battle with Murdoch. Others, who enjoyed good relationships with individual members of the various print unions, were more sympathetic - and a small group harboured strong ideological objections to the direction in which they perceived NI was heading.

Whilst most journalists recognised they had benefited from the power the print unions had deployed to boost wages at Fleet Street, the fact that the NUJ had been excluded from the discussions that surrounded new technology and the shift to Wapping crucially undermined any sense of solidarity and for some journalists was indicative of the contempt shown to them by some print chapels in Fleet Street. The fact that a journalists' strike at The Sun a year earlier had been undone by print union members agreeing to continue to print the paper clearly also still rankled with some NUJ members. As with the EETPU, there was a hint, at least, that some NUJ members may have had a score to settle.

Be that as it may, despite the noble efforts of Harry Conroy (General Secretary of the NUJ at the time), the offer of a £2,000 bonus and free BUPA as an alternative to being dismissed proved to be a powerful inducement to all but a small group of NUJ refuseniks. The number of refuseniks grew as the reality of the terms and conditions at Wapping became apparent and proved too much for some journalists to stomach. As GN pointed out, though, the defection of journalists from Wapping was also consequent on the arrival of The Independent which offered a more convivial home for some NI journalists.

Discussion

A former proofreader, heavily involved in the Wapping Dispute pointed out that The Sun and the News of the World had never struck for better wages: rather, they had fought for the ownership of the paper through their right to reply. He said that the Chapels did not oppose a move to Wapping, since Fleet Street was perceived as old and unsafe. Far from being Luddite, he argued the Chapels were both professional and profound in their approach but had been bedevilled by very poor management throughout Fleet Street at the time. He conceded that there were abuses on both sides and that very few women or black workers were employed in Fleet Street. He asked why the chapels were so strong and suggested the poor quality of managers (many 'failed' FoCs!

A former lead industrial relations reporter acknowledged that Murdoch had what was to prove a 'cunning plan', but he emphasised that its success depended very much upon the persistence and exploitability of the divisions between the unions in Fleet Street. He argued that the Stockport Messenger dispute with Eddy Shah in many ways prefigured what would later happen at Wapping, with The Times editor, Andrew Neil, closely involved with Shah and Murdoch's 'grand design'. He also pointed to the TUC's frustration (John Monks was then the Organisation Committee officer), at the failure of the Programme for Action. For him, it was the lack of solidarity amongst the print unions and the weaknesses of their full-time officials that proved their undoing at Wapping. In his opinion, lack of access to the Murdoch/News International archives was one reason fresh research had not been conducted by historians.

Another 'refusenik' journalist at the time made the point that the economic circumstances of News International at the time of the dispute needed further research and elaboration. This was supported by Professor Alastair Reid, who noted the financial boost News International derived from the move from Fleet Street. It was not an inward-looking dispute, but a battle affecting the whole country. He recalled the delusion of power which seemed to prevail at the time, one encouraged by the political atmosphere in the unions.

A serving Mother of Chapel (GPMU section of UNITE) recalled how she had moved to Wapping in 1987 and that it did not take long before terms and conditions began to deteriorate culminating in the derecognition of the GPMU when it was formed.

A former GPMU official who represented clerical workers in the printing industry at the time, currently involved in UNITE, welcomed the discussion and emphasised its importance - but also expressed her concern that production workers were coming under attack when very few were present. She emphasised the importance of their perspective and of including them in accounts of Wapping. They were not a small core surrounded by casuals; the bulk of the production workers were permanent.

A former official of the EETPU put on record his view that the role played by the EETPU in the Wapping dispute could never be justified and for which conduct he was now ashamed. He acknowledged the gracious way that other print union leaders at the seminar had pointed to the provocation the EETPU had endured over the poaching incident, which involved their 1,000 strong London Press branch, whose branch secretary was offered a full-time post. Nevertheless, that incident in no way justified the EETPU's short-sighted reaction, which in his view was simply wrong. He also drew attention to the financial independence of the Fleet Street print chapels, which could even ignore national conference decisions, contending that this had always proved to be potentially divisive and a threat to solidarity even within the same union.

A former FoC, now a full-time union officer, argued that the way in which Murdoch unravelled the Reuters Trust, releasing substantial amounts of money to Fleet Street newspaper proprietors, played a significant (but under-researched) role in the run up to the Wapping dispute. He also drew attention to the loss of sectoral bargaining as a significant factor in the subsequent undermining of terms and conditions of workers who remained in the industry after Wapping.

A senior academic from Ruskin College asked: did the defeat of the union's 'praetorian guard', the NUM, in the preceding coal strike impact on print union leaders' strategy in taking Murdoch on?

Responses from panel

In responding to some points made, Tony Burke said that women's position had gone backwards in terms of pay in many cases. He highlighted the difficulty of employers using the national minimum wage as a benchmark in place of other, higher measures. He highlighted that older print unions had spent quite a lot of time in the past trying to keep women out, fearing their presence would undermine existing agreements.

Tricia Dawson emphasised that production was very much her focus in terms of research. However, she concurred with the argument that much of this was planned: union legislation and a constant focus on the management's 'right to manage' were part of a determined attempt to weaken unions. Murdoch, in a sense, acted as an opportunist on the back of that change. Looking at the aftermath of the dispute, she pointed to the withering of the Newspaper Society Agreement - and, in due course, to union derecognition on a very large scale.

Brenda Dean highlighted that, during her tenure at SOGAT, 30% of members were women. She concurred that the management at Fleet Street was terrible - and highlighted that only Murdoch had the imagination to do what he did in breaking the old system. The challenge would have come in any event: the endgame might have been different. Responding to questions about the failure of the miners' strike and whether this gave her pause for thought, she replied that she was obviously aware of the formidable difficulties: but ultimately, the unions could not simply stand still and do nothing. The deal offered was utterly unacceptable: and Murdoch knew it would be.

BD also highlighted the role of Eddy Shah, personally advised by Rupert Murdoch in his confrontation with the print unions at Warrington: this was very much a dry run for Wapping. She emphasised that Murdoch's power is very much a present-day concern. She finished by repeating her plea for a proper academic study into the dispute.

Greg Neale echoed BD's call for research - and argued that unions had an interest in making sure this happened, perhaps even with funding. He also emphasised that time was not unlimited: participants would not be with us forever. He emphasised, again, the poor management within Fleet Street and cited the Donovan Commission: "The economics of Fleet Street do not seem to operate elsewhere." In terms of the legacy of the dispute, GN pointed to the increased centrality of the media to our politics.

Finally, Brenda Dean pointed out that Wapping was not just the story of a profound defeat. There were a great many displays of individual and collective courage, of fortitude and of inventiveness against formidable odds. She reminded the Forum that those were legacies too.

Reflection on the workshop: Denis Gregory

With tales of skullduggery, treachery and division abounding even before we considered the role of News International and Rupert Murdoch, this workshop never lacked for passion and interest. It was widely agreed amongst panel speakers and audience alike that the Wapping dispute has never been properly analysed and dissected. Given the significance ascribed to Wapping and the preceding miners' strike as key moments in the long decline of trade union power and influence in the UK, this is surprising.

As the contributions to the workshop made clear, there are many lessons waiting to be learned from a study of the strengths and weaknesses as well as the myths and realities that conspired to propel the print unions into a battle with Rupert Murdoch and News International. The consequences of the defeat suffered by the unions at Wapping remain profound - not simply in the way that union power was diminished, but in the way it enabled Murdoch to pull News International out of threatening financial circumstances. For a couple of the panel speakers, this was seen as pivotal in the subsequent rise in the power and influence of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

Why then, with so much union influence at stake and with such profound and long lasting consequences, has there been so little academic attention paid to the Wapping dispute? A number of potential explanations emerged from the contributions made to the workshop. The complexity of the dispute, both in its background and execution, is clearly a powerful factor. However, complexity should never be a bar to serious scholarship. Perhaps the relative silence surrounding the Wapping dispute has more to do with the painful miscalculations and naivety which a more detailed academic reflection would inevitably highlight. As Baroness Dean remarked: "The trade unions were in one place but Murdoch was down the road, well in front of us". Twenty five years later, the scars and bitterness generated by the dispute were still in evidence at the workshop - but so too was a broad view that it was time to learn rather than recriminate.

Three consistent threads seemed to run through the narratives that were offered to the workshop by way of some preliminary 'learning':

  • It was acknowledged that the sectional interests that had historically divided the print unions were, at Wapping, buttressed by further internal divisions between local and national leaders - ensuring that unity was always fragile. However, even if unity had been assured, the fact that the EETPU were actively co-operating with News International to enable the shift from Fleet Street to Wapping to take place decisively demonstrated both the devastating impact of inter-union rivalry and the TUC's inability to do anything to stop it.
  • The view that the dispute was about union unwillingness to embrace new technology and relinquish their so-called 'Spanish practices' was emphatically refuted. The workshop heard evidence from the panel and the floor that discussions and negotiations had been proceeding for some time prior to the dispute to agree the introduction of new technology. Indeed, one former member of the Wapping strike committee recalled that his Chapel had been in favour of a move to Wapping, citing as reasons the elderly buildings and unsafe conditions that characterised much of Fleet Street at the time. The impression that emerged here was of the trade union leaders both at national and local level being strung along whilst Rupert Murdoch lined up his real plan for, as one participant put it: "... a convulsive bolt from the blue over the weekend of 24-26 January 1986".
  • A consensus emerged about the way in which Murdoch had comprehensively outmanoeuvred the trade unions involved. Underpinned by the supportive noises from the Thatcher government and with the huge advantage of the recently passed swathe of anti union legislation, Murdoch embarked upon a subterfuge - the proposal of a new London evening newspaper - that drew the unions into months of wasted effort, giving him time to put all the other elements of his real plan into place. So full of intrigue was this plot (we learned) that one wonders why it has not attracted the attentions of a playwright or film maker, let alone a horde of young labour historians.

Inevitably, the role of the EETPU in conniving with Rupert Murdoch to supply electricians to help run the presses at Wapping came in for much discussion. Perhaps for the first time, at least in an open discussion, it was recognised that the EETPU had been provoked by an earlier incident when a significant number of their Fleet Street members had been poached by a print union. Whilst this could never justify the EETPU's subsequent collusion with Murdoch - a point powerfully made by a former EETPU official at the workshop, who said he was ashamed of their behaviour - it reinforced the contention made by a number of the participants that the roots of the dispute extended back a long way.

The central objective of History & Policy's Trade Union Forum is to explore the scope and potential for history and historians to inform current policy. This particular workshop resonated well with this objective. It threw the extent to which the print unions' decision to do battle with Murdoch had been influenced by contemporary events into sharp relief. There was, after all, proof enough of the government's determination to take on and smash union power in the miners' strike that immediately preceded Wapping. To argue that Wapping was a very different type of dispute is true only in part. The key point is that the legal and political contexts were the same as was the determination to break the print unions' power whatever the cost. Were the union negotiators so wound up by the deliberately provocative conditions that Murdoch put on the table at the end of his bogus negotiations over the London Evening Post, that they ignored what had happened to the miners? One could also add the influence of earlier disputes with Eddy Shah and the Stockport Messenger and the NUJ's long strike at The Times and The Sunday Times into the mix.

Both of these disputes signalled the willingness of employers to embark on attritional disputes, backed to the hilt by the government using laws they had recently devised. It is, perhaps, too easy to ponder, 25 years later, why these warning signs were seemingly ignored by union leaders at all levels. Moreover, the threat to livelihoods stemming from the shift to Wapping was real and required an urgent and effective union response. Nevertheless, there is a real question left unanswered at this workshop: to what extent might the lessons from history might have indicated a more effective strategy to print union leaders at the time? It is the job of labour historians to begin to answer that question. This will neither remove from history nor downgrade the suffering and hardship that the Wapping dispute engendered amongst those print workers who went through it. Learning the lessons from Wapping, however, might help avoid similar events in the future.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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