British printers strike for their jobs, unions (Wapping Dispute), 1986-1987

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Timing
Time Period:  
January
1986
to
February
1987
Location and Goals
Country: 
United Kingdom
Country: 
England
Location City/State/Province: 
London
Location Description: 
The strike began at News International in London's Wapping district, and quickly spread to the rest of the city
Goals: 
Demonstrators sought to keep News International from implementing anti-union measures at the new Wapping plant, as well as to maintain their operations on Fleet Street.
 

By 1986, Australian Rupert Murdoch was already well on his way to becoming the head of what would be the world’s largest news conglomerate, News International. His meteoric rise to the top, however, clashed with a centuries-old printing tradition in the United Kingdom, where he owned four of the company’s largest papers. The Fleet Street area of London, England had served as the iconic home to the nation’s printmaking industry since as far back as the 15th century. As Murdoch saw it, however, this history represented a method of printmaking that had long since passed its peak.

In the United States and Australia, Murdoch’s other prime areas of operation, the mogul had begun implementing what was called “cold-set” printing, an electronic method. Newspapers produced on Fleet Street had continued to use more labor-intensive “hot set” printing methods even well after their use had faded in other cities.

“Hot-set” printing required a relatively large number of skilled and, to a lesser extent, semi-skilled and unskilled workers. The switch to Cold-set would mean that Murdoch could fire nearly half of his workforce, and potentially break the powerful skilled workers’ union, the National Graphic Association (NGA) and the largely semi-skilled and unskilled Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT).

Of all the places in the Western world to break a union, Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom was likely one of the best. Thatcher, Britain’s conservative prime minister elected in 1979, had overseen the passage of the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982, as well as the Trade Union Act of 1984, all of which placed serious limitations on organized labor. The proposed switch to cold-set also came after British mining strikes, in which the government intervened violently to break unions in the coal industry.

In late 1985, News International proposed a series of cost-cutting measures that were decidedly unfriendly to the printers’ unions: an end to the union (or closed) shop, the implementation of casual labor, as well as a no-strike clause. Despite tense negotiations with the unions, the corporation refused to move on the above proposal. Finally, on January 24, 1986, the NGA and SOGAT called for a strike, with 6,000 workers leaving their Fleet Street printing jobs.

Almost immediately, Murdoch summarily fired all 6,000 of the striking workers and called in strike-breakers from the conservative Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, or EETPU, to begin operating East London’s newly up-and-running Wapping plant, as well as to implement “cold-set” electronic printing. Operations of News International’s four largest papers—News of the World, The Times, The Sunday Times, and the Sun—were quickly transferred from Fleet Street to Wapping. The fact that News International had not made the switch earlier was due partly to the fact that it did not wish to create conflict with the powerful printmaking unions by cutting some 5,000 jobs in the transition. With virtually all of his workforce on strike and now fired, Murdoch and News International could make the transition they had wanted to for years.

Despite the firings, strikers continued to fight, holding regular demonstrations. By Thatcher-era law, only six picketers were allowed outside of the plant at a time. Rank-and-file organized shifts so that the gate to the Wapping plant would be staffed at all times. Large rallies and pickets were held twice a week. On multiple occasions, strikers blocked traffic through parts of London’s East End by simply sitting down, thousands at a time.

Another major strategy of strikers was to publish alternative newspapers and newsletters, both to circulate information amongst strikers, as well as to document their fight to the British public. A number of these publications poked fun at News International papers, with one Sun parody called Scum. Artists also created murals throughout the Wapping area that served both decorative and informative purposes.

From the beginning of the strike, however, it was clear that News International and the London Police would work to keep the Wapping plant running. Murdoch arranged for scabs to be brought in from secret locations throughout London. Security measures around the plant itself included barbed wire barricades and state-of-the-art surveillance systems. Such measures led strikers and residents to begin calling the plant, “Fortress Wapping.”

In support of their rank-and-file, NGA and SOGAT leadership, along with Labour Party politicians, announced a national boycott of News International papers. While union leadership reached out to the rail unions not to distribute the papers, Murdoch arranged for boycotted publications to be carried on large haulage carriers (trucks). This seriously limited the impact the boycott could have on News International’s operations.

Three weeks into the strike, on February 15, 1986 roughly 5,000 printers and their allies gathered in a mass demonstration outside of the Wapping plant. Clashes between police and protestors resulted in 58 arrests and 8 police injuries, though sources are unclear as to how many of the unarmed demonstrators were injured. Union leadership placed blame for any violence on “fringe groups” acting outside of NGA or SOGAT direction.

To prevent demonstrators from blocking off access to the Wapping plant, additional police were drafted to ensure a “safe route” for trucks and other business-friendly traffic. This included police restricting the movement of and towing the cars of local residents, many of whom were themselves print makers and sympathetic to the union. Some locals even found their cars impounded overnight. Onlookers and photographers, including some working for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), were regularly accosted by London police whilst attempting to document police actions; many had legal suits filed against them by either the company or the police. The government ignored or downplayed calls for investigations, with even the Labour Party failing to come out against police behavior despite the near-Police State atmosphere of Wapping over the year of the strike.

The complexity of the strike breaking methods utilized by the police and News International, as well as the preceding negotiations, led many union supporters to believe that the notoriously conservative Murdoch was seeking to start a strike for an excuse to break the printmaking unions once and for all.

Overcome by legal costs and organizational over-extension, the unions called off the strike on February 27, 1987. The end result was News International’s final firing of around 5,000 workers with the introduction of “cold-set” printing technology and the move to the Wapping plant. News International did not lose a day of production over the year of the strike. Coupled with the previous year’s breaking of the miners’ strike, the defeat in Wapping represented a serious reflection of the labor policies of both Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, who remains perhaps the world’s most prominent media mogul.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The British miners' strike years earlier provided printers with another example of labor militancy in the 1980s. (1)

Sources: 
"1986: Printers and police clash in Wapping." bbc.co.uk. BBC, 15 Feb 2008. Web. 3 Dec 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/15/newsid_3455000/3455083.stm>.

Aspden, Alex. "1986-1987: Wapping printers strike." libcom.org. libcom.org, 19 Feb 2007. Web. 4 Dec 2011. <http://libcom.org/history/1986-1987-wapping-printers-strike>.

"Barbed Wire Lies! The truth about the class war against Murdoch's empire." libcom.org. The Scum, n.d. Web. 1 Dec 2011. <http://libcom.org/files/scum-wapping.pdf>.

Oatridge, Nic. "Wapping '86: A Photo Essay by Nic Oatridge." libcom.org. ColdType, n.d. Web. 4 Dec 2011. <http://libcom.org/files/Wapping1.pdf>.

Oatridge, Nic. "Wapping Times." oatridge.co.uk. oatridge.co.uk, n.d. Web. 3 Dec 2011. <http://www.oatridge.co.uk/wapping.htm>.

"When Murdoch smashed the unions." Workers' Liberty. Workers' World, 20 Jul 2011. Web. 2 Dec 2011. <http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2011/07/20/when-murdoch-smashed-unions>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kate Aronoff, 04/12/2011