When Murdoch smashed the unions

In 1986-7 5,500 print production workers were sacked for striking against an attempt to impose new draconian terms and conditions at Rupert Murdoch’s new, then state-of-the-art, printing plant.

The story is beautifully told — with first-hand accounts recorded shortly after the dispute ended — by former Times librarians John Lang and Graham Dodkins. This “warts and all” account, describing the humour, commitment and comradeship of the printworkers, is a great source of political lessons.

In 1986 Murdoch, working closely with the Thatcher government, set out to smash the print unions. The story of how Murdoch did that is essential to understanding how he became a feared and feted establishment figure he was.

Rupert Murdoch, the son of an Australian journalist and newspaper proprietor, used his background to strike a pose which could impress the naive. The leader of the SOGAT print union, Brenda Dean, was one such fool. During the strike Dean secretly meets Murdoch in his Beverly Hills home. Over barbecued lamb chops she came to the conclusion that “printing ink is clearly in his [Murdoch’s] blood” and “all he wanted to do was produce newspapers”. But there is more ice than ink in Murdoch’s blood. It is not his love of newspapers, but of capitalist accumulation, that dictates his actions.

Murdoch began his business in the UK with the acquisition of the News of the World in 1968, followed by the Sun (1969), then the Times and Sunday Times (1981). Grateful for Murdoch’s support, the Tories declined to refer the Times deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission even though Murdoch would have a big chunk of the UK’s national press.

Immediately the print unions got a foretaste of what Murdoch was about. He pushed through major staffing cuts and a wage freeze at the Times/Sunday Times. A year later Murdoch went for further redundancies among clerical staff.

At the time of the Wapping dispute there were two main print unions, the National Graphical Association (NGA) and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT).

Before and during the strike printers in Fleet Street, then the base of the national press, were vilified as “overpaid”. When made by other print workers the complaint was the frustration of underpaid workers. When made by the bosses the complaint was hypocrisy. During the post-war boom newspapers were happy to see wages rise — it was a way of putting pressure on each other as competitors.

The print unions in Fleet Street had established a degree of workers’ control. They won and maintained a “closed shop” (100% unionised labour in production areas). They were confident enough (and often displaying more political consciousness than the journalists who wrote the newspapers) to stop the newspapers in support of other workers. During the miners’ strike the Sun's printworkers successfully stopped the publication of a front page with the headline “Mine Führer” and a picture of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill ostensibly giving a Nazi salute (he was waving to someone).

Murdoch was not the first to attack the print unions. In 1983 newspaper entrepreneur Eddie Shah decided to expand from his Stockport base into Bury and Warrington, bypassing the union at his company, the NGA, and recruiting non-union labour. After NGA members walked out in Stockport they were sacked.

Solidarity (secondary) picketting organised by the NGA was declared illegal under new Tory anti-union legislation. Mass picketing followed, leading to the union being fined. NGA members in London’s Fleet Street walked out. On 29 November a mass picket was broken up by riot police.

After dithering, the TUC decided not to back the NGA and the workers were defeated. Shah made a single-union agreement with Eric Hammond of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU). The same pattern would be repeated at Wapping.

For Murdoch, borrowing heavily to expand his American business, replacing outdated technology and increasing profits in his UK Fleet Street operations was imperative. He applied deceit and cunning and it worked: the print union leaders were at best naive and at worse downright stupid.

Under capitalism, workers are always vulnerable to their labour being replaced by the introduction of more efficient machines, but it is not inevitable that they will be “thrown on the scrap heap” and will not benefit from labour-saving technology. The way to ensure that technology benefits workers is to fight for such things as a shorter working week with no loss of pay.

Murdoch’s plan from the start was to move all his titles and operations to Wapping, to derecognise the unions in the process and sack all the workers if they showed any resistance. While Wapping was being built and equipped Murdoch invented an entirely fictitious plan to produce a new paper, the London Post, at the plant (the title never materialised). In September 1985 he told the unions that he would not negotiate on terms and conditions at Wapping for his older titles until an agreement was reached on terms for the London Post.

But in September 1985 news broke (via Socialist Worker) that with the help of the EETPU in Southampton News International was recruiting scab labour to work at Wapping.

Murdoch’s terms and conditions for the fictitious London Post were provocative in the extreme: no union recognition; no “closed shop”; complete flexibility of working; new technology to be introduced at anytime followed by job cuts; the company’s right to manage.

The union leaders carried on negotiating even though it was now clear that Murdoch was out to smash the unions and employ scab labour at Wapping.

The TUC told the EETPU not to sign any single-union deal with Murdoch, but as that was after the strike had started and the scab workforce had been crossing the picket line its “insistence” was worthless! The EETPU was not expelled from the TUC until a year after the end of the strike and over another single union deal. (It is worth noting that the EETPU was never recognised at Wapping or at Murdoch’s new Scottish plant, Kinning Park in Glasgow.)

In January 1986 a ballot was held by NGA and SOGAT, returning big majorities for strike action.

On 23 January Sun journalists, bribed with £2,000 per head, voted by 100 to 8 to transfer to Wapping. Times and Sunday Times journalists would follow. If more than a handful of “refusenik” journalists had come out in solidarity things might have gone differently. Journalists eventually lost union recognition at the Murdoch press.

Lang and Dodkins describe the relationships between journalists and clerical/production workers:

“Traditionally the journalists saw the printers’ practices as an obstacle to getting their stories out and there was a great deal of jealousy because the printers were earning as much, if not more, than they were earning themselves. Their attitude of superiority… was something that many clerical workers experienced in their day to day contact with journalists.”

At 6.40pm on Friday 24 January the strike began. Twenty minutes later, as striking staff were escorted off the Fleet Street premises, they were given a letter saying “Your employment has ended, your P45 and any money due will follow shortly.”

The unions hoped that Murdoch would not be able to produce his newspapers; but that hope now seems incredibly naive. Everything was ready to roll at Wapping and the high-walled, barbed wire surrounded plant was always going to be difficult to picket. Crucially, drivers employed by TNT were used to transport printed papers, and they were told by their union the TGWU, as it faced a High Court injunction against secondary action, to cross the picket line.

Lang and Dodkins detail all aspects of the strike organisation, the strengths and the weaknesses.

On the one hand there was a strike HQ which became the base for individual activists to get involved, and encouraged total commitment.

On the other hand the rank and file had little or no control over negotiations. Whenever negotiations took place very little information got through to members. The idea of a strike committee was not discussed in SOGAT until September, was opposed by middle ranking officials, and voted against.

The far left, trade unionists and Labour Party members turned out in force for the mass Wednesday and Saturday night pickets at Wapping as well as specially organised marches during the year. Support groups were set up.

As in the 1984-85 miners’ strike — and so many other important class struggles before — the police were mobilised to break the printworkers, and they deployed all their weapons.

Riot police. Mounted police. Arbitrary arrests. Trumped up charges — Communist Party member Mick Hicks was jailed for 16 months for allegedly pushing a megaphone into the face of a cop. Truncheons wielded. Such was their overwhelming presence that the Wapping area became a mini-police state.

Residents were often denied access to their own streets and were harassed. But Wapping residents organised solidarity and protests about the police behaviour. One young man, a resident of the area, Michael Delaney was killed by a speeding TNT lorry. Despite a coroner jury’s verdict of unlawful killing no action was taken against either TNT or the lorry driver.

But the pickets were also a place for the left and labour movement to congregate and, as in any major class struggle, to discuss political ideas.

After one violent confrontation with the police in May the then leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock described those who had reacted to police action — that is, out of control rampaging by the police — as outcasts. But that was Kinnock’s standard response to any class struggle. He had done the same the same during the miners’ strike: side with the bosses, scab on the people who need to defend themselves.

In March SOGAT’s assets were sequestrated and the union was fined £25,000 for instructing its members in wholesale distribution not to handle Murdoch’s newspapers. From then on Brenda Dean focused on doing what she had to do to get back control of the funds — i.e. selling out the dispute. By April Dean and Tony Dubbins of the NGA were proposing to set up a National Joint Council at Wapping to replace union recognition for the individual unions. Later Dean offered to accept 2,000 redundancies.

In April Murdoch made the strikers a offer — via Channel Four News. “Compensation” would be paid (i.e. he had no intention of reinstating the workers). And Murdoch would also give the old Times newspaper building in Gray’s Inn Road to the labour movement… so that they could produce their own newspaper. The idea that such a “gift” might be accepted from a man who had cynically plotted and planned to throw workers on the dole and had demonstrated such hostility to the labour movement is incredible. Nonetheless SOGAT commissioned a feasibility study into the proposal!

Mass picketing at Wapping was an inconvenience, and sometimes more than that, to Murdoch. But what was really needed was escalation of the industrial action — by other print workers on other newspapers. Union members in democratic decision-making meetings called for such an escalation. But it did not happen. Instead, the union relied on a completely ineffective boycott campaign. Dean felt increasing hostility from rank and file union members.

By autumn 1986 the strike was weakening. A vote against another humiliating offer was close. As the strike weakened the union leadership garnered more and more control over the direction of the strike and limited the action outside Wapping.

In October when Murdoch sent individual “pay off”offers to strikers, the unions, slow to respond, did not stop many individuals from taking the money.

In January Brenda Dean agreed to a deal with News International. In return for “compensation” already voted against, the company would not take further action in the courts against SOGAT. The national executive called off the strike. The NGA was forced to follow. Despite Dean’s instruction to immediately cease action outside Wapping, 3,000 turned up to the final Saturday picket.

On 9 February all the print chapels met. With most present abstaining, a decision to end the strike was made.

Bad News reminds us just who Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants are, what they have always stood for. They have stood not for “uncovering the truth”, but for self-serving dishonesty. Not for making the world a better place for little children, but for using people and bringing insecurity and misery into the lives of working-class families. Not for loyalty, but for screwing the workers and, if it helps them sell newspapers, screwing the rest of the world too.

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