The Wapping dispute saw unions battle against Rupert Murdoch’s media empire for over a year in a zero sum game that would change the landscape of the print press – and industrial relations – in the UK for good. The events and their continuing relevance are examined in an exhibition commemorating 25 years since workers took to the pickets.
On 24 January 1986, 6,000 newspaper workers at Murdoch's News International (NI) – including printers, engineers, electricians, journalists and clerical staff – went on strike following stalled negotiations over a move to the newly-built Wapping plant. The response of management was to dismiss all of those involved; and so began one of the most protracted disputes in British labour industrial history, taking more than a year for the exhausted unions to finally admit defeat.
Wapping: 25 Years On challenges the mainstream account of the dispute. Delving into the long year of struggle from behind the barricades, it gives the workers' perspective through an excellent collection of photos and union publications and detailed exhibits. Most importantly it recalls events crucial to the lead-up to the confrontation that are often forgotten in the official version of events.
The trigger for the strike ballot came in November 1985, when NI offered a take-it-or-leave-it deal to the unions – SOGAT, NGA, AUEW and the NUJ – stipulating the surrender of all trade union rights while giving management unfettered power over employees.
A move to Wapping, with its new, efficient and labour-saving print technology, would have inevitably meant hundreds of redundancies. Unsurprising therefore that in public memory the dispute is primarily preserved as a clash between intransigent unions and the inexorable forces of modernisation. Yet central to the exhibition is the charge that these technological changes were used as a smokescreen for Murdoch’s real plan, which was to emasculate the workforce in order to lower costs and boost profits – an objective he would achieve by deception of the workforce.
After early negotiations had come to a standstill, NI management assured the unions that the Wapping plant would be used to produce a new newspaper, The London Post, that was in the offing. But in the meantime they secretly manned the plant by recruiting through electricians’ union EETPU. From January 1986 EETPU workers, protected by the police, would cross picket lines to ensure that not a single day’s production of the four titles – The Sun, The News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times – was lost.
The London Post never hit the newsstands. And, shortly into the dispute, the extent of the management conspiracy was revealed in a leaked letter in which NI’s lawyers advised the company to catch workers on the hoof by issuing “piles of dismissal letters at exit doors” as soon as the strike began. Murdoch's plan all along, say the organisers of the exhibition, was to move production of all the NI newspapers to Wapping – without the existing, heavily unionised workforce.
As with the miners’ strike the preceding year, the entwinement of industrial relations with politics was fully derobed at Wapping. Not only were the array of Thatcher’s anti-union laws wielded to limit pickets to six and bar other workers taking solidarity action, but protests were marked by scenes of brutal police violence as they guaranteed the passage of newspaper-laden trucks out of ‘Fortress Wapping’. In their most naked form the forces of law and order were visible in their role of defending the interests of capital against labour.
On another level the exhibition is a celebration of the courage of strikers and their families, as well as the local people and trade unionists from around the country that attended demonstrations in their droves. Images of women linked arm-in-arm and young children wrapped up against the cold serve as a reminder of the human tragedy caused by the destruction of livelihoods.
A criticism that could be fairly levelled is that it glosses over the issue of technology as well as ignoring the reputation of print workers, held by some, as greedy and abusive of their industrial power.
But for Anne Field, who was on the national executive committee of SOGAT at the time, it is a question of setting the record straight:
“This is the story of the workforce, whose account of the dispute has been written out of history. We want to give an unsanitised version of what happened from those who went on strike, their families and the local people who supported us.
“It was the employers who committed the sin and we want to try to rebalance the view of what really happened”.
The legacy of Wapping can be seen as twofold. Most memorably it was the last stand of militant organized labour in the country, ringing the death knell of the powerful trade union movement that stood as a bulwark against Thatcherite policies. Yet at the same time it ushered in an era of intimate cooperation – and arguably a closer aligning of political interests – between the press, government and police: a cosy and corruptible arrangement that would unravel with this summer’s News of the World phone hacking scandal.
Available at the exhibition is a commemorative edition of the Wapping Post – the mock red-top newspaper produced by strikers for strikers – which draws lessons of how the events of yesterday came to have a bearing on the press and politics of today.
Wapping: The Workers’ Perspective will be touring the country.
The exhibition is currently in Manchester at the People’s History Museum where it will be running daily until 18 November. Future dates and venues:
BRIGHTON: 28 November – 1 December, Unite national sector conferences
LONDON: 5-16 December, weekdays only, Unite London + Eastern regional sector conferences.
LONDON: 9-31 January 2012, Bishopsgate Institute
For more information see:
The exhibition is organised by Unite the Union/GPM Sector, National Union of Journalists, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and the Marx Memorial Library. Photo by Andrew Ward (Report).