Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
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).
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe