In 1986, Rupert Murdoch, working closely with the Thatcher government, set out to smash the print unions. Knowing how Murdoch did that is essential to understanding how he became a feared and feted establishment figure.
Murdoch began his domination of media 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). Soon after acquiring the Times/Sunday Times, Murdoch pushed through major staffing cuts and a wage freeze.
A year later Murdoch went for further redundancies among clerical staff. At that time there were two main print unions, the National Graphical Association (NGA) and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT).
Printers in Fleet Street, then the base of the national press, were vilified as “overpaid”. But 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 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 NGA at his company 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For Murdoch, borrowing heavily to expand his American business, replacing outdated technology and increasing profits in his UK Fleet Street operations was imperative. 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 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 to 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. 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: 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.
In January 1986, a ballot was held by NGA and SOGAT, returning big majorities for strike action. But 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. Journalists eventually lost union recognition at the Murdoch press.
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.”
Murdoch had everything 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.
Many activists got involved in the strike, but the rank-and-file had little or no control over negotiations. 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, the police were mobilised to break the printworkers, and they deployed all their weapons: riot police, mounted police, arbitrary arrests and trumped up charges. Such was their overwhelming presence that the Wapping area became a mini-police state. But Wapping residents organised solidarity and protests about the police behaviour. And pickets were a place for the left and labour movement to congregate and, as in any major class struggle, to discuss political ideas.
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 SOGAT leader Brenda Dean focused on doing what she had to do to get back control of the funds — i.e. selling out the dispute. 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 consumer boycott campaign. 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 1987, Brenda Dean agreed to a deal with News International. In return for some “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.
Rupert Murdoch and his ilk remain what they have always been, people who bring insecurity and misery into the lives of working-class families; they are for screwing the workers and, if it helps them sell newspapers, screwing the rest of the world too.