Issue 194 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
'For newspapermen, this isn't 1996 AD, it's 10 SW (Since Wapping).' Former Sun editor David Banks, writing in The Guardian last month, doubtless sets down his historical marker with more than a hint of self satisfaction as he recalls the defeat of the print unions by Rupert Murdoch's News International.
For tens of thousands of trade unionists up and down the country, however, the memory of Wapping is still an open wound, an industrial watershed that was to be followed by attacks on all groups of workers, in and out of the print.
Yet in those ten years a number of myths have grown up around the dispute.
The first is that Wapping was a clash between progressive press barons and Luddite workers, resistant to any change in the industry. Yet Murdoch's prime goal was always to bring to heel a set of workers whose well known militancy was a serious obstacle to his empire building.
A relatively small player, Warrington newspaper boss Eddie Shah had in 1983 dared to do what bigger owners hadn't--take on the printers by bringing in new technology on his terms. Murdoch wanted to follow this lead by moving production of the News of the World, The Times, The Sun and The Sunday Times to a new site in east London on terms he knew the two main print unions, the NGA and Sogat, would not accept.
The second myth is that somehow the outcome was inevitable. History has made an invincible figure of Murdoch--yet he was taking a huge risk and he and his simpering coterie of editors knew it. Recalling the start of operation Wapping, Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil admits, 'It was a massive undertaking fraught with difficulty and danger.' He only half jokingly told how he mentally prepared himself for evacuation from the fortress by helicopter should the pickets storm the plant.
Neil and Murdoch had every reason to be fearful of the NGA and Sogat, two unions with an awe inspiring tradition of militancy. It was, after all, Sun workers who struck in support of the miners in 1984, and in 1985 alone some 95 million papers never hit the streets because of print disputes. Said Neil: 'I used to spend early Saturday evenings wondering if I'd have a paper next day.'
Not only was the industrial muscle there, but strategically the unions were onto a winner. Unlike coal, newspapers could not be stockpiled. The unions only had to stop one day's production and Murdoch was in deep trouble. His money spinning titles produced at Wapping accounted for a large part of his international profits.
It was a gamble on both sides, where the print unions held the best cards--and lost. Why? Because quite simply they failed to play their ace--the members themselves.
The bosses knew that the NGA and Sogat had the power to halt every magazine, periodical and newspaper in the country if only they were willing to say the word.
Calling out Fleet Street, and going for mass pickets to halt the TNT delivery trucks leaving the plant, was a sure way of scuppering Murdoch from the word go. The union leaders were never going to do it, not from some perverse desire to see their members crushed, but because they preferred to woo public opinion rather than defy the anti-union laws. It was a strategy born of 'new realism', accommodating to the idea that fighting can't win. And the union leaders pounced on the defeat of the NUM in 1985 as proof that mass action was futile.
So, in the face of the biggest attack on unions since the miners' strike, not only did the leadership fail to call out Fleet Street, but the NGA did not even tell its members to stop setting ads destined for Murdoch papers. Brenda Dean, general secretary of Sogat, wanted to present a 'reasonable case'. While the union leaders doubted their ability to mobilise their members against the Tory laws, Murdoch was never in any doubt he could mobilise the full might of the state--complete with riot shields and horses--to fight his battle.
But how could the leadership get away with so cowardly a response? Here the structure of the print unions played a vital role. Strong demarcation in the chapels (workplace union branches) meant that an edition could be stopped without having to seek support from other sections. In small sectional disputes this served its purpose. In larger disputes the absence of joint shop stewards' committees, the lack of a mechanism to spread the action, could prove disastrous. And it led to a reliance on the official union structureone that was unwilling to take on the Tory laws.
Ordinary print workers were more than willing to defy the legislation, but were continually stamped on by the bureaucracy. Even when Shah declared war on the union's members, Fleet Street printers who struck for 24 hours in solidarity were ordered back by an NGA leadership running scared of the law after being refused support by the TUC.
During the Wapping dispute itself, Mirror workers who refused to print extra copies of Maxwell's paper because of solidarity with their brothers at The Sun were told to go back to work and were even threatened with expulsion from the union.
Rather than use the two tactics that could win--a general Fleet Street strike and mass picketing--the print leaders adopted a twin strategy that would be laughable had it not had such severe consequences. It relied on the TUC to 'do something' about the EETPU electricians' union's scabbing operation and waited for Murdoch to be brought to his knees by the increased competition resulting from the dispute.
The bureaucracy truly believed that the printing of extra papers by Murdoch's press rivals would do more damage to News International (whose editions were being held up if not stopped) than an all out strike against all national titles.
It would have made far more sense to call out all of Fleet Street with a double aim: that of making Murdoch's rivals lean on him to end the dispute, and to stop in their tracks the press barons who held up their hands in horror at ruthless Rupert, only to follow in his footsteps once he'd done the dirty work for them.
In short the unions had realised a crucial point--that the bosses don't stick together--but drawn the wrong conclusion. None of this was helped by Brenda Dean, a power dresser who reeked of new realism and believed her union had to compromise to survive. Alarmed at the fall in print union membership in America, she concluded, 'I believe we are going to have to be much more responsive, adaptable, audacious if you like, in coming to terms with change. Let's face it, dragging our feet, resisting all the way, has not exactly been a roaring success.' In practice this meant coming to deals with the bosses that defended union recognition at any price.
So she signed away 2,000 jobs at the Mirror in November 1985. It also meant condoning the crossing of NGA picket lines in provincial newspapers and Fleet Street disputes, and devoting almost the entire Sogat Journal in July 1985 to attacking the NGA at a time when both unions were being targeted by vicious bosses.
In order to, as she saw it, appease public opinion, she was to blame 'outside elements' rather than the police for the violence on the Wapping picket line.
That she managed to keep control of the dispute was thanks largely to the political weakness of the London union officials. They knew that while in theory Dean might agree to mass picketing, as soon as Murdoch threatened an injunction against the union--as indeed he did--she would bow before the law. Yet despite their left wing stance, not once did these officials challenge her and argue for rank and file independence. They tail ended her new realism, with disastrous results.
The ten years since Wapping have seen thousands of printers replaced by computer skilled journalists who have in turn been sacked to make way for younger, cheaper labour. Fixed term contracts and casual working on very low rates are increasingly common and bosses' disregard for basic health and safety measures like adjustable chairs and screen breaks has led to widespread cases of crippling RSI. Far from the promised 'freeing up' of the media--which envisaged a plethora of new titles thanks to new technology and the death of the union 'dinosaur'--of the numerous new titles that tried to enter the cut throat industry, only the Independent has survived.
Yet the media unions are far from finished. On the contrary we have perhaps one of the best opportunities since Wapping to claw back what was lost--and more. Most obviously, the political context could not be more different. Far from the confident regime of 1986 we have a tattered government that spends half the time tearing itself apart and the other making U-turns on 'flagship' policies. And unions are recovering their strength, albeit slowly and sporadically. The brave strike by women caterers at Hillingdon Hospital, the Liverpool dock dispute, the large numbers of postal strikes, are all small but important signs of a recovery of rank and file confidence.
Even in the media, where the journalists' union has suffered widespread derecognition, bosses are backing down at the first sign of confrontation. The Guardian, initially determined last summer to increase the four day week, significantly backed off after a mere mandatory meeting by journalists; bosses at ITN gave workers an unprecedented £500 Christmas bonus after two mass meetings over profit related pay (a strike is in the offing); even at Eastern Counties Newspapers (where the NUJ is not recognised) management withdrew a proposal to take away extra bank holiday pay after a campaign, including a demonstration by its workforce.
In the print unions themselves, organisation has by no means been dealt a fatal blow. In 1993 the GPMU launched a national pay campaign which saw over 60 percent of workplaces giving in to the union's demands over pay and extra holiday.
All of this demolishes the final myth about Wapping, that unions, especially in the print, have been left powerless. It is quite the opposite. The great irony of Wapping is that new technology has given us more power than ever before. The concentration of skills into fewer hands means we have more negotiating leverage at our fingertips. It is not just the journalists (who have in many cases replaced printers) but printers themselves who still hold hold massive industrial power. Increasingly complex digital technology means that jobs like press minding are as highly skilled as they were 20 to 30 years ago. If these sections stopped work, production would simply grind to a halt.
But we need to organise to use this potential power to make sure the outrage of Wapping--and its legacy of appalling wages and conditions--never happens again. In the first instance it means rebuilding our ranks through recruitment, and small initiatives like bulletins to build links across chapels and reinforce confidence with examples of victories, no matter how small. And all of this should be with an aim to securing strong rank and file organisation that works with the union leadership when it is fighting, but is not afraid to part company when the officials run scared of the law.
Murdoch sycophant Andrew Neil said in The Guardian recently that their task in 1986 was to change the 'conventional wisdom' that the print unions were invincible. Now it is the task of socialists and trade union activists to change the conventional wisdom that we can do nothing to stop the attacks.