25 YEARS SINCE THE PRINTERS’ STRIKE – Part 1: Eddie Shah, the Miners Strike and News International struggle

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Sacked print workers marched down Fleet Street showing their determination not to be beaten by Murdoch
Sacked print workers marched down Fleet Street showing their determination not to be beaten by Murdoch

‘THAT courage is required for a turnout, often indeed much loftier courage, much bolder, firmer determination than for an insurrection, is self-evident.’

‘It is, in truth, no trifle for a working-man who knows want from experience, to face it with wife and children, to endure hunger and wretchedness for months together, and stand firm and unshaken through it all . . .

‘And precisely in this quiet perseverance, in this lasting determination which undergoes a hundred tests every day, the English working-man develops that side of his character which commands most respect.

‘People who endure so much to bend one single bourgeois will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie.’ (Frederick Engels: Conditions of the Working Class in England)

Engels, writing in 1844 at the very formation of the first trade union movement in the world, would undoubtedly have seen in the strikes by the miners and print workers in the 1980s a strong confirmation of his analysis of the working class.

Both these year-long strikes demonstrated the determination and stubborn refusal of the working class to passively sit back and see its hard won rights and conditions destroyed.

In the course of these strikes the miners and printers faced not just an avaricious employer but the full weight of the capitalist state, mobilised against them by a Tory government determined to completely smash the trade union movement in Britain once and for all.

But for all its use of the whole panoply of state powers from the police to the law courts and even the Ministry of Defence, the capitalist state on its own could not take on the printers or the miners.

In fact, it relied on the treachery of the TUC leaders and, in the case of the print workers, the active connivance of the engineering union the EETPU and its right-wing leader, Eric Hammond.

Although the actual sacking of 6,000 print workers by Rupert Murdoch’s News International Group took place on Friday, January 24 1986, the origins of the dispute go back several years before and started not on Fleet Street, the home of the newspaper industry, but in the provincial newspapers around Warrington.

Warrington was the home of the Messenger Group of provincial newspapers owned by Eddie Shah.

Shah was a friend and great admirer of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

His plan was to introduce the new computer technology into the printing of his papers.

With this technology – later to be called desk top publishing – Shah intended to increase his titles and even launch a new national daily paper.

All this would be achieved through massive cost cutting by doing away with skilled members of the National Graphical Association (NGA) and allowing non-union labour to directly input onto computers.

Shah’s attempt to break the NGA’s closed shop and operate with scab labour provoked a dispute at Warrington that in many ways set the pattern for not just the Wapping fight but the miners’ strike of 1985 – 86.

Shah’s operation in Warrington was subject to a mass picket, while the NGA blacked all the titles published by his group.

The police responded with violent attacks on the picket, while at the same time introducing the tactic of blocking motorway exits off the M6 to prevent pickets reaching the plant.

Shah himself achieved a certain degree of notoriety for being the first employer to use the new Tory anti-union legislation.

He secured an injunction against the NGA under the 1980 Employment Act against secondary action and a further one under the 1982 act which outlawed the closed shop.

The Tory courts fined the NGA an initial £50,000 followed by a further £100,000 and topped off with a £250,000 fine after the NGA refused to co-operate with the courts or pay the fines.

Eventually in November 1983 the court ordered that the entire funds of the NGA be sequestered, that is seized, for non-compliance.

In refusing to co-operate with the courts and accept the Tory anti-union legislation the NGA was following TUC policy as established at its annual congress in 1982 and re-affirmed in 1983.

The NGA naturally turned to the TUC for support in its upholding of the policy of non-co-operation.

Instead of support the TUC general secretary at the time, Len Murray, with the backing of the TUC general council, repudiated the NGA and effectively left them isolated in their battle against Shah and the law courts.

Murray retired in September 1984. He had been a Privy Council member for years and was rewarded on retirement becoming Baron Murray of Epping Forest.

The TUC general council under Norman Willis, went on to play an equally treacherous role during the miners’ strike with secret meetings with Thatcher to isolate and sell-out that struggle.

The precedent was clearly set at Warrington and it would be repeated again at Wapping.

Shah went on to found his daily rag, ‘Today’, in 1986.

It lasted just months until taken over by Rupert Murdoch’s News International organisation in 1987 after which it sank without a trace.

In June 1985 during the battle with Shah in Warrington, the News Line warned in an editorial that there was more at stake in this fight than the introduction of new technology, more even than thousands of jobs on Fleet Street, but that the entire ‘future of the print unions is at stake’. (News Line editorial June 18 1985)

We warned that ‘plans for a major battle on Fleet Street are already well laid’   with all the major papers having started or completed ‘fortified premises in Dockland’.

The following month the News Line reported, under the headline ‘Print Bosses Plan All Out War’ that secret talks aimed at setting up a one-union, no-strike deal had taken place between Shah and the EETPU leadership, and that talks between them and Murdoch aimed at a similar agreement had also taken place.

We further reported that the previous year all Fleet Street proprietors had been invited to EETPU headquarters for ‘entertainment’.

On July 27 1985 the editorial in the News Line called for the first time for the EETPU to be expelled from the TUC not only for signing a no strike deal with Shah but because the EETPU ‘also forms a pivot of Tory plans to develop a network of “moderate”, i.e. scab, unions to smash trade unions. Hard won pay rates, conditions and manning levels established over two hundred years will no longer apply. Instead new technology will be introduced solely to boost the employers’ profits.’

The cover story used by Murdoch to explain the development of the Wapping site was that it was needed to produce a new London evening paper, the London Post.

Tony Dubbins, leader of the NGA, said of this:

‘The whole London Post project was nothing but a sham. What was really intended was that Murdoch would be transferring all of his existing titles down to Wapping and doing that in such a way that he tried to dismiss the existing workforce without meeting their entitlements.’

Dubbins remarks were backed up days later when a letter was leaked containing legal advice to News International that they would not need to pay £10 million redundancy money if their employees were sacked whilst taking industrial action.

Murdoch put his plan finally into operation on Saturday, January 18 1986 when he staged the provocation of printing the Sunday Times supplement at Wapping using scab labour.

The following Friday this provocation led to a walkout by 6,000 print workers, members of the NGA and SOGAT ’82; all were immediately dismissed without compensation and the battle between the print unions and News International was joined in earnest.

Murdoch quickly followed up on his lock-out of SOGAT, NGA and a small number of AEU union members with a full-on attack through the law courts.

The Monday following the sackings, Murdoch went to court and secured  a writ against SOGAT instructing them to stop attempts to halt distribution of the Times and Sunday Times – SOGAT members in distribution had blacked these items.

The next day he was back in court obtaining a writ to stop the NGA from blacking the Times Literary, Educational and Higher Educational, Supplements.

The very next day Murdoch’s lawyers were back in court working even harder.

On this Wednesday they obtained a writ against the TGWU for ordering their members not to cross the print workers picket line.

They then obtained two writs against the NGA and SOGAT alleging ‘unlawful picketing’ of TNT drivers.

TNT was the Australian transport company part-owned by Murdoch.

This anti-union outfit had been recruited by Murdoch to circumvent the normal distribution channels of road and rail, each of which were heavily unionised and quite liable to close down News International by blacking transportation of its titles.

In addition Murdoch was making a claim that under the Tory anti-union laws it was illegal for printers to picket outside Wapping as they had never been employed there and this constituted ‘secondary picketing’. The printers, he maintained could only picket outside the empty premises on Fleet Street.

At the beginning of February 1986 the main print union, SOGAT ’82, was hauled before the courts charged with breaking the anti-union legislation.

In accordance with TUC policy SOGAT refused to attend and their entire fund of £17 million was seized and a fine of £25,000 awarded against them.

The Judge presiding said that the union ‘must be brought to heel’ for blacking News International titles. He also claimed that the court was ‘impartial’ in the dispute!

l Continued tomorrow