Print workers organised a march from Glasgow to London launched on April 5th, 1986 to defend their jobs
Print workers organised a march from Glasgow to London launched on April 5th, 1986 to defend their jobs

ON Saturday, March 16, the printers and their supporters replied to this attack on their picket line with a mass picket of 7,000.

Again the police cavalry charged, injuring men and women.

The month of March also saw the other newspaper owners jump in behind Murdoch with a wave of sackings.

At the Daily Mail it was announced that 2,000 jobs were to be axed by Associated Newspapers as they prepared to move to Docklands in 1988.

Maxwell, of the Mirror Group, sacked 230 journalists at the Scottish Daily Record and, in a dispute at the same paper, took SOGAT to court seeking the sequestration of their funds, despite the fact that their funds had already been sequestrated by News International.

What was clear was that all eyes were on Murdoch and his attempt to establish the precedent for mass sackings enforced by the police and state.

Caught in the middle of the battle for Wapping were the residents in the streets surrounding Murdoch’s plant.

Sick to the back teeth of being barricaded in their homes every night by the police, suffering constant harassment at their hands, the residents of Wapping showed their overwhelming support for the printers when they turned out to march in solidarity with the fight on Friday, March 21.

Early the following Sunday morning, the police launched yet another cavalry charge against the picket line, arresting 50 people including Tony Dubbins.

On April 5th 1986 the printers took their struggle nationwide when they launched the Printers March for jobs from Glasgow to London.

In a massive display of support 20,000 people marched on April 7th from Trafalgar Square to Wapping.

Norman Willis for the TUC spoke and gave support to the offer that Murdoch had circulated.

This ‘offer’ amounted to a £15 million sum for redundancy payments and the use of an old rundown Sunday Times plant in the Grays Inn Road which he offered to Kinnock for the production of a ‘labour movement newspaper’.

Willis insisted this was a ‘serious offer’ and negotiations had to be continued.

Tony Dubbins rejected this offer stating: ‘This dispute has nothing to do with technology but with 6,000 jobs going.’

In April, Murdoch delivered an ultimatum to the print unions; they had until May 7th to accept his ‘offer’ to end the dispute – offering £15 million and that he would also permit use of the white elephant building no-one wanted in the Greys Inn Road.

To put this offer in perspective, the money represented less than 20% of the total money negotiated by the unions to sell jobs at the Mail and Express newspapers.

It was a pittance compared to what they were owed.

The fact remains, though, that this acceptance of redundancies at these papers only encouraged Murdoch in making his insulting offer.

Fearing a weakening of the unions’ stance in the light of rumours that they were considering purging their contempt of the High Court over the blacking of News International, striking print workers lobbied the meeting of the SOGAT executive on April 20 demanding that the leadership remain firm and continue not to recognise or co-operate with the Tory courts.

The SOGAT executive issued a statement following their meeting which said that there were no immediate plans to purge the contempt.

A mass demonstration was called by the striking printers for May 3rd – designated as ‘Stop Wapping’ day, to greet the printers’ march for jobs arriving in London.

This demonstration was met with some of the fiercest and most barbaric attacks launched by the riot police against workers.

For two hours the police repeatedly charged into the crowds.

The mounted police launched an ambush on the demo and went on a rampage of indiscriminate violence.

86 demonstrators were arrested.

On May 6th, 300 striking printers lobbied a meeting of SOGAT branch officials called to discuss the issue of purging the contempt.

Despite this demand for the union leadership to remain as steadfast as the strikers, the SOGAT executive decided to go ahead and purge their contempt, claiming that they were only doing it to get back the £17 million union fund in order to carry on the fight against Murdoch.

Even if the SOGAT executive truly believed this, they were totally wrong.

Strikes are not won by having enough money to pay a bit of strike pay – strike pay is not and never has been the issue, the real question is whether a union has the strategy to win.

The only viable strategy for winning,  as many striking printers had quickly realised, was to force the leadership of the trade union movement to get up off their backsides and put all the fine rhetoric of support for the printers into action – to call the entire movement out in support and close down Murdoch.

Purging contempt – which in no way guaranteed that the money would be returned – represented a capitulation to the courts, the government and Murdoch.

It also strengthened the right-wing of the TUC who were desperate to end all opposition to the Tory anti-union laws and wanted the printers’ strike sold out as soon as possible.

On May 8th, the SOGAT executive apologised to the High Court and produced letters sent by them to the Wholesale Branch of SOGAT instructing them to cease the blacking of News International titles.

The London Wholesale Branch of SOGAT declared its total opposition to this purging of contempt.

Within 24 hours of the court hearing, SOGAT leaders met with police representatives to discuss scaling down picketing and the police demand that they become ‘law-abiding’ peaceful affairs.

All this after a weekend in which the police had rioted as never before.

On May 28, the SOGAT executive put Murdoch’s ‘offer’ to its 4,500 sacked members in a secret ballot but without any formal recommendation for or against, although Brenda Dean made it known that she was in favour of the offer.

The anger on the picket line at Wapping to this retreat by the SOGAT leadership was intense: a 2,000-strong mass meeting unanimously called for a massive NO vote.

This was duly delivered.

The result of the SOGAT secret ballot was 2,081 against the offer to 1,415 in favour.

A mass meeting of NGA members recorded 648 against to 165 for.

And in the AEU it was 112 to 56.

All pledged to carry on the fight and the picket.

Despite this rebuff, Willis and the right-wing of the TUC were encouraged by the weakness shown by Dean, and a majority of the SOGAT executive, and they relentlessly pursued talks with Hammond and Murdoch, seeking ways of undermining and breaking the printers.

Back in the courts, on July 31 the High Court issued a ban on static pickets outside the Wapping plant.

After a month-long hearing Mr Justice Stuart-Smith said he saw ‘no reason why employees should be harassed, abused and insulted to and from work’.

He added that the word ‘scab’ was unlawful.

He refused an outright ban on demonstrations but only as long as they were approved by the police!

Under his judgement it was now possible for anyone to seek a contempt of court order against a picket by alleging that the picket was acting on behalf of a union to ‘incite’ nuisance or intimidation.

The NGA submitted a motion to the coming annual congress of the TUC held in September.

The motion did not call for the expulsion of the EETPU, instead it called on the general council to tell the EETPU to instruct its members to stop scabbing.

A move by the NGA to call for the expulsion of the EETPU had been ruled out of order by the TUC general purposes committee.

At the TUC conference in Brighton, over 1,000 printers lobbied for support, and the conference overturned the general council decision and instructed it to support action against the EETPU.

Later, on November 26, the general council would vote by 24 to 21 to ignore this instruction and not to proceed against Hammond’s union.

On September 18, Brenda Dean, on behalf of the SOGAT executive, called for a new vote on Murdoch’s offer, this time with a recommendation for acceptance, but this was defeated by an even bigger majority than before.

The striking printers called for a big turn-out for New Year’s eve and a mass picket was held at which the police, as usual, launched unprovoked attacks on a peaceful crowd.

This also marked the introduction of a new Public Order Act which made demonstrations without prior notice to the police illegal.

But it was not the law or the courts or the brutality of the police that led to the wind down and eventual grudging acceptance by the print workers that the dispute was over.

They were quite literally starved and physically beaten, jailed and persecuted, but in the end it was the weakness of leaders like Dean and the isolation by the treachery of the TUC right-wing, along with the unspeakable class treachery of the EETPU, that led to the strike being wound up on February 15, 1987, a full year after it had started.

Even at the end, two thirds of the strikers still refused to accept the pittance Murdoch offered, preferring to stand on their principles and refusing to bend the knee to Murdoch and Thatcher.

At the September 1988 TUC conference, the stench of the betrayal was so great, it resulted in the expulsion of the EETPU from the TUC for breaching the Bridlington Agreement.

Everybody, however, was well aware that behind the expulsion was the role that the Hammond-led union had played as Murdoch’s scab force that kept the machines working.

The TUC unions could no longer live along with it.

The printers’ strike was a heroic struggle in which the working class displayed all of the courage and determination necessary to break an employer and win, that had so impressed Frederick Engels in 1844.

However, the printers were fighting not just the employer, but the government and the state forces of the entire ruling class.

This struggle exceeded even the miners’ strike in terms of arrests – at the end of the strike 1,370 pickets had been arrested with 1,058 convicted of various offences.

One picket, Michael Delaney, was killed when he was struck by a scab TNT lorry outside Wapping.

The printers took the trade union struggle to the very limits and beyond but, as the News Line warned, when faced with the fully mobilised, repressive capitalist state, the traditional trade union methods of the mass picket are not enough: what is required is a strategy of mobilising the entire working class in a political struggle to smash the capitalist state – a struggle for power.

But for that to be waged, there has to be a revolutionary leadership.

Today, 25 years on from this epic struggle, we can best celebrate the heroism of the print workers by learning the lessons of that strike.

The coalition government is being forced by the economic crisis of capitalism to take on the entire trade union movement and the entire working class, to smash all of the gains of the working class contained in the Welfare State.

It is being spelt out that you cannot have a welfare state and full employment under crisis-ridden capitalism.

What is required, above all, is a new revolutionary leadership within the unions to organise a general strike and a socialist revolution to bring down the coalition and replace bankrupt capitalism with a workers government and a socialist planned economy.

The blind spot of the working class is the empirical outlook that was handed down to it by the British ruling class. it was the first capitalist class to rule, and had the world as its oyster for almost the entire 19th century.

It was able to improvise solutions to its problems as they arose.

The working class inherited this outlook, and considered that its courage and determination would see it through as it reacted to events.

Without courage and determination (without ‘Ironsides’ as Trotsky put it) nothing can be done, but these qualities do need to be guided by the revolutionary outlook and philosophy of Marxism, to develop the tactics and strategy to take the working class to the conquest of state power.

The main lesson of the printers’ struggle for today is the need to build and develop the leadership of the revolutionary party, the WRP, throughout the working class, the trade unions and the youth, in order to mobilise the working class for its strategic victory, the carrying through of the successful British socialist revolution.