Print Subversion in the Wapping Dispute

On 24th January 1986, nearly 6000 newpaper workers – including printers, engineers, electricians, journalists, cleaners and clerical staff – at the The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, papers which were part of Rupert Murdoch's rapidly growing News International media empire, went on strike.

The strike followed years of difficult negotiations between News International management and the print unions (Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU), National Graphical Association (NGA) and Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) and National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Initially Murdoch negotiated with EETPU for their members to establish the computers and machinery in the Wapping plant, but quickly this led to an initially secret agreement to also provide staff for Wapping and Kinning Park (where the northern edition of the Sun was produced). The News International workers most directly effected by Murdoch's trickery and lockout were members of the NGA and SOGAT. However, solidarity action to support the printers and anticipation that the Murdoch's tactics would swiftly spread to other firms in the printing industry. Nonetheless the Trades Union Congress (TUC) completely failed to step in to prevent the EETPU undermining other print workers and their unions. Murdoch's move to Wapping split the union movement irrevocably.

It soon became clear that Murdoch had effectively induced the strike as an expedient way to break the print unions' control of the industry, especially the closed shop rules which governed all Fleet Street papers. Under the ruse of creating a new daily paper, the London Post, Murdoch moved all operations of his main papers: The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World to Wapping, where these would be produced by non-union staff. Murdoch didn't just sack the printers, but drivers, electricians, compositors, and the few journalists and other workers. He created a parallel workplace with much harsher conditions, then sacked those who refused the move. While Murdoch swiftly instituted computerisation at Wapping (introducing VDUs for composition of news copy), arguably the more significant technological innovation was the way he ceased using the rail distribution network shared with other papers and instead used his own private distribution using TNT vans. Since News International staff were sacked without redundancy pay, their central negotiating tactic to either gain severance or get their jobs back meant trying to ensure the new Wapping plant couldn't operate, with a second priority to try to encourage the rest of Fleet Street out on strike in the knowledge that success for Murdoch's tactics would mean their jobs would be next.

From the start there were schisms and confusion between the union representatives and their sacked members. Print workers and former News International staff immediately began picketing the Wapping plant (and the other supporting infrastructure of Murdoch's newly configured print production and distribution network). There on the picket lines they met other unionists involved in the print trade as well as anarchists, left-communists, feminists and local residents. This combination produced an extraordinary range of new tactics shaping a new form of strike and a new intensity of picketing. The pickets and their supporters used the skills of the trade to shape print into a flexible weapon for the struggle and its communication to a wider public. The publications reflect the humour, scorn and defiance directed towards not only Murdoch, but also his accomplices, the police, scabs and union leadership. The Wapping Dispute raises difficult questions about the defeat of the workers movement, the imbrication of gender and class composition, the failure of the unions, the urgency of community self-defense in the face of violent policing and the entwinement class struggle and print culture.

The materials in this exhibition explore the ways in which printworkers sacked from Rupert Murdoch's News International papers reflect the holdings at MayDay Rooms and do not pretend to be a comprehensive display of materials from the dispute. Featured publications include: The Scum, the Wapping Post, Workers Playtime, London Workers Group Bulletin, Picket Bulletin, Class War, Paper Boys and other publications made by angry print workers and their supporters.

Special thanks to Roger Evans and Siôn Whellens for their generosity in terms of sharing materials and the stories behind them, the Angry Workers for connecting us with Roger and Siôn, Mark and everyone else at Spectacle for their generosity with sharing footage and background information, Sacha Kahir for his company and help with the interview and Georgia Anderson for their well-timed contribution to cutting the audio.

You can find our entire collection around the Wapping Dispute here.

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