Print Subversion in the Wapping Dispute

Warrington 1983

November 1983 a mass picket of four thousand confronts a militarised police operation in Warrington

In November 1983 a mass picket by over four thousand National Graphical Association (NGA) union members of a printing complex near Warrington owned by news businessman Eddy Shah confronted a militarised police operation including riot-trained squads in. The background to this short-lived dispute, which routed the NGA union, was to have an enormous significance for the print industry as a whole over the next decade. Businessman Eddie Shah had begun acquiring print workshops serving the freesheet and local newspaper industry in the North of England in the early 1980s. An initial minor dispute with the NGA union began in his typesetting business Fineward in Stockport. Shah broke the NGA's closed shop agreement, but because he was planning to open a bigger works in Warrington, and they had many unemployed members in the area, the NGA only moved softly initially . By July it became clear that Shah was determined to install a mixture of union and non-union employees at his Warrington plant as well as at his other printing plants at Bury, Stockport and Carlisle. The NGA declared an industrial dispute from July, but Shah quickly called on legislation newly introduced by Thatcher's administration, the 1980 and 1982 employment laws, to prevent any secondary picketing. While the NGA explored a mixed strategy of direct picketing, legal manouvres and using their connections in other parts of the industry and the union movement to bring pressure on Shah, the striking workers were largely left to their own devices. After the first successful mass picket in November at Warrington, Shah called in his legal rights began to operate his printworks under siege conditions. Subsequent mass pickets (now involving substantial support from students), print union members from Fleet Street and other leftists were faced with paramilitary police tactics. The NGA were also faced with a legal fine threatening sequestration of funds for £50,000.

In their coverage of the UK miners' strike and other struggles of the early-mid-1980s, Workers Playtime (WP) frequently referred to the example of newspaper boss Eddy Shah (frequently spelt Eddie Shah), owner of the Warrington Messenger, Stockport Messenger and later several other newspapers. Shah had launched an aggressive assault on his workers and their trade union, the National Graphical Association, at a Warrington printworks he owned in 1983. WP tried to draw attention to the ways even powerful unions and militant pickets were being forced to stand down in the face of a new combination of both violent policing (tested in Northern Ireland), legal pressure and strong political support from Thatcher's government. It was this combination which was also to defeat the miners in 1984-85, and then brought to bear on the printers again in 1986.

Printers Playtime is a collection of all the articles in WP relating to the print industry published in 1987 by Dark Star and Phoenix Press (immediately after the end of the Wapping Print Dispute). The back cover image for Printers Playtime indicates the locations of the picket lines at Eddie Shah's Stockport Messenger plant, referring to the dispute which foreshadowed Wapping. From WP and, later, Picket's perspective the combination of a lockout defended by police acting like capital's private army at Wapping was no surprise. There were numerous events which indicated the techniques which would be used to break the printworkers' and their unions' power. Over the years leading up to the Wapping Dispute there had been numerous print-related strikes and workers grievances, News International negotiated, or rather made a pretense of negotiations with workers for nearly 15 months leading up to the strike. The question remains, why didn't the unions better prepare themselves?

Shah and Murdoch's tactics were quickly reproduced elsewhere, tearing through the print industry up and down the UK. 'Wapping Comes to the Midlands!' declared an article published in Counter Information No.14, May-June 1987. The accompanying documents show printworkers' efforts to counter assaults on their jobs responding to the playbook established at Warrington and Wapping. In an attempt to outflank their impending redundancy in 1987 one group of former Trader workers set up an alternative newspaper called Nottingham News with the City council's backing.