I have vague memories of travelling in the back of my best mate’s Dad’s car as a child and seeing a sticker in the windscreen that said “Don’t buy; The Sun, The News of the World, The Times, The Sunday Times”. I also recollect, at some point in time, my best mate telling me that his Dad was a Printer. I can still see the sticker and I can still hear my best mate. Many years later I put two and two together and concluded that he must have been involved The Wapping Dispute, also known as The Printer’s Strike.
In January 1986, some 5,500 workers employed by newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s, News International, were sacked. The industrial dispute that followed was to last 13 months and ultimately, in the face of Murdoch’s ruthlessness, Thatcher’s union-busting, police brutality, betrayal by the EETPU and poor leadership of the striking unions, was a failure. However, this doesn’t detract from the bravery and determination of those who committed themselves to the cause, this is the account of my pal, who I’m proud to say was one of them.
At the start of the dispute on 26thJanuary 1986, my first thoughts were confused. Not at the reality of the situation (as I emptied my locker for the last time as we were leaving Bouverie Street) but where do we go from here? I have a wife, three kids and a mortgage.
The reality of it all became only too obvious after a very short while. The picketing started in earnest almost immediately and the first of many Saturday nights spent at Wapping in the freezing cold.
Although picket rotas were drawn up, I found myself attending Wapping several times a week. My lovely wife Sandie was 100% behind me as she knew that I was better off in the company of others in the same situation and similar state of mind. We used to go on marches and even took Zoe, Scott and Ian with us, not that they probably remember, but there were lots of families all trying to support each other.
Although I appreciate a certain degree of policing is necessary on such highly charged occasions, but my understanding of policing was one where the police were in attendance only to police and not to stand in judgement or take sides as they did (and of course we now know the reason for that as shown quite recently with the lovely Mr Murdoch who was hand in glove with the then Government). We suffered remarks from the police such as “I went to the Caribbean last year on the overtime money paid during the miners dispute, wonder where we will be going this year? That brings me to another point that Thatcher supposedly said “I broke the miners, it’s now the printers turn”.
The police would try to infiltrate the picketers, befriending anyone prepared to talk to them, they would try to gain information, we considered the police to be of close resemblance to retrained Millwall supporters, they definitely were not impartial. They used to sit in transit vans chanting and psyching themselves up. The chants were actually quite haunting, they would then leave the vans dressed in all their black regalia and holding shields and batons, they would come towards us brandishing the batons, again very scary especially for the women that were with us, Sandie being one of them. Police forces took it in turns to police the situation. The Metropolitan being the worse.
The TUC were totally inadequate at dealing with the renegade EEPTU (Electricians Union and it’s leader Eric Hammond) the union who engaged scab workers, to produce the Murdoch titles, The Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times. The journalists were just two-faced bits of Shit. Up until an hour before the end they were talking and joking with us, at that point we were still engaged in the production of that night’s edition of the Sun. I understand their fear of losing their jobs due to a workforce of scab Australians (no offence) were in a Tower Bridge Hotel awaiting a possible call from Murdoch to say they were needed.
It really was a terrible situation when I used to be told, usually in pubs, by drunken idiots that Printers were earning too much money anyway, my response would always be that I thought everyone deserved to earn a good wage. We used to work really hard due to the deadline factor, and don’t forget our hours were really unsociable too.
To finish off I do not try to defend all the working practices that went on in Fleet Street, but what I will defend is myself and my fellow time hands. We were very proud of our skills and ability to produce a newspaper night after night, after all we had all done at least a 4 year apprenticeship to get to where we were.
If the adage that history has a habit of repeating itself, then this is surely proven by the Murdoch Empire being embroiled in the phone hacking scandal. Again, a dishonourable and cowardly attitude but with no Tory party to hide behind or gain solace from this time.
Anyway Pat, could tell you lots more, but I really don’t want to remember all the really horrible bits that went on over the entire time of the dispute.
Needless to say on Murdoch’s expiry date, there will be an awful lot of celebrating by an awful lot of ex printers!!
For more reading on The Wapping Dispute, check out these books;