revolutionary reflections | You can’t stop Wapping by marching past it: An Interview with Sherrl Yanowitz

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Sherrl Yanowitz, who sadly died in June last year – Obituary Sherrl Yanowitz 1942-2016 – played an active role in the dispute at Wapping in 1986-87 when workers fought against Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to smash the print unions. As part of a research project, rs21 interviewed Sherrl a few months before she died about her involvement in the strike and the reasons for its defeat. Here we publish extracts of Sherrl’s account of the dispute as a tribute to Sherrl’s contribution to the working class movement.

Background on the Wapping Dispute

The Wapping Dispute took place in 1986 lasted 54 weeks. Alongside the Miners’ Strike of 1984 it was one of the longest and bitterest disputes in post-war British history. The action was launched by newspaper printers in London, in response to Rupert Murdoch (proprietor of News International) proposed changes to production that would result in 90 percent of typesetters being laid-off.  On 24 January 1986 6,000 members at Murdoch’s papers went on strike. Meanwhile News International had secretly built a new printing plant in Wapping, East London, away from Fleet Street where the newspaper trade had its centre. From Wapping Murdoch continued producing newspapers which resulted in mass pickets and attempts to block scab deliveries of newspapers. Despite thousands on pickets (and over a thousand arrests) Murdoch won the dispute, and victory led to the running down of Fleet Street and the computerisation of newspaper production.

Through her interview Sherrl relied made reference to the following history of the dispute: Lang, John and Graham Dodkins. Bad News: The Wapping Dispute (Spokesman Books, 2011).

rs21: Can you begin by saying something about the background to the dispute and your involvement in it, including your involvement in the newspaper industry?

The best place to start is by saying something about ‘before Wapping’. I had been working in the print industry for eight years, more or less. I felt that I’d done an apprenticeship even though I hadn’t. When I returned from a holiday in 1981, I convinced the Manpower Services Commission to give me a bursary to do a full Pitman’s Secretarial Course because I couldn’t get any work even though I had a History degree. Before that I had been doing these terrible jobs on Fleet Street like opening letters for the Daily Mail – this was pre the internet, pre computers even. So I did this full secretarial course and went back to Fleet Street.

One thing you have to bear in mind was the role of the union back then. In those days it was the union that got you the job. You still had to be able to do the job, but the system of the ‘closed shop’ meant the employer had to notify the union that there was a vacancy and the union had the right to put forward suitable applicants. We had incredibly good conditions at the time, which the unions had fought for. The various jobs I did were boring but I had a 38 hour week.

In the summer of 1985 I got a job as the secretary to the politics desk of the Sunday Times. By this point Murdoch had taken it over. This was a pretty prestigious, high-powered job. I got the job because I was a union member and because I knew about politics.  I was the sole secretary for the desk which meant I had to take down stories from the journalists. The agreement was that I’d have a one month trial before I’d be made permanent.

I’m working away – it’s about the middle of the second week – and I get this note saying that the deputy editor of the Sunday Times wants to prove that Arthur Scargill is a communist. Seriously they didn’t think there was anything wrong with this and I was supposed to go to the newspaper cuttings library to find suitable bits to prove he was this terrible communist.  I was so horrified, but because I was in a closed shop, because there was more or less full employment in Fleet Street I knew I could get another job. So the first thing I did was to go to the Personnel Department and put in my notice. Then I went to the library and found some innocuous quotes and brought them in.

I left my job at the Sunday Times and although I was very cynical of Fleet Street journalism, I got a job at the News of the World. Some people might be shocked considering everything that’s happened since, with the phone hacking.  I became the secretary to the Feature’s Editor of the News of the World. Most of the time I was typing stuff about people in soap operas or rubbish about drug dealers and watching them concoct fake stories. There was a guy who was a journalist who’d gone to Malaysia I think.  They’d paid for the mother and sister of a convicted British drug dealer to go to visit him in prison so they could write their story: ‘Oh it’s terrible he’s doing this but isn’t it sad the mother and sister are suffering.’ When the journalist got back the next week the editor said to him ‘he’s going to be executed, we’ll have to have something’.  They concocted the last night of this man, in his death cell, and what he thought and how he felt, and they printed it. I typed it up correcting his misspellings. They all were sort of stupid fools, semi-illiterate and half of the time they were quite drunk. I’m serious. There were fully equipped pubs in the basement of two newspapers on Fleet Street.

I felt like I was part of Fleet Street even though I was a woman and a foreigner, which is very important. Fleet Street was almost all male, from the editorial down to the person in the basement setting the hot type. And it was mechanical, physical hard work because these places were hot and nasty. It was also all white and there was lots of open racism and sexism, which no one reading this article would put up with. The printing was done in the same buildings, in the basements of the buildings on Fleet Street or just off Fleet Street. But I never went downstairs until the strike. During the strike, when I had to go and visit people from other union chapels, I remember going down to, I think it was The Observer chapel, and the calendars and the pictures they had on the wall were hard core porn. Not girly calendars, but hard core stuff. They didn’t think anything of it.

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Sherrl – far left of photograph of picket.

rs21: Can you say something about SOGAT 82 and the culture of the leadership of the dispute?

When the strike broke out in January 1986 I hadn’t been a member of my union chapel or worked at the company for very long. SOGAT 82 was the union I was in when the strike happened. It was an amalgamation of various print unions, including the union I had been in, called NATSOPA, the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants. To join NATSOPA you had to get a formal introduction from a full member of the union. I got one from somebody in the Financial Times. To be a full member of the union, you had to be a member for two years. When you were a member of NATSOPA and then SOGAT you had to go to the chapel meetings and you had to go to branch meetings that took place on Fleet Street or you were fined. But you couldn’t speak for two years or put forward a motion. You couldn’t vote, but you had to be there.

So I’d actually only been working only a matter of weeks at this newspaper and I was secretary on the Feature Desk. I had this desk next to the feature editor’s office. I didn’t really know anybody and was ‘just a woman’. So I really didn’t count. And on top of that, I was a foreigner, which was something that would run all the way through the whole strike. I remember on more than one occasion at a union meeting during the strike being referred to as ‘that foreign woman’. Even though I was doing exactly the same thing as they were. I was also a member of the Socialist Workers Party but I’d only re-joined the SWP in 1984.

People’s ideas do change in strikes. The reason I re-joined was I’d been working at the Mirror Group as a long term temp. We’d been on strike for a couple of days and I was really happy. I really enjoyed myself. It was like freedom. And that’s when I decided to re-join the SWP. I’d been a member on Fleet Street years before that. I didn’t re-join the SWP on Fleet Street, but went to Kilburn where I lived. I was a member of the Kilburn branch which was kind of important. I was completely alienated from the people on Fleet Street. In fact we’d had disagreements, political disagreements in the Fleet Street branch of the SWP.

rs21: Can you elaborate more on that and your role politically?

So there I was working away. I’d heard very vague rumours about some kind of new newspaper to be printed in east London called the London Post.  There was a vacancy for the representative of the secretaries on the Chapel Committee and there was going to be an election for it.  This was December 1985. I got rung up by the Fleet Street branch of the SWP telling me you really ought to stand for this. We really need you there. So it was easy, I stood and nobody else stood. So suddenly I was the representative for all of the secretaries at the News of the World and The Sun. And all I did was go around and collect union dues (I think it was the political levy). We had to have a vote whether we were going to continue collecting the political levy to give to the Labour party. It was the only time I ever went round the building and had to meet these people in the time I was there.  I remember somebody in the clerical chapel saying to me at the time. ‘You know this is a real mistake, you really shouldn’t be doing this. You don’t know what’s going to hit you.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about.

But at this point the industrial section of the SWP moved into action. Sheila McGregor was the industrial organiser at the time, who thought I’d been in the SWP for ages because I’d been a member before. And she didn’t twig until a month or two into the strike that I wasn’t even in the Fleet Street branch. So I had to have heart to heart meetings with her about what to do.

rs21: So how aware were the workers at this point about Murdoch’s plans to move out of Fleet Street and into Wapping? And can you say something about the argument we still hear about technology driving changes to the way people had to work?

Murdoch’s plans to build an entire plant in Wapping only came out only in dribs and drabs, it wasn’t public. It also only slowly came out that Eric Hammond, the head of the electrician’s union, the EETPU, had done a scab deal with Murdoch to hire electricians to do the job of the printers with the new technology. Now it is important to say something about all this as it is something I have had to keep arguing with people in the years since the strike.

The use of computers in the print industry wasn’t new and had been around in America for a number of years. Although it wasn’t new, computerisation threatened the jobs of people who were setting ‘hot metal’ and typesetters and a number of other people. They could have been retrained, and this is the argument I’ve had with people over and over again since then. The myth that the print workers were standing in the way of modernisation has been something that has been accepted by a lot of people including good socialists. They really believed that Murdoch was somehow bringing modern methods to Fleet Street. It ain’t true. What was true is that if he got away with it, it would be the death of trade unionism in the entire national print industry. It took me awhile even to realise this. By the time the strike happened I was telling people this. That it was about de-unionising. It wasn’t just the print. It wasn’t just about the NUJ and the NGA and SOGAT and the electricians unions. No-one talks about closed shops now, now it’s about not being able to organise a union. This was the beginning of it all, along with the defeat of the miners’ strike. It’s not just about the new technology.

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rs21: you have alluded to the collusion of the trade union leadership with Murdoch in the period leading up to the dispute. Can you say a bit more?

So there I was having to have all these meetings and conferences and it’s my birthday on 13 January. It turns out that a national meeting had been called by SOGAT 82 with its leader Brenda Dean speaking, to discuss what was going to happen on the 13 January 1986. By that point she’d already had various meetings with Murdoch including in New York or Los Angeles or somewhere. They’d been negotiating in secret for months. In these discussions she had already been offering all kinds of things including redundancies and worse conditions. She’d even offered, without telling the union members, to end closed shops, and to not have differentiated work so that workers would be forced to do any work just to keep their jobs. They were going to make a deal where a couple of thousand jobs would be lost, but it didn’t go through. Yet that was the whole point, Murdoch knew what he wanted and got it. SOGAT 82’s officials somehow refused to believe this until it was too late.

rs21: Given that how did you go about intervening and did you organise?

They called this meeting at the Brixton Academy, which holds about a couple of thousand people. But I spent the morning of that meeting in the east end sitting in the headquarters of the SWP with Sheila McGregor and lots of cups of coffee. I spent a lot of time travelling across London from my home in Kilburn, going back and forth. It was a time when there was no internet, no iphones. Communication had to be in person or in telephone booths. Sheila’s job was to convince me that I could speak at the meeting, because I was not someone they knew, and so if I should get up to speak, they would call me because they would just see me as some soft option, some woman who’d probably say something like ‘we mustn’t strike, we must save our jobs’.

I got down there to Brixton, unknown territory at that point. I went to this meeting which was completely packed. It was about 98 per cent men. And SOGAT isn’t (mainly) clerical office workers, it’s heavy manual workers on the floor. And I got the mike. According to John Laing’s book there were only 22 people who spoke and there were only two clerical people who spoke and one was George Hall who was the Father of the Clerical Chapel (FOC) at the Sun/News of the World and there was me. I was the only woman in the whole thing who spoke and I gave it to them. Basically I put the same argument which I put throughout the whole strike that unless we pull out Fleet Street we will not win. I made the argument that this dispute was not simply about the Wapping plant but about de-unionising and deskilling the whole industry. I was shaking, I was terrified – we had to convince the rest of Fleet Street to come out on our behalf. If Fleet Street came out for a couple of days even we would win. Of course it never happened in thirteen months. And Brenda, ‘good old Brenda’, on the stage was absolutely stunned because this was not what she expected from the woman in the balcony.

I should say something about phones. There is this irony. I go through the whole strike. I have meetings. I have to volunteer. I was on the joint chapels’ liaison committee, that’s what they called it because I was the secretaries’ rep, for The Sun and News of the World.  It was the joint chapels of the Times, Sunday Times, News of the World and The Sun. But there were very few people, and the people from The Times knew each other really well.  They’d had a strike, a fairly successful strike, a few years before that. And it was immediate from the very first night of the strike that they were buddies and they really didn’t think much of us especially because a lot of the clerical workers in the News of the World and The Sun went in and scabbed on the strike. Maybe it’s because they read their own newspapers and believed them. A far lower percentage of the clericals from the Times and Sunday Times scabbed. Later on in the strike, lots of people were convinced by our own union to go and get other work. The union were constantly trying to get us to get work outside, and that was within a few weeks of the strike starting. The argument was ‘you will help finance our strike by giving us a contribution. We’ll get you a job, and you’ll give us 25 per cent back to help the union pay for the strike.’

So I was going to all these meetings. Endless meetings. When I looked at my notes, there were lists of things we had to do every day. I can’t believe how much I did. And not the official pickets and the demos but just all this other stuff every day, seven days a week. And all the time I am having to run and find Sheila McGregor and ask what the fuck do I do now? Terrifying. I didn’t have any experience of this at all, and was alone. It was just me with all of them. The Joint Chapels Liaison were quite cold to us lot who didn’t agree with them. The union bureaucracy wanted to keep going but they also wanted to save the bloody union. They’d say ‘the members are important to us – you’re the most important thing’ but when it comes to the rub they want to save the union and its buildings.  They did get sequestered eventually and they got out of it, absolving themselves by agreeing to have ‘just six pickets’ and ‘no arguments’. I’ve got the letters telling me the regulations and what we’re supposed to do.

In order for me to get help, and to get my self-confidence I had to go and find telephone booths. I kept thinking I was Superman or something – Superwoman! It was kind of like a joke. I spent the entire strike ringing Sheila McGregor from telephone booths. Wherever she was, because she was the national industrial organiser of the SWP, she might be in Glasgow or something I would have her phone number to reach her. We are not talking about mobile phone numbers, we’re talking about landlines.

I’ve got in front of me notes from the first meeting of the joint chapels’ liaison that took place on the Saturday afternoon of the 25 January. We went on strike officially on the 24th. It was a Friday. The national union never called the demos until much later when they tried to take the dispute over.  Brenda would lead things like a woman’s march in May. It was the initiative from the rank and file, from below, to have the demonstrations from the Tower Hill tube station to the Wapping plant. The first demonstration, I believe, took place on the following Wednesday when we were already officially on strike. But we met on the Saturday to set things up. There was not a strike committee at any point throughout the entire dispute. This is one of the things you’d think would happen.  There were some huge meetings, with thousands of people in Central Hall, Westminster, for example. But at no point were we joined together. They were still separate chapels, the local branches as it were. The Fathers of Chapel (FOCs) and Mothers of the chapel (MOCs) – that’s the chief shop steward of that particular section of work. It was very sectional. At no point through thirteen months was there a joint organisation. So the only thing that was joined up was the national union and the national officials.

I only remembered when I read John Laing’s book that two-thirds of the way through the dispute we had a conference, a SOGAT conference, and they didn’t want us to put a motion through. We wanted a strike committee, an elected strike committee of the strikers, the rank and file strikers from the different sections which was opposed by the MOC’s and the FOC’s from some of those sections, even the people on strike. They didn’t want to give up their little manor. This was one of the problems of the strike which was never resolved, never got any better.

rs21: To backtrack a bit, can you say how the employers approached the strike, and something about its scale and timing?

I want to start going through my stuff. First of all I have here dated the 27 January 1986 a letter to me personally. Actually it says ‘Dear sir or madam’, it’s only addressed to me on the envelope from News Group Newspapers Limited, that ‘despite a public invitation to perform the duties of employment you have shown that you are not willing to perform your contract of employment. In these circumstances we accept this repudiation by you of your contract of employment and hereby dismiss you with immediate effect’. At the end it says I am going to get my P45 and any money due me, which of course we didn’t get for months. This letter is dated the 27th, that’s the Monday. We went on strike on the 24th. If nothing else it is physical proof that they planned the whole thing. That they went for the entire workforce, thousands and thousands of people. Different people say that there were 5,000, and some people say 6,000 thousand who were sacked and on strike. They had this ready for all of us. It is not possible to have done this on the Monday, to say ‘Oh they haven’t come into work’. I received this on the Monday.

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rs21: You gave lots of speeches to various audiences, what kinds of things did you talk about?

I have notes of speeches I gave. I kept calling them my ‘April Theses’, I was trying to be cute.[1] I haven’t even looked at my notes since then. I typed notes because I had to do all these meetings at small places and big places. I began: ‘So who am I? Very briefly I can’t cover the whole Wapping Dispute in 10 minutes.’ (Sometimes I only got five!).

Sarah Cox, all power to her, got me to speak at an NUT special meeting in Brent, where she got me five minutes to speak.  The only question I received was from this woman in the audience; ‘Does this mean we have to have a boycott campaign?’ The union leadership, Brenda and co. wanted a boycott campaign – they didn’t want demos.  We were going to be peaceful and boycott – that’s the way not to pull out Fleet Street. This person in the audience asked me ‘Does this mean we can’t get the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) and the Times Education Supplement and the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) in our libraries and look at them.’ And I had to say to her, because I was a representative of the union, of all these people – I wasn’t being a representative of the SWP – ‘we prefer you don’t’.

We were actually picketing where the editorial was being produced, but they were not officially on strike and I couldn’t tell them to boycott the TLS, and the TES and the THES. This was one of the problems of the strike. They never pulled out any of these other sections at all. The people who worked for these supplements continued to work. Theoretically they were going to a pay a levy to help us but they continued to work.

The point is the person who asked me the question was Glenys Kinnock, Neil Kinnock’s wife who was a teacher and I didn’t know this until afterwards. This may have been the perfect example of the so-called ‘new realism’ which was beginning to spread within the Labour Party and the upper ranks of the Trade Unions. It would have made our strike much stronger if they’d also been pulled out because all the way through the strike all the libraries were taking these supplements.

rs21: Can you say more about ‘new realism’ and what impact it had on the dispute?

I reckoned at that point that 5,500 of us had been on strike since the 24 January. By April we were almost through the 12th week of what’s become a bitter dispute. The leaders of SOGAT 82 and the unions knew perfectly well the operation that Murdoch was setting up. I have all the documentation which shows that they knew this the previous September, and that Murdoch had been developing the Wapping plant for three years.  It was then that I started to address the question of ‘new realism’ in my speeches, as we needed to confront the stance of the union leaders. The basic problem was that the Union leaders took from the Miners’ Strike the lesson that only compromise will work – they’d got it all upside down. Here is an extract from the notes of my speech:

We’re told that this strike, a national strike which carries implications for the entire future of all the print unions in this country, this strike can be won on a low key. Public opinion, a consumer boycott, little tinkerings half-heartedly with Murdoch’s distribution. Mainly their whole strategy is based on an appeal for the lowest common denominator of Sun Readers, prospective moderate voters.

Doesn’t that sounds familiar, don’t rock the vote, we must get Labour elected.

During the time we were carrying out the secret ballot in January, the Union made sure everything was done legal and above board. They forgot the miners and insisted on not breaking the law. We were not called out, even though Murdoch was provoking us all the time. Even when he used the Sunday Times to announce the opening of the plant at Wapping, the paper still got printed. The next week, the fourth section of the Sunday Times would not be printed at Gray’s Inn Road but at Wapping. The paper that was printed by union printers in and around Fleet Street received an announcement that after next week some of it would be printed at Wapping and they still didn’t call us out. The company moved files, senior journalists and management to Wapping as soon as it could.  Brenda and Tony Dubbins, head of the National Graphical Association (NGA) which was the other print union, representing the   printers held us back with their ‘new realism. I suppose this is all an explanation of what ‘new realism’ is. We should have gone to Wapping on 13 January not held a mass meeting in Brixton. They wasted our anger. We should have gone straight to Wapping that Saturday and stood outside.

Brenda and company kept sending out notices during the strike that we shouldn’t have outsiders on our picket lines, it doesn’t look good. We don’t want these people, we only want printers and their families. There were a huge number of other jobs people did in the print – secretaries, canteen staff, telephone operators, firefighters, but you just got called printers. By April 1986 they already were telling us to keep outsiders off our picket lines to try to stop a mass picket we had organised. At the same time Brenda Dean and Tony Dubbins were trying to do deals with the management of all the other print places. It didn’t work. Fifty people at the Sunday People were sacked. The first pickets that came to Wapping were from the Express and the Telegraph because they knew their jobs were threatened. I have somewhere a little sheet of paper calling people on Fleet Street to join a mass demonstration at Wapping called by the Federated Chapels of the Telegraph and the Express. It was these chapels and not the national union, who called the first picket officially.  We started out not knowing what was going to happen.  This is from my speech in April:

Every sell out on Fleet Street was in the name of the ‘new realism’… Three and a half thousand SOGAT strikers came to last week’s mass meeting, angry at the way the strike had been run.  The London District Committee desperately tried to put a lid on their anger. They refused any motions but the top table said they’d decide how it would be allowed to be run.

Remember there was no strike committee. The London District Council tried to desperately put a lid on our anger. They refused any motions from the floor, even any amendments to their own very wet London District Council motion. Every one of the only 12 rank and file speakers who were allowed to speak condemned the national and local leaderships.

We put the following to Brenda Dean:

We came out on strike to fight for our very own chapels’ and branches’ right to exist. Instead our leaders have tried to negotiate these away in order to make a dirty little deal with Murdoch for clapped out printing equipment in the Times building.

At that point in time Murdoch was offering redundancy money of a certain amount and they were going to give us The Times’ building, that is the property. This was a joke, but that was the deal: he was offering us a bit of money and we could all have that building with old equipment in it. As I put it, ‘Dean and Dubbins seemed hell bent on getting out a Labour paper for Kinnock via our sacrifice. The rumours were that they were actually going to set up a paper there, with 500 jobs.’

I went to speak at meetings around the country. Other people did many more meetings than I did. I have to say this. I mainly got these partially through SWP members and partially through good trade unionists around London. I also spoke to electricians in London. The EETPU headquarters were sending scabs to Wapping but the local branches of the electricians, which I spoke to including the press branch on Fleet Street and other London electricians’ branches were horrified at what was happening.

rs21: We think of the National Union of Journalists as being a powerful group. What impact did the dispute have on them?

At some point there was a national conference of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and I spoke at a fringe meeting with Tony Benn. I had a very simple message for them – which unfortunately turned out to be absolutely right. I said that if they didn’t pull their finger out and support us, they wouldn’t have a union. Yes there is still a National Union of Journalists but it is a shadow of what it was. Journalists used to be unionised in all sorts of places where they worked and not just newspapers. The Radio Times for instance would have people who were in the union. I have a friend who used to work for the Radio Times years ago. He then lost his job and had to get jobs on things like TV Quick and some of these other rubbish things that are on newsstands. They are all un-unionised. All the free sheets are un-unionised. The conditions and pay are appalling. They don’t have pensions.

By April the NUJ finally called for a national demonstration and rally in support of the workers in dispute with News International. Unfortunately, the majority of the NUJ members at the newspapers who were on strike scabbed.  They were offered money and conditions. But quite rapidly they got sacked because Murdoch had all these regulations and rules and he didn’t want drinking and smoking on the premises.  They had to practically clock in. Journalists who had been used to just phoning in their reports were expected to be at their desk typing. A lot of these guys and some women, but mostly guys, lost their jobs even though they scabbed. There were very few journalists in our strike.

There was a national demonstration and rally in London on the 6 April, a meeting in Trafalgar Square addressed by Harry Conroy, the general secretary of the NUJ with Brenda Dean and Tony Dubbins and Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the National Union of Railworkers (NUR). This was to be followed by a march to the Wapping plant. But how many people do you think actually bothered to march from Trafalgar Square?  This was months into the strike.  But get this, the last two paragraphs of the same letter dated 2 April 1986 from the NUJ headquarters: ‘On the 19th April local residents will be holding a street party around Wapping to celebrate the Queen’s 60th birthday and the local residents will be having another party on bank holiday Monday which the unions will sponsor.’ So they say the following Monday the 12 May will see another march to Wapping. What they are suggesting (which never happened) is that on the 19 April and on Mayday, 3 May, we shouldn’t have a demo because some of the residents of Wapping are celebrating the Queen’s 60th birthday. In fact we had a huge demo on Mayday. They’re helping us, they’re sending circulars to all MOC’s and FOC’s, isn’t that nice of them!

I’ve got all the notes from meetings I went to. Here is Brenda Dean at some point. I’m sitting in the audience and Brenda is saying ‘I’m not walking out or selling out anyone.’ And there were shouts of ‘resign, resign boo’. Here is a different meeting I spoke at which is worth quoting at length:

Yes, Rupert Murdoch made 27 million pounds profit at the Sun/News of the World in order to finance his empire. Because he’d made these investments particularly in America, he’d bought newspapers, TV channels. One of the reasons he’d instigated the strike to get rid of us was that he’d needed the money, he needed to make it more profitable. It was a cash cow. He didn’t care what happened to anybody. All the time our trade union leaders waste their time making compromises, especially the lie of the London Post and the 2000 jobs lost last year at the Mirror group. Even on the first Saturday of the strike, Brenda Dean forced 50 SOGAT members on the Sunday Mirror not to come out in solidarity with us. ‘Don’t do this, don’t walk out. We need you to stay in to pay a levy’.

At this point in time in the 1980s, there were 40,000 people working within a mile of Fleet Street including IPC, the magazine company. You go down Fleet Street now and it’s all gone. Where I used to work in various places as a temp – there’s a Holiday Inn and some other posh hotels and executive suites of corporations. The Financial Times was bought by a Japanese bank. The whole culture, the whole thing – dead, gone.

rs21: How did the dispute affect the strikers materially and emotionally? It must have been a hard time.

At that point we hadn’t been getting any unemployment benefit. We later did because we were declared unemployed officially. The union went through all these hoops to make sure we would get unemployment benefit. We were actually getting unemployment benefit after May. But we were also getting – I’ve still got some of the stuff I bought – Marks and Spencers vouchers. The other trade unions on Fleet Street were giving us M&S vouchers. I bought warm clothes because it was freezing. That was the other thing. This was a terrible time to be on strike. The day we first held a demo, there was ice on the ground and it was all white. It was quite ‘crystal white’ all around the Wapping plant. I remember walking around the back of the plant with a friend of mine. I didn’t know the area at all, we walked around to see what it was like. It was a ferociously, viciously, bitter winter and everybody wrapped up like crazy. So when they gave me M&S vouchers I didn’t go buy food because I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have to worry about that. I bought things like thermal socks. I spent the whole time completely bundled up. I remember when it got to be the summer and we were still on strike, everybody was saying we all look so much thinner because we’d never seen each other without layers and layers of clothing.

Wapping was a threat to the AUEW, the engineers’ union, who had some closed shops and the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the T&G. The jobs of the dockers and railway workers who handled newspapers were under threat. Murdoch used TNT, the Australian courier company that he was a part owner of, to employ scab trucks to do the distribution during the strike. One boy who was 19 was killed when he was out celebrating his birthday and they ran over him. They didn’t even stop. The police waved the truck to go on, full of newsprint, while all his friends were begging for help. He’s not the only person who died during the strike.

rs21: For many people the images from Wapping that come to mind are mass pickets at night and confrontations with the police and scab truckers. What was the situation on the ground?

On one of the first really big demos, which took place on Wednesdays and Saturdays, miners came down to support. The police had huge lines across and they were trying to make sure we didn’t stop anything, and they charged us with horses. Police horses charging at people, kids, everything. A printer who was working on Fleet Street somewhere, he wasn’t a striker, had a heart attack and they wouldn’t let the ambulance through, even though people were begging the police to open their ranks.

They wouldn’t do it because of course there is a whole other aspect of this huge police operation which I haven’t even touched. Some days it ebbed, and some days it was big and some days it wasn’t. It is very strange. Sometimes we actually got to the gates of Wapping and some days we didn’t. It is like they were getting directions, political directions all the way up to Thatcher about stopping us, which days we were going to get somewhere or not go somewhere, how hard they were. There were mass arrests sometimes and sometimes there was nothing. Other times it was completely brutal with people being thrown to the ground for doing nothing, just standing there on the pavement. There were also, John Laing mentions one of them in his book, at least two suicides during the strike. People got depressed. Who knows if you are working and you have got a mortgage and suddenly you’ve got no money and you have children.  While we were having a joint clerical meeting at the TUC headquarters in the basement this child of one of the strikers was just playing on the staircase. We were there doing the weekly distribution of strike pay.  While this was going on this child fell off the stairs and smashed her head open and died in the hospital which was terribly grim.

In John Laing’s book there are eyewitness reports from late on in the dispute, and at one particular demo there were to be no union banners as the plan was to surprise the police.  The only banner that turned up was ‘Gays Support the Printworkers’. In the book there is somebody’s verbatim account that two burly printers took the banner, took it to the front and carried it forward. You are supposed to say that was really good. They were gay members – but they never mention that in the book. There were gay strikers, including a friend I made who is one of the people who organised Gays and Lesbians support the Printworkers a la the miners.  The London gay centre, which was then near Farringdon Station, offered hospitality for the strikers.

rs21: What was the union leadership doing while all this was taking place?

Meanwhile Dean and Dubbins played legal games. Only a few weeks into the strike the courts sequestered us. This means they appointed someone outside to be ‘the union’. But the union leadership didn’t organise collection or levy sheets during the strike. Locally chapels did collection sheets but the national union did nothing. Their strategy was to win ‘hearts and minds’ and public opinion. We were supposed to get people to boycott. That was how the strike was supposed to be won, being passive and nice. But when I spoke I was always calling on people to come down the next week with their banner and a delegation so we could build a really big mass picket.

This is a leaflet from my clerical chapel:

Over six months we’ve been fighting for our jobs and basic trade union rights. The local authorities, that is 15 local authorities in London have banned the stocking of Murdoch’s titles. Unfortunately they are now threatened with legal action, because it is all about secondary action. But our members on Fleet Street still cut and file the titles for reference in their library, that journalists refer to and quote News International copy which is then set and printed by our members (the members of other chapels).

Meanwhile this is exactly the same point, or a little after, six months into the strike that Brenda Dean and Tony Dubbins are cutting deals with management that result in job losses, 2,000 here, 300 there. There is also news agency copy from the newspapers being sent to Wapping. This is a massive contradiction for all of us especially those in the front line. The leaflet says,

We do not seek to attach blame to anybody or any group because we understand the difficulties because of the attacks by our own employers. Now is the time for us to act together and bring the boycott campaign to Fleet Street itself.

It’s so wet. It doesn’t say ‘pull out Fleet Street’. It’s begging the members of the print unions who work on Fleet Street to actually participate in the boycott campaign of the four titles. And as I said before we couldn’t call for the boycott of the Literary Supplement, or the Higher Education Supplement. This is how bad it was.

The leaflet then talks about Brenda Dean – she disowned those who were arrested saying they were criminal elements. It mentions that there was going to be a by-election in Fulham on the 8 May. Labour was telling us to keep cool. Kinnock wasn’t doing anything for the rate-capped councils. This was at a time that several inner-London councils were being rate-capped, which meant that the government was cutting their power to spend. What Labour wanted is for all of us just to be a stage army. The boycott campaign, ever so nice and sweet, to appeal to the public is just a strategy to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But you can’t stop Wapping by marching past it. Even when there were mass demos, it wasn’t just that they had a big demo in Trafalgar Square, they had a meeting with all the bigwigs who were on the platform there. I notice from the list I have it didn’t include Kinnock. They had all these trade union leaders. But they would have meetings during demos, somewhere just off the edge of the map. The union would have big stages set up, and they’d keep talking while the police were clubbing their own members. It was like the Grunwicks dispute in the 1970s. I was at Grunwicks the day the miners came with Arthur and Ann Scargill who’d come down to support them. Jack Dromey of the South East Region of the TUC, now an MP, marched everybody away. Instead of a mass picket he marched everybody away and around in circles to have a meeting.

Here’s a leaflet from March – ‘Our next rally will be at the Wembley Conference centre’. Why were we not meeting outside Wapping? We’d only been on strike since January. ‘A national demonstration has been called for Saturday, 22 March. We will march from Hyde Park to the Albert Hall’. Why were we not marching down to Wapping? The national unions called a ‘Women’s march’ – they marched them along Fleet Street. They didn’t pull the printers out. They didn’t say now we pull out the papers. They never did this. From Fleet Street to Wapping isn’t that far.

rs21: The most well-known event is the one that took place to mark the anniversary of the dispute – what are your recollections of that night?

As you say there was a one year anniversary demo called on 24 January 1987. By that point in time the deal had already been cast. The executive of SOGAT 82 and the executive of the NGA had already decided to just give up, and they’d already been making deals for the end of the dispute with Murdoch and they knew it. There was a huge national demo with a very big call out and a lot of people attended. There was a lot of police violence, extreme violence – horses and clubbing of people. And this is the Telegraph front page on the 26 January: ‘Baton wielding police and mounted officers on horses pushing into the crowd were met with counter-attacks’. Were we supposed to run, or lie down and get beaten? ‘Violence erupted as around 12,000 demonstrators converged on the plant to mark the anniversary’. The police did it. The union officials just kept on talking – while we were being attacked. It was the end of the demo. Sixty-seven people were arrested for threatening behaviour, criminal damage. This is the Daily Mail on the same Monday: ‘Wapping war comes home to Kinnock. Denounce the mob, Tories demand’. The political fall-out from that bloody night of brutality was engulfing Neil Kinnock because he was not saying anything. I don’t think he ever did. ‘A hundred and fifty three police were injured and dozens of demonstrators, and 67 people were arrested.’ Then they talk about the police coming under attack and ‘the makeshift spears’. That was a complete fake. Kinnock just stayed quiet. He didn’t defend us at all.

Rentamob troublemakers were accused last night of using the ‘Wapping dispute’ as an excuse for street violence at an unprecedented level. Deputy police commissioner Wyn Jones said at a press conference ‘it is extremely frightening for us all.’ The Socialist Workers Party and various other Communist and left groups were thought to have been involved in the riot. Mr Jones claimed that very few of these people were from London. Well it was a national call-out for trade unionists to come down to Wapping. Only 13 [of those arrested] were printworkers. Scotland Yard is investigating.

This was the night when Mike Delaney was killed by a TNT juggernaut. Dan Jones, the secretary of the Tower Hamlets trade council had been saying for months to the police, ‘something is going to happen’. They all drove at great speeds to get away from pickets around tight corners because these roads except the Wapping highway weren’t designed for heavy traffic. And they were going at great speed, and most of that was residential and loads of council houses. And they crushed this poor kid.

rs21: Do you have any final thoughts or reflections on the dispute?

We didn’t win. We didn’t change people’s consciousness. People don’t change their consciousness in a strike when it has been virtually defeated from Day One. What we were fighting was a rear guard battle the whole time. It was depressing as hell. People don’t change their consciousness that way especially when there was nothing to go back into.

I felt completely depressed at the end of the strike. I didn’t work in the print anymore. I probably should have. Some people did, they had to. My mother died in the middle of the strike in Toledo, Ohio. I was in England on strike. It was a very bad time for me. I had lots to sort out long distance. I didn’t have the money to go over there. There was all my mother’s estate to take care of. It is very personal. My sister had multiple sclerosis. She was going under. My sister, she is five years older than me. It was a very bad time in general. So when the strike was over, I never went back to Fleet Street which is kind of a mistake, perhaps. I don’t know. I didn’t know what would happen.

The dispute had nothing to do with the quality of the press or the news, and was nothing to do with modernising the print industry. It was carried out for profit, to extract as much profit with the least number of people working as possible. It was about deskilling the print and de-unionising the print industry and journalists.


[1] This is a reference to the famous theses produced by Lenin when he returned to Russia shortly after the outbreak of revolution in 1917.


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Sherrl Yanowitz, February 2016

 

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