Back in 1986, the Sentinel ran a special feature on an on-going dispute that had caused 6,000 people to come out on strike and would result in 1,262 people being arrested over its duration. Following on from the miners’ strike, it is remembered as one of the most bitter and violent disputes in British Industrial history. On the 24th January 1986, nearly 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike following the collapse of talks on News International’s plans to move its editorial and printing operations to a new plant in East London at Wapping. The Wapping dispute escalated swiftly with the striking workers being dismissed and the move to Wapping going ahead using newly employed staff, leading to mass demonstrations. Whilst newspaper owners such as Robert Murdoch were keen to present the issue as powerful print unions trying to hold back technological progress, others saw it very much as an attack on the existence of unions and the rights of workers.
The Sentinel tried to include a balance of national issues alongside local reporting, and also recognised that some of the issues affecting the press at a national level could have implications for local journalism. And it also encouraged local residents to feel that they still had a voice and could take practical action to influence national decision making. So in April 1986 it published interviews with two union representatives: Brenda Dean from SOGAT (Society of Graphic and Associated Trades) and Harry Conroy from the National Union of Journalists.
Brenda Dean wanted to point out that the unions were not against new technology and that SOGAT had wanted to move into Wapping. However part of the new deal for workers was changes to working practices, no- strike clauses etc. For SOGAT she said, the dispute was fundamentally about
”Our members’ right to belong to a trade union of their choice, to be democratically represented and to negotiate about their terms and conditions of future employment and their future job prospects.”
You can read her interview in full here.
Harry Conroy was dealing both with Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell as the general secretary of the NUJ. In a more wider ranging interview he discusses the press in Scotland as well as the concern that the Wapping dispute is an attack by Mr Murdoch on the ability of trade unions to represent their members.
”All we’re saying is that as an employer, he should behave by certain standards. And he certainly isn’t behaving by our standards.”
He also shares his memories on producing a community newspaper back in 1973 when he published the Pollock News and then helped with the Shawlands News. You can read his interview in full here.
As well as keeping people in Wester Hailes informed about what was going on, the Sentinel tapped into the campaign to boycott News International publications. The Rep Council had already voted in favour of approaching Community Enterprises to ask that the community owned Carousel chip shop stop selling the Sun, News of The World and the Times until Murdoch agreed to sit down and negotiate with the unions. Sentinel readers were urged to use their spending power to send a message by refusing to purchase Murdoch papers. Local residents gave their views here.
Despite a sustained campaign of demonstrations, News International did not lose a single night of production during the strike. Just over a year later, the strike was fading and the unions were facing bankruptcy and court action. By 1988, all national newspapers had followed Rupert Murdoch away from Fleet Street to the newly-developed Docklands, and adopted new, cheaper computerised printing technology. Part of a larger political landscape that sought the demise of trade union influence and power, those standing against Wapping found little support or sympathy from those in government. With the huge expansion of media sources online and its up to the minute accessibility, the era of print journalism is facing a less certain future than ever. Looking back from recent events there are some commentators who suggest that what Wapping should really be remembered for was the advent of a much closer co-operative relationship between government, police, lawyers and some newspaper owners that could be said to have led all the way to the phone hacking scandals.