Wapping great barbed wire lies

Today, 7 March, represents a bit of a quandry for angry campaigners, with a number of worthwhile events to go to this evening. An obvious one is the Bristol anti-cuts alliance open meeting at 7pm in the city centre. Another is the joint Indymedia/BRHG event at The Cube on the 25th anniversary of the 1986 printworkers year long strike in Wapping, east London, which starts at 8pm. Maybe you can manage a bit of both?

The anti-cuts meet is an obvious one, as its about building resistance now to the ConDem Coalition’s vicious austerity measures aimed at ordinary working people. But a bit of history can be useful too, as it helps us understand some of the reasons why things are the way they are now, and how the ConDem’s seem to be getting away with a lot of nasty shit so far.

News International fortress
News International fortress

The Wapping strike was the final act of the bosses and government’s successful attempt to break the power of Fleet St (the traditional home of the printed press), and more importantly the power of the print unions in the industry – especially the ‘closed shop’ policy they enforced. Previously introduced anti-trade union laws, along with recent high profile defeats of organised workers such as the miners, conspired to leave over 5000 sacked printworkers largely isolated and alone when Murdoch’s News International moved its printing to Wapping.

From the days when none of us had computers
From the days when none of us had computers

The printworkers unions, the NGA and SOGAT82, received little or no ‘real’ support from the rest of the trade union movement. For sure individual workers and even TU branches supported pickets & demos, fundraised, boycotted The Sun and other Murdoch titles, and so on. But from the TU and Labour Party leadership came little but empty words backed up by no action whatsoever. Whilst some NUJ members joined the strike and others respected picket lines, many didn’t. Even worse, the right-wing electricians union, the EEPTU, openly scabbed by keeping Murdoch’s machines running. Bussed in on armoured busses with a cop escort, they rightly earned the hatred of the printworkers and their supporters. Meanwhile the Murdoch press, backed up by most of the other media, kept up a tirade of abuse at the strikers. Naturally backed to the hilt by the Tories, they enjoyed unlimited police protection and overtime.

A lively night out Wapping-style
A lively night out Wapping-style

Yet against all the odds, and their own enfeebled union leaders, the strike kept going for over a year. The then heavily working class community in the Wapping area had a natural dislike for bosses and cops, and the virtual police state enforced on their community was not welcomed one bit. As a community they supported the strike. As did many others across the country, with many solidarity actions and boycotts taking place. Weekly, sometime twice weekly, mass evening pickets bolstered the printers daily pickets. These events were fun, at least until the fighting started, and then they were really fun! In the semi-darkness, on the highway and the back streets, battles raged as riot cops forced a path for Murdochs delivery lorries. Down side streets small teams waited to try and take out scab lorries and busses, further afield others sabotaged bulk deliveries of Murdoch’s papers. For many young anarcho-punks & squatters, brought up on a diet of urban riots, rock against racism and the miners strike, these mass pickets were what heaven may be like. A few beers with your friends, then into battle with the cops, and home before midnight on the last train or bus (presuming arrest was avoided).

Ultimately of course the strike was lost due to the inability to spread the action and actually shut down the printing presses/stop the lorries coming out, plus of course not enough people boycotted the papers. This strike turned out to be the last major battle between the Tories and labour movement, which has never recovered since their beatings in the 1980’s. Whilst many printworkers ended up unemployed, battered, bruised and with criminal records, their leaders such as Brenda Dean (SOGAT82) was within 7 years elevated as a baroness to the House of Lords and has enjoyed a lucrative establishment career ever since.

Tonights event at The Cube is one of a series of events around the UK looking back at the strike, and the lessons that can be learnt from it, and we should think carefully how those lessons can be applied today. Featuring materials from the strike, speakers involved at the time, and the film ‘Despite The Sun’ (one of the earliest activist films, and shown at Kebele a few years ago around the 20th anniversary of the strike), this is an event worth attending if you have gaps in your recent history of struggles in the UK.

Further reading:
Picket, the unofficial newsletter of the News International printers strike of 1986, was published 43 times. Access them all as pdf’s here. The official strike newspaper was the Wapping Post.
See also these early cut’n’paste style spoof newspapers (pdfs): the-scum_wapping and  the-sun_spoof
The beast at the gate – good reflective article on Murdoch then and now.