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Wapping dispute

From Academic Kids

The Wapping dispute started on the 24th January 1986 when some 6,000 British trade unionists went on strike after months of protracted negotiation with their employers, News International and Times Group Newspapers. The company management was seeking a legally binding agreement at their new plant in Wapping, London, which incorporated flexible working, a no-strike clause, new technology and the abandonment of the closed shop. For years Fleet Street had been plagued by poor industrial relations – the so-called "Spanish practices" had given the print workers a bad name.

Despite the wide-spread use of the offset litho printing process elsewhere, the Murdoch papers in common with the rest of Fleet Street continued to be produced by the hot-metal and labour-intensive linotype method. Eddie Shah's Messenger group, in a long running and bitter dispute at Warrington had benefitted from the Thatcher government's trade union legislation to allow employers to de-recognize unions, enabling the company to use an alternative workforce and new technology in newspaper production. The dramatic cut in production costs - journalists could input copy directly reducing the need for labour in the print halls – meant that profits would increase dramatically. Murdoch's motives in pursuing the change in production methods were obvious.

Immediately after the strike was announced, dismissal notices were served on all those taking part in the industrial action. As part of a plan that had been developed over many months, the company replaced the workforce with members of the EETPU and transferred its four major titles (The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World) to the Wapping plant. Murdoch had misled the print unions in to thinking that the Wapping plant was to be used for a new (non-existent) London evening newspaper. And so began what has become known as the Wapping dispute.

In support of their dismissed members, the print unions organised regular marches and demonstrations at the company's premises. They also called for a boycott of the four newspapers involved. As the dispute gathered momentum a large-scale police operation was mounted to ensure that the Wapping plant could operate effectively.

In 1987 the strike finally collapsed. With it the restrictive trade union practices associated with the traditional Fleet Street publishing empires also collapsed and the trade union movement in Britain was irrevocably changed. The actions of News International and its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, together with the EETPU and the police were widely criticised – in particular the heavy-handed policing methods that had been employed. People in Wapping were largely viewed by the police as sympathetic to the case of the strikers, and were frequently denied access to their streets and homes. The strike also coincided with the redevelopment of the Docklands (of which Wapping is a part) and the influx of 'Yuppies' – the affluent young attracted by opportunities in the burgeoning city.

It was claimed at the time of the dispute that the new production methods would result in an increase of choice in the British press (the overwhelming majority were – and remain – conservative in orientation), but in practice this was limited. The Sunday Correspondent was short-lived and The Independent was taken over after a few years and continues to have an uncertain future. Although it may have saved some newspapers from closure, it has strengthened those groups which were already in a strong position. The profits of Murdoch's tabloids have been used to subsidize the predatory pricing of The Times against The Independent in particular, and Murdoch's wider expansionist ambitions.

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