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When jobs were set in stone

It's 25 years since the bitter Wapping/Murdoch dispute. Now the exhibition

Written by . Published on September 19th 2011.

When jobs were set in stone

HOT metal was before the time of many people running the media industry today. 

Many others will remember it as the bedrock of the then-thriving newspaper business, funding many thousands of well paid jobs. 

Along with the miners strike, its demise, 25 years ago, fuelled the biggest ever battle for the trade unions who were seeing a way of life, for generations, coming to an end. 

Today (Monday) an exhibition opens in Liverpool, highlighting the 13-month struggle employees staged to save their jobs and protect trade union rights. 

A Poster At The TimeA Poster At The TimeIt was Warrington that provided a dress rehearsal for the fight-to-the-death conflict, when publisher Eddie Shah introduced “new technology” as a way of producing his Messenger chain of newspapers. 

Then Fortress Wapping in London became the epicentre of the war, as Rupert Murdoch decided to drag his empire into the 20th century, under the cloak of darkness. 

For the rest of Fleet Street the writing was on the wall – or rather the Atex screen – and UK industrial relations were changed forever. 

To mark the significant anniversary since the sacking of 5,500 newspaper print workers during the bitter 1986 Wapping dispute, Lord Mayor Frank Prendergast opened the touring exhibition, News International Wapping – 25 years on, at the Unite HQ in Islington. 

The “Dirty Digger's” News International – owner of The Times, Sunday Times, The Sun and the now closed News of the World - jettisoned thousands of its staff when it moved production of its newspapers, overnight and in secret, to a new electronic base at Wapping in east London. 

Dramatic images and accounts of the dispute – when Rupert Murdoch used his vast wealth, aided by the Conservatives’ anti-union legislation to facilitate the dash to Wapping – are on display. 

The memories will come flooding back for those involved or who witnessed the brutal fight to the finish. More than 400 police officers and many members of the public were injured, and more than 1,000 arrests made. 

Yet, in recent years, a bloodless revolution has had an even bigger impact on the media, caused by the internet and the global recession. It is posing perhaps an even bigger threat to the survival of local, regional, national and even international newspapers. 

Thousands of journalists, including many on Merseyside, have lost their jobs as the newspaper groups contract. 

Wapping-ProtestsWapping protestsWapping did not pose a threat to newspapers, but to the method of production. 

Wapping, say organisers, occurred at a time of unrelenting attacks on jobs, conditions, union rights and communities in the 1980s, together with intensifying concentration of press and media ownership.  

Unite regional secretary, Paul Finegan said: “We must be ever mindful of the dramatic and negative impact on jobs that morally corrupt newspaper tycoons, working together with a government that are intent on reducing the rights of working people and their unions can have. 

“This anniversary ought to be a reminder to all political parties – as they consider how to prevent the media abuses we recently witnessed - that a new framework of employment law and trade union rights is essential to rebalance power in this country.” 

This multi-media exhibition has been organised by Unite, the National Union of Journalists, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and the Marx Memorial Library. A public meeting will be held on September 24, at Jack Jones House. to discuss the events of 1986. 

*News International Wapping – 25 Years on - Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm, September 19-30, Unite, Jack Jones House, 2 Churchill Way, Liverpool L3 8EF. 

'That new technology your union is stopping us from using...it’s upstairs in unopened boxes and
it is already obsolete'

At the time of Wapping, writes Larry Neild, I was leader of the journalists at the Post and Echo, given the archaic title that survives to this day - Father of the Chapel (or FOC).

 Our union, the NUJ, was part of this fight destined to change the newspaper industry for ever.

Delicate negotiations lasted months, if not several years, as the revolution turned to the provincial press.

Hot MetalHot MetalComputers would, at a stroke, mean the end of whole layers of jobs – from messengers to typesetters, metal foundry workers. Strict rules of demarcation that had been a feature of publishing would end. Journalists could input copy directly, reducing the need for labour in the print halls, cutting costs and improving production time dramatically. 

One exasperated executive at Old Hall Street once turned to me and said: “That ‘new technology’ your union is stopping us from introducing...it’s upstairs in unopened boxes and it is already obsolete.” Such was the rate of progress.

Another boss asked me to justify why our union was fighting for a new technology payment when – in his opinion – my members would be doing less work with computers, compared to the ancient manual typewriters and well-worn carbon paper we had been using for generations. A good deal was struck.

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AnonymousSeptember 19th 2011.

When will the unions admit that the greedy control freaks weren't Murdoch, Thatcher or Eddie Shah, but their very own members, those who ran the print unions and who ensured that the only fat cats in the newspaper industry were the inkies themselves, as they were known. Even after deadlines, newspaper staff often did not know if their paper would be coming out the next day because of the stranglehold of a greedy selfish few who would make "the brothers" down tools at the drop of a hat.

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