It is 30 years years ago today (24 January, 2016) that 5,500 newspaper workers went on strike after failing to agree terms and conditions with Rupert Murdoch's News International over a move to a new and high-tech printing plant at Wapping in the London Docklands. Since the strikers were deemed to be committing a 'repudiatory breach' of contract under anti-union laws passed by Margaret Thatcher, they were dismissed by News International immediately. They were entitled to neither redundancy pay nor legal recourse. They were simply sacked.
As the strike ran its course and collapsed over a year later, the workers realised that they had been stitched up. It became clear that Murdoch had no intention of launching a newspaper at Wapping named the London Post, as union leaders had been informed. The terms and conditions Murdoch offered the unions were deliberately unrealistic and he rejected a settlement when they conceded to many of his demands ahead of the strike on the 24 January. In fact, the media mogul bargained on the unions rejecting the terms and conditions and sending their workers out on strike so that he could sack them.
A letter sent a month prior to the strike to the managing director of News International from Farrer and Co., the solicitors to the Queen, reveals the calculating cynicism by which Murdoch operated. 'If a moment came when it was necessary to dispense with the present workforce', the letter advised, 'the cheapest way of doing so would be to dismiss employees while participating in a strike or other industrial action'. The letter underlined the legal importance of the workers being notified of their dismissal while in the process of striking, pre-empting the ruthlessness with which Murdoch eventually acted. 'There may well be merit in having piles of dismissal letters at the exit doors, even if that involves an element of duplication', it claimed. The letter even advised Murdoch on how 'to catch as many in the net as possible' by provoking the strike at a weekend when a higher proportion of the workforce were on duty.
The lessons we draw from the Wapping dispute reveal as much about the society we live in as the one that existed 30 years ago. At a time when our public services and work places are subject to the inexorable logic of privatisation and modernisation, it has become commonplace to regard the sacked workers at News International as inevitable casualties of history. If 5,500 workers and their families stood in the path of progress, then their removal can be considered an unpleasant necessity, no matter how nasty and painful it may be. As Andrew Anthony argued in the Guardian only a week ago, the sacking of the workers over Wapping may have caused 'ugly scenes and violence', but Murdoch won and 'the newspaper industry benefited from the new conditions he created'. In this reading, Rupert Murdoch is excused and even heralded for the tactics he employed to get rid of workers because of his position on the right side of history. The workers are consigned to the scrap heap alongside E.P. Thompson's Luddite croppers, obsolete hand-loom weavers, and utopian artisans, condemned to forever suffer 'the enormous condescension of posterity'.
By remembering the Wapping dispute this way, we encounter two major problems. The first is that our callousness for those who lost their livelihoods to technological change blinds us to the distinct possibility that the same could happen to us. At a time when automation is threatening an increasing number and range of jobs and professions, it is necessary to look back in sympathy: we need to reconsider our understanding of worker disputes over new technology because many of us are going to be subject to them. I am sure then we will arrive at a rather more critical view of 'progress'.
The second problem we encounter is that progress is treated with a capital 'P': we fail to ask 'progress' for whom and at what cost. The technological imperative, so seductive in an age of Apple Macs and iPhones, overrides all other considerations and factors. We forget that technology is introduced into a world of imperfections and inequalities that it has the potential to exacerbate and widen. In this context, the argument that Wapping 'benefitted' the newspaper industry is dubious to say the least. The gains were short-term and confined for the most part to the rich and powerful. As the money saved on labour merely drove down the price of newspapers, it served to cement the pre-existing power structure and contributed to the kind of competitive environment in which journalists felt that they had to take risks and break the law. The reading public, with the notable exception of the Independent, got nothing out of it. Nothing, that is, apart from intrusions into their privacy, more salacious gossip and phone-hacking. If one takes a closer look at the role of the unions in the newspaper industry, it is possible to see how they safeguarded against many of the abuses and excesses that have been witnessed since Wapping. De-recognition, the de-coupling of printing and publishing contracts and the transfer of print and editorial workers to separate locations, all of which occurred rapidly after Wapping, served to remove the unions as an agent of regulation within the press and severed work place solidarity.
The brand of consequentialism that informs popular interpretations of the Wapping dispute - and many disputes like it - needs to be abandoned. The ends did not justify the means. The newspaper industry did not improve; it arguably got worse. After 30 years in which the wrong lessons have often been drawn about Wapping, it is about time we drew the right ones. It is important to know what Wapping really meant for the working practices of the press in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry; what it meant for the expansion of Murdoch's global media empire; what it tells us about the connections between Murdoch and almost every branch of the British state from the police to the political parties; what it tells us about the labour rights of workers in the age of automation and the ability of trade unions to protect them. These themes are bound to comprise a lot of lessons! For those of you keen on learning more, please follow the progress of Dr Chris Hill's research project (Printers and Press Freedom in Britain: from hot metal to computer). You can e-mail Chris at Christopher.Hill@bcu.ac.uk.