Thursday, October 29, 2009
Memories of the Wapping print dispute - some Haringey support experiences [1986-7]
[A document prepared for Wapping Commemoration Meeting]
A year-long London printworkers strike/lockout occurred soon after the miners' strike of 1984-5. In Haringey, like in most parts of London, there had been a very active Miners Support Committee. That Committee had involved a wide range of local groups and activists, mostly working together pretty well. There were some internal tensions as the Committee was largely under the control of the Haringey Trades Union Council (at the time controlled by members of Communist Party of Great Britain). Many members of the Tottenham Claimants Union (TCU) and users of the Unemployed Workers Centre (628 High Rd, N17) were also very active in the Miners Support Committee. The TCU members were themselves in dispute with the Communist Party as they believed that the unemployed users, not the HTUC/CP officials, should have control over the Unemployed Workers Centre.
When the printworkers' dispute started, a Haringey Printworkers Support Committee was set up under the auspices of the Trades Union Council. Some TCU members got involved with that Committee, but others gradually made their own direct links with Wapping strikers and pickets, and offered their direct support. Below we summarise from a libertarian perspective some of the Haringey support for the Wapping strikers/pickets, based on two different accounts of action:
The Haringey Support Committee
[Alan Woodward writes]
I had just moved back into the borough from the Midlands that Easter and therefore was not familiar with the local background. I went to the fortnightly meetings of the Haringey Printworkers Support Committee and acted with them. The HPSC organised several activities and gave out many leaflets calling on people to support the boycott of the Murdoch newspapers at WH Smiths, and such like. Also they:
* produced regular bulletins. Number 5 for example included references to the links with the local ClearVu strikers; announced 50,000 leaflets to be produced; gave details about distribution and flyposting; acknowledged local support; and confirmed committee meetings.
* organised public meetings including the big one at Hornsey Town Hall on 9 June 1986 - “The Truth behind Barbed Wire” - where there were several speakers including Carol Hall, deputy Mother of the Chapel [shop steward] of the Times Clerical chapel, Alf Parrish, a full time official from the National Graphical Association, Vic Cooke from the AEUW Co-ordinating Committee, Martha Osamor, a councillor with links to the Broadwater Farm estate community and Alf Salisbury, a local CPGB member. Tony Benn was billed to speak but did not.
* had a well organised leafleting rota for 8 places in the borough, which took place at the weekend. Support for this was sought with rota support leaflets.
* made regular trips to Wapping every Saturday night, including hiring a coach for the more important ones like 14 June.This left at 8.30pm and returned at 3am!
* Collection sheets were printed and circulated and returned to Paul Lefley, HTUC Secretary, or Peter Lambert. I have no record of monies raised by these.
* Did frequent flyposting tours using the “rolled up“ method.
Police violence was not just exercised at the well guarded picket at Fortress Wapping.They would sometimes raid nearby pubs and select out anyone who looked like a supporting picketer. These could be roughed up and/or then arrested on trumped up assault charges. They were, and probably still are, a feature of their actions. In retaliation, groups of us would wander round the back street hoping to find a police car or two. Once spotted these would be pelted with stones and small bricks until they made a hasty exit.
The Saturday night expeditions were not that successful as a whole as the police had perfected their techniques from the miners strike, but examples of their violence still found their way to the courts.
Saturday January 1987: this was a big demonstration / mass picket. Very large numbers turned up, including football supporters from West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea and Charlton. There was heavy stoning of police lines and severe restriction on their activity. I was there, very active, but on the following Monday was whisked into hospital for an operation for the removal of a cancer, then 10 months of chemotherapy, so had to drop out. The strike continued.
Other Haringey solidarity & the PICKET bulletins
[Dave Morris writes]
In the mid-1980s Tottenham Claimants Union was a very active and independent organisation of the unwaged and unemployed, meeting on a daily basis in the Haringey Unemployed Workers Centre. We were involved in a wide range of social, welfare and political activities including supporting workers' struggles. Following heavy involvement in miners’ support work many of us were keen to support the Wapping workers in what was clearly going to become a highly significant, protracted and militant battle involving daily picketing of sometimes thousands of strikers.
Some of us were also involved with a local libertarian activist collective, Haringey Community Action. Members of HCA and TCU wanted to make direct contact with strikers, but early visits to picket lines had not been promising as the Union officials in the dispute (who were mainly Communist Party members) seemed to be discouraging any independent or 'unofficial' support networks. At one large demonstration I witnessed a Union Official during a speech try to denounce a group of unsatisfied hecklers as 'probably agent provocateurs in the pay of the CIA'.
However, at a meeting in Central London I met printworker Arnie Mintz who, with another NGA general trade printer, was trying to encourage pickets to do their own news bulletins independently of the Union officials. He was looking for active encouragement and support as he hadn't done anything like it before. He eventually launched the weekly PICKET bulletins, written entirely by and for those picketing, financed by public donations. There were 43 issues produced right up to the end of the dispute, up to 5,000 copies each edition, mainly 2 sides A4, densely-packed no-frills militant daily participants' reports of the many demonstrations, pickets, flying pickets and any other direct actions. The message was 'it's up to us to speak for ourselves, spread the dispute, and to take any action necessary to win'. This struck a chord with all those in the dispute. The entire series of bulletins can be read at: http://libcom.org/history/picket-bulletin-wapping-printers-strike-1986-1987
They were fantastically popular with those on strike and on the picket lines. As a result of the contacts we'd made, and our offer of unconditional support, our small group from Haringey got invited to join the picketing (which we did at least 2 or 3 times a week), and often helped hand out the PICKET bulletins to pickets. They were grabbed out of our hands and passed amongst all present. We also joined in some of the middle-of-the-night mass flying pickets around London, Brighton, Midlands etc which aimed and often succeeded in closing down Murdoch distribution depots by any effective means to hand.
I was told by those producing PICKET that the Communist Party union officials were pissed off that the pickets had their own independent and outspoken paper, but that they couldn't suppress it as it was fully backed by the 'rank and file' union membership. Fairly early on the editors asked us in the Tottenham Claimants Union if they could use our address (c/o the Unemployed Workers Centre) as the contact address for PICKET. We agreed. However after a number of further editions, Communist Party officials on the Trades Council launched an incoherent and ludicrous attack on PICKET and on the Claimants Union! This led to a protracted local dispute, ending up with the Claimants Union setting up our own Unwaged Centre in 72 West Green Road N15, and the eventual closure of the Unemployed Workers Centre. PICKET's publication address was switched to that of Housmans Bookshop at 5 Caledonian Road, N1. Our small group from Tottenham continued to attend Wapping picket lines and demonstrations until the end of the dispute.
In the 1970s (when I was a union activist in the Post Office), and up to the early 1980s, I had been involved in an independent libertarian workers' solidarity group, the London Workers Group. We had encouraged and supported workers to take direct control of their disputes themselves, take militant action, do their own leaflets and papers etc. 4 or 5 of our 40 or so members were printworkers themselves. This bulletin was everything we had for years been arguing for in strikes etc, and could have helped inspire other similar initiatives in other future disputes.
However the miners and Wapping printworkers were finally defeated after heroic and inspiring struggles. This led to increasing attacks by employers on everyone's wages and conditions, and increasing demoralisation throughout the labour movement. But we can still learn a great deal from the experiences of those who took part in past struggles, their determination and fighting spirit, and the tactics and methods of self-expression and self-organisation.
Written by AW & DM of the Radical History Network of NE London
1. To Break a Union - the Messenger, the State and the NGA [Mark Dickinson, 1984, 209pp] details the important Warrington print strike prior to Wapping.
2. Printers Playtime - a collection of articlesand accounts, mainly from London Workers Group supporters, and from ‘Workers Playtime’ bulletins [1988?, 32pp].
3. Paper Boys - first hand account of picketing at Wapping [1986?,24pp?].
4. Two academic articles from ‘Historical Studies in Industrial Relations’ [University of Keele]: The 1986/7 News International Dispute: was the workers defeat inevitable? [Peter Bain, HSIR 5, 1998, 13pp]; Leadership and Mobilization - SOGAT in the 1986-7 NewsInternational Dispute [Mike Richardson, HSIR 15, 2003, 20pp]
5. SUN - Spoof edition - http://libcom.org/history/the-sun-spoof-newspaper-wapping-strike-1986