For years Fleet Street had been living with poor industrial relations – the so-called "Spanish practices" had put limits on the owners that they considered intolerable. On the other hand, the company management was seeking to have the union accept terms that they considered unacceptable: flexible working, a no-strike clause, the adoption of new technology and the end of the closed shop.
Despite the widespread 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, rather than being composed electronically. Eddie Shah's Messenger group, in a long-running and bitter dispute at Warrington had benefited from the Thatcher government's trade union legislation to allow employers to de-recognise unions, enabling the company to use an alternative workforce and new technology in newspaper production. Journalists could input copy directly, reducing the need for labour in the print halls, cutting costs and improving production time dramatically. Although individual journalists (many of whom were members of the National Union of Journalists) worked behind the wire, the NUJ opposed the move to Wapping and urged their members not to go without proper negotiations. Many members refused to go and became known during the dispute as "refuseniks". The NUJ was represented alongside the Print unions in the negotiations with News International which eventually led to a monetary settlement.
Immediately after the strike was announced, dismissal notices were served on all those taking part in the industrial action, effectively sacking 6,000 employees. 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 main titles (The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World) to the Wapping plant. Murdoch had led the print unions to think that the Wapping plant was to be used for a new evening newspaper, the London Post. And so began what became known as the Wapping dispute.
In support of sacked members, the print unions organized regular demonstrations outside the company's premises in Pennington Street, with six pickets posted on Virginia Street and marches usually converging nearby on The Highway in the London district known as Wapping. The unions and leading members of the Labour Party also called for a boycott of the four newspapers involved.
The demonstrations outside the Wapping plant were not always peaceful , although the Trade Unions claimed to be committed to pursuing peaceful means to resolve the dispute. Like the miners' strike, large demonstrations were mounted to dissuade workers - in this case journalists and operators of the new printing process - from entering the premises, and a large police operation used force to ensure they were not able to physically stop the movement of lorries distributing newspapers from the plant. More than 400 police officers and many members of the public were injured, and more than 1,000 arrests made during the dispute. A large-scale police operation was mounted throughout London to ensure the Wapping plant could operate effectively, and the movement of local residents was heavily restricted. To ensure their safety, workers at the plant were often taken to and from work in buses modified to withstand the attacks they came under.
The print unions had encouraged a national boycott of Murdoch's papers, and had been relying on the rail unions to ensure that they were not distributed, a problem Murdoch circumvented by distributing his papers via road haulage carriers instead of trains. And despite some public sympathy for the plight of the pickets, the boycott of Wapping's news titles was not successful. Not a single day of production was lost throughout the year of the dispute's duration.
News International's strategy in Wapping had strong government support, and enjoyed almost full production and distribution capabilities and a complement of leading journalists. The company was therefore content to allow the dispute to run its course. With thousands of workers having gone for over a year without jobs or pay, the strike eventually collapsed on 5 February 1987.
With the restrictive trade union practices associated with the traditional Fleet Street publishing empires removed, the trade union movement in Britain was irrevocably changed. The actions of News International and Rupert Murdoch, together with the EETPU and the police were criticised – in particular the policing methods that were employed. People in Wapping were largely viewed by the police as sympathetic to 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 saw the end of the traditional association of the area with the Labour Movement.
By 1988, nearly all the national newspapers had abandoned Fleet Street to relocate in the Docklands, and had begun to change their printing practices to those being employed by News International.
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