Socialist Worker

Wapping striker speaks 25 years on: ‘If we’d had all of Fleet Street out we couldn’t have failed’

When press baron Rupert Murdoch sacked 6,000 Fleet Street workers in 1986 and moved their work to a scab plant in Wapping, John Lang was deputy father of chapel in the Sogat union clerical branch at Times newspapers. He told a public meeting

Issue No. 2236

John Lang speaks at the meeting  (Pic: Smallman )

John Lang speaks at the meeting (Pic: Guy Smallman)

“I remember in September 1985, two things happened. One was someone showed me the front page of the Socialist Worker, with an article quoting a EEPTU branch official from Southampton talking about his worries about a recruiting office opening there with hundreds of people coming down to Wapping.

And second, they did a dummy run of a paper very much like the Sun. It was a key moment in the dispute when the decision was taken not to do anything about that. One union branch proposed that all the national titles come out on a 24-hour strike after that dummy run, but it never happened unfortunately.

Basically from there it was stalling tactics until the dispute started.

We went from being ordinary working people—I worked in a library—to having to organise ourselves into what was a complete strike rally organisation.

From day one, we set up an operations room. I remember copy being phoned into Wapping, reading old newspapers, sports reports etc, some of which appeared in the Sunday Times the next day. Immediately we were trying to undermine what was going on there.

The first night, there were maybe only 150 or 200 people down at Wapping. No-one thought they’d be able to distribute [the scab newspapers—Murdoch hired scab lorries to bypass unionised distribution workers]. And none of us thought it’d last a year, but it did.

It was an unbelievable display of strength really. We were involved in doing things we’d never done before.

50 percent of our branch were women, 600 of us out on strike. There was a big call for speakers, with many of us ending up speaking at mining pit villages and across the country.

We ran the operations room—taking the calls, that was the clerical people. We were involved in absolutely everything.

For those of us who were branch officials, we were involved in what were basically strike committees, regular Tuesday meetings, attended by 50 to 70 people. Sometimes it was like having teeth pulled.

We had many disagreements even within our own branch. We adopted a policy calling for the whole of Fleet Street to be called out to win the dispute. It caused a lot of animosity and argument—we never managed to get that point of view put across.

As time went on, we found ourselves more and more isolated.

Agreements were made at other papers where the national union decided they didn’t want more disputes like the one with Murdoch. Every time one of those agreements was made it included lots of conditions we had come out on strike against, and we were left more and more isolated.

Despite that, we carried on.

We had incredible strength really. We became sort of driven underground. We became almost—it’s difficult to explain, but we found ourselves almost outside of society.

There were things going on we never dreamed we’d get involved in. Things turned against us: the policy of Murdoch was supported by government and its legislation, supported by the police—the permanent police state in Wapping.

We got monetary solidarity, but really we needed people out on the street. We had 40,000 members minimum in Fleet Street—if we had 40,000 members out down at Wapping we couldn’t have failed.

As we got more and more isolated, we became more desperate. The dispute was handed back to the national union very early. At the annual conference a motion was passed saying we would not go back into sequestration [when courts confiscate unions’ funds for breaking the anti-union laws, which ban secondary picketing]. The national union was determined that would not happen.

We found ourselves in the terrible situation where we were being threatened with disciplinary action by our own union. No scab had ever been disciplined by that same union. And it rancoured.

Eventually, 24 January, the anniversary, was the excuse that was needed really. The deal was done with the company. The union called the dispute off, on 5 February 1987.

The last time I spoke in this room [St Bride’s Institute, off Fleet Street] was on 9 February 1987. I was on this top table. I must say they’ve given it a nice lick of paint.

When the dispute ended, we decided to interview people over a couple of months about their memories of the dispute. Being clerical workers we had access to typewriters and all that kind of technology, and people kindly typed it up for us.

This is by Brian Dobkins, who was a librarian, about that meeting. He sums up better than I can—this is how it was:

‘The whole place was looking very down at heel, with peeling brown paint doing its best to hide the room’s pleasing architectural detail.

‘Old Tudor chairs with frame canvas seats were set in rows. A tressle table stood on a rickety platform at one end of the room. It was a far cry from the opulence of the TUC or the University of London, where previous important meetings had been held.

‘Slowly, in sombre mood, people began to arrive and talk together in subdued tones. The meeting overflowed into an anteroom.

‘ “This is the most important meeting I’ve ever chaired,” she began. The meeting put the chapel administration’s motion that the dispute be considered at an end, and that the compensation offer be taken up collectively with dignity.

‘It seemed shockingly abrupt. Unusually, nobody wished to speak on the motion. There was an air of resignation—a recognition that the dispute was really over. There was nothing more to say.

‘The vote was taken. 34 voted against. The rest, some 200 or 300 people abstained. “I know it’s over but I just can’t bring myself to vote for it,” was the common explanation.

‘They asked simply for people to thank the chapel officers for their work throughout the strike. Everyone in the room stood and applauded, releasing a groundswell of pent-up emotion, so intense you felt you could touch it. I felt like my head was going to burst.’

Comrades, that was solidarity. Thank you.”

John Lang is writing a book about the Wapping dispute based on the typewritten accounts, planned for publication later this year

The meeting he spoke at was organised by the NUJ and Unite unions and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom

For the recent Socialist Worker article about the battle of Wapping go to 

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Wed 26 Jan 2011, 18:30 GMT
Issue No. 2236
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