Forty years ago the Tories, bosses and the police used what seemed a minor industrial battle to implement new anti-union laws and confront trade union militancy. They levied massive fines on unions and used riot police to beat pickets.
It was the moment when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government—elected in 1979 with a determination to attack the working class—moved from passing pro-boss laws to actually using them.
The Stockport Messenger newspaper strike in Warrington was a major—but wholly unnecessary—defeat. It was a turning point that cleared the way for the ban on trade unions at GCHQ government communications centre the next year and then the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
On the night of 29 November 1983, 4,000 pickets gathered at the Stockport Messenger print works to stop the production of a newspaper by non-union scabs. In what became known as the Battle of Winwick Quay, around 2,000 cops tore into them, arresting some but pummelling far more.
They wanted to hurt and scare people rather than put them before a magistrate. For hours they used their fists and truncheons to inflict injuries. They sometimes ran pickets between lines of cops who landed blows on their targets.
The police wrecked the NGA union’s van and refused to call an ambulance immediately when a picket collapsed from his injuries and a possible heart attack. They fooled pickets that medical help was coming and persuaded them to step aside. Instead, they brought in crucial printing equipment for the plant.
The Stockport Messenger Group, headed by rising media boss Eddie Shah, had a long-running plan to bust what was called the “closed shop”. This was where all workers had to join the union when they started employment at a firm.
And in the wake of this, Shah wanted to break union control, slash pay in the industry and use the latest technology to cut costs and destroy jobs.
Shah had been around for a decade, creating one of the first firms to churn out free newspapers. He had worked with the union in place at his firm for years, but then created new plants where he wanted the union out.
Shah was taking on the NGA print union. It had real power because of the “craft skills” of its members. It had a capacity to halt production at national newspapers in an era when there were far fewer media outlets than now.
But the NGA leaders had very limited political horizons. They made no effective attempt to spread the struggle to other media unions, let alone the wider movement. An earlier picket of 700 trade unionists and supporters had successfully blockaded the plant.
Shah had repeatedly gone to the courts, demanding they back him under recently passed anti-union laws. The judges delivered and fined the NGA the equivalent of £225,000 for the picketing and other “crimes”. This was eventually to rise to £800,000, and the court ordered the seizure of the whole union’s funds to ensure the implementation of the punishment.
The NGA did not crumble at first. It refused to pay the fine and called out its members at the Daily Mirror, whose owners had a big shareholding in Shah’s company. Later it stopped the whole of Fleet Street, where all the main newspapers were produced, for a day.
It called for wider support. Everyone knew, or should have known, that this would be watched by bosses and trade unionists across the country.
The 29 November picket was a set-piece battle. Socialist Worker had run out a special issue to build the numbers, declaring, “The printers must not be left to stand alone”. It said that the strike would “determine how far workers from post office engineers to peace protesters, from miners to Greenpeace campaigners are able to organise and defend their own lives and living standards.”
After the mass picket, Socialist Worker said, “It’s all-out war. The battle over the Stockport Messenger has become a battle over the future of working class organisation. Injunction follows injunction. Fine follows fine. The very existence of the NGA is now threatened and their leading officers face imprisonment.”
It pointed to examples of rank and file solidarity that showed how the fight could be won. It set out how in 1972 workers had smashed Tory anti-union laws by organising from below. They had spread the conflict through grassroots networks independent of control from the top of the unions;
But it also castigated the TUC union federation and other union leaders for failing to widen the action.
And soon the TUC folded. A subcommittee voted to support industrial action in support of the NGA. But this decision was overturned on 14 December by a vote of 29 to 21 on the TUC general council.
The NGA executive then voted to call off the 24-hour national strike that had been scheduled to begin that day. It gutted the confidence of trade unionists and made the Tories and bosses realise they could go further to break up union power.
Union leaders can sometimes be pushed to fight, or call action to defend their own organisation and roles—as the NGA did at first. But their bureaucratic position means they won’t carry the struggle through to the end, and will seek compromises or lead full-scale retreat.
The lessons matter now as new anti-union laws, going immeasurably further than 1983, are on the horizon again.
The TUC has announced a special conference for 9 December. “It is rare for the TUC to seek to convene the whole trade union movement at a special Congress outside of the TUC’s usual flagship annual event in September,” it said.
“A special congress last took place over 40 years ago in 1982, to fight Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union legislation.”
Trade unionists would do well to organise now to fight the laws whether their leaders call for a battle or not. And they should demand action, not words, from the TUC.
The early 1980s had a very different set-up at work to today and unions had far more rights. Workers held democratic meetings to decide on strikes. But there was no need for secret ballots, notice periods before a strike, telling bosses what you were doing, and so on.
A 1980 law had banned “secondary picketing. And it had required an 80 percent vote in a ballot to create a “closed shop”.
The Tories toughened up these measures two years later, but were nervous about what would happen if they used such laws. They had seen the unions defeat a previous Tory government’s anti-union laws.
TUC leaders had met at a special conference in April 1982 and proclaimed that they would fight the new laws. But there were worrying signals from the start.
A focus for the union leaders was parading their cheques for a fighting fund. But it became clear this would be used to pay legal fees and potentially fines. It should have been a big bank account for solidarity strikes if a union was in the firing line.
And the TUC’s campaign coordinator was Bill Keys of the Sogat print workers’ union. On the same day he was spouting off about defiance at the TUC conference, he withdrew his union’s support from the Camden New Journal strike. That was because of a legal threat.
Warrington put all such union leaders’ froth to the test.
The police unveiled new tactics during the Stockport Messenger strike. They generalised some of the methods developed in Northern Ireland and then used occasionally against, for example, black people during the 1981 Brixton riots.
Tory home secretary William Whitelaw instigated and implemented a new manual for public order that gave the police paramilitary powers. It was available only to senior police officers.
Parliament had no idea it existed. Six months after the manual’s creation, the secret powers were first deployed at Warrington.
This involved new police formations to split the protest, snatch squad arrests and police in Range Rovers chasing pickets in the dark across waste land. Such tactics were as shocking as they were a surprise to the trade unionists involved.
Colin Bourne, the NUJ organiser, remembered, “They drove at high speed at us, lights on full, I ran like hell. I didn’t think the vehicles would follow, it was terrorism. It was designed to terrorise those people who were there. It could have had no other purpose.”
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