Lindsey German: The long running industrial dispute which marked the opening of the Wapping plant 25 years ago helped to create the world we now live in; the weakening of the unions, the strength of free market doctrines and powerful newspapers dictating to cringing politicians.
I didn't buy the final edition of the News of the World on Sunday. Nothing new there. I vowed never to pay money for a Murdoch newspaper back in 1986 and I never have. My boycott was in response to the destruction of the print unions on Murdoch papers when he moved to Wapping and began the inglorious era which has ended with reporters imprisoned, a former editor under arrest, a suspected 4000 people who have had their phones hacked, and payments running into thousands of pounds to policemen.
The flight to Wapping is one aspect of the Murdoch, Brooks and News of the World scandal which hasn't received much attention, but there is a connection between what is going on now and the long running industrial dispute which marked the opening of the Wapping plant 25 years ago.
What Murdoch did then was to use the advantages of new technology to break one of the best organised and longest established groups of workers in London. You couldn't get a job in the print industry without a union card and union agreements controlled pay and conditions. News International closed down its titles in Grays Inn Road and Fleet Street, sacked 5,500 workers and moved with a largely new workforce, organised in another trade union, into what was then a rundown area of East London.
Wapping was secretly prepared for months and the whole operation conducted like a battle in a wider war - which it was. The workforce, secretly recruited through the electricians' union, was asked at interviews whether they would be prepared to cross picket lines. The company cared nothing for employment law, let alone decency or treating workers fairly. They wanted to build a business which would be free of union constraint, able to treat its workers as it wanted, and one which would become highly competitive and profitable.
The workers and their unions didn't take it lying down. They picketed Wapping for over a year. On Saturday nights there would be mass pickets, supported by other trades unionists who came with their banners, demonstrating in the streets around the fortified plant, and trying to halt the lorries from the Murdoch owned TNT which were delivering the newly printed papers. Road haulage by passed the railways which were highly unionised. One Saturday Michael Delaney, a young man celebrating his 19th birthday, was run over and killed by a TNT lorry leaving the plant. An inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, but no one was prosecuted.
This was a year after the defeat of the miners' strike, which had been policed so brutally. The police at Wapping were no different. Protestors were attacked regularly. One particular night, police horses led charges of the demonstrators, with many injured and arrested.
Murdoch could not have continued his operation without this level of policing, sanctioned at government level. The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, left no doubt where her sympathies lay.
So we saw then how closely government, police and the company worked together _ and eventually they defeated the unions. I was not totally surprised therefore to hear a former policeman on Sunday's Channel 4 news say that the close relationship between the police and the News of the World dates from the time of Wapping, when they collaborated to ensure the papers went out.
Those events helped to create the world we now live in; the weakening of the unions and along with it lower wages and worse conditions; the free market doctrines which allowed those like Murdoch and Brooks to get richer and richer as inequality grew; the poison in the bloodstream of the body politic as ever more powerful papers dictated to cringing politicians.
The very least we can do now is to demand a clean press and accountability from police and politicians. Can that be done with the arrogant and unaccountable Murdoch empire in place?
To even ask the question is to get the answer.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- 'Not mere manslaughter, but murder': why we're still living with Victorian values - Weekly briefing
- The Dilemmas of Lenin
- Hamburg showed the emperor really doesn't have new clothes - weekly briefing
- This is our time, but we have to organise - weekly briefing
- We need a new saying: 'safe as houses' just doesn't cut it anymore
- The Tories: a wretched apology for a government, clinging on to office - weekly briefing
- The Grenfell Tower disaster exposes the deep class divide in our society