David Trippier – 1986 Speech on the Wapping Printing Dispute

Below is the text of the speech made by David Trippier, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, in the House of Commons on 3 March 1986.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) for giving me notice that he wished to intervene in the debate. I shall certainly consider the two specific points that he has drawn to my attention and if necessary I shall draw them to the attention of my colleagues in the Government.

I can tell the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) that we all want to see a swift and peaceful solution to this dispute. I am not here this evening to give advice either to News International or to the print unions about how they should conduct their business. I am certainly not here to talk about personalities. I must challenge the assertions made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East about the fairness of the laws that the Government have introduced on industrial relations and I make no apologies for speaking about the law for which my Department is responsible.

Let me briefly remind the House what was left by the Labour Government when we came to power in 1979, as the changes that were subsequently made have a direct bearing on the dispute at Wapping. In 1979, trade union officials had immunity for the organisation of all sorts of excessive forms of industrial action, such as for example, indiscriminate secondary action, strikes—mainly about political matters—picketing at other people’s places of ​ work and secondary action to enforce the closed shop. In 1979, trade unions had almost complete immunity from legal action to recover the cost of the damage they had caused and at that time union balloting practices included balloting at inconvenient branch meetings and indirect block voting systems for union elections and strike votes by a show of hands at mass meetings.

The aim of the legislation that we have introduced step by step since 1979 has been to redress the balance of power in industrial relations, which had been shifted greatly in the unions’ favour by the legislation of the Labour Government. Not even the hon. Member for Newham, North-East could deny that. We have given employers legal remedies against unreasonable action taken by trade unions in several situations. First, there must be a trade dispute between employees and their employer which is wholly or mainly about industrial matters. That means that unions can no longer organise political protests, which can greatly damage employers who have no control over the issues involved.

For all industrial action organised by a union, we have made immunity conditional on the holding of a properly conducted secret ballot in which the majority of those voting must say that they wish to take part in the action. It is important to stress that every person asked to go on strike must be given the chance to vote, and that is especially relevant to Wapping. They must be reminded that, by taking industrial action, they will be breaching their contract of employment that by taking strike or other industrial action, they are putting their jobs at risk. That is what our law requires, and that is again especially relevant to Wapping.

We have also limited the circumstances in which employees may take lawful secondary action. Where secondary action interferes with the performance of commercial contracts, or threatens to do so, its organisers must satisfy—

Mr. Leighton rose—

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman has already had a fair crack at the debate, and I agreed to allow the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney to intervene, so I have been left with only a short time in which to answer the debate.

If the secondary action is indiscriminate in its effects — for example, if its main effect is to disrupt the business of employers not involved in the dispute—its organisers have no immunity. The requirement, which is now most familiar, is that secondary action should take place at a customer or supplier who has a commercial contract with the employer in dispute, and be aimed at the supply of goods or services between them.

There are special provisions to cover the case where, because of a dispute, the employer in dispute transfers work normally done by his employees to an associated employer such as a subsidiary company. We did not, as some urged at the time, and some people seem to think now, outlaw all action in those circumstances. A reacting of section 17 of the Employment Act 1980 will show that we gave unions the right to take action against any associated employer to whom work is transferred because of the dispute.

However, immunity for secondary action is subject to further conditions. Inducement to break a contract of employment has no immunity if it interferes with the ​ supply of goods or services and the reason, or one of the reasons, for the industrial action is that the supplier does not recognise, negotiate with or consult trade unions or union officials, or because he employs members of a certain union or non-union members.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Another management brief, just as in the Silentnight debate.

Mr. Trippier

The hon. Gentleman would be amazed. I wrote most of it myself.

The law on picketing is also important. Where pickets interfere with the ability of employers to fulfil their commercial contracts, they and their organisers normally have immunity from civil law proceedings only if the picketing is at or near the pickets’ place of work and the purpose of the picketing is peacefully to obtain or communicate information or peacefully to persuade a person to work or not to work.

Mr. Prescott

What about Murdoch?

Mr. Trippier

I have to tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that daubing cars with paint is not peaceful persuasion by anyone’s standards.

It is important to remember that picketing which is not peaceful and which, for example, leads to violent or abusive behaviour, intimidation or obstruction of the highway, is likely to involve offences under the criminal law. There is no immunity for people who commit such offences while taking industrial action, and they may be arrested and prosecuted by the police.

All this means is that the industrial relations scene to which the hon. Gentleman refers is light years away from the one that we inherited. I am pleased to admit that the number of strikes is at a post-war low and that the number of days lost shows a substantial decline.

Mr. Leighton

What about Murdoch?

Mr. Trippier

I said at the beginning of the debate that I would not refer to personalities.

This decline has been made possible partly by our laws, but our laws alone cannot take all the credit. They would not have succeeded if they had not reflected and kept pace with the views of ordinary working people. Ordinary working people do not want to be called out on strike without first being asked for their views, and that means not just a car park show of hands but a properly conducted secret ballot. Ordinary working people do not want to be dragged into somebody else’s dispute.

I do not want to go back over old ground, but I think that the Labour party suffers from a peculiarly short memory. They were, after all, swept from power in revulsion against the wholesale spread of secondary action and secondary picketing that gripped the country in the winter of 1978. Our aim has been to see that never again will there be such wholesale damage done to employers, trade unionists, non-union members and the community at large by the spread of someone else’s quarrel.

We have done all that we can to open the doors of new technology. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East said that that was not relevant, but I think that it is extremely relevant. So often in the past secondary action and mass picketing with its bully-boy tactics have been used to stop the implementation of new production techniques.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

What about Murdoch’s bully boys.

Mr. Trippier

Standing out against new technology does not preserve jobs, it destroys them. Of course, not all the jobs that disappear in this way in the United Kingdom are lost for ever. Many of them are alive and well and living in our competitor countries, where there has been a longer tradition of shared objectives between management and work force. I have said before that I do not work to advise either of the parties in this dispute—

Mr. Prescott

What about Murdoch?

Mr. Trippier

I do not wish to get involved with personalities, as the hon. Member for Newham, North- East has sought to do, by referring in emotive language to one individual. I want to end simply by noting that a new realism is developing in other industries and indeed, thanks to Mr. Eddie Shah, elsewhere in the printing industry. I hope that that realism will one day take root in Fleet street.