Ron Leighton – 1986 Speech on the Wapping Printing Dispute

Below is the text of the speech made by Ron Leighton, the then Labour MP for Newham North East, in the House of Commons on 3 March 1986.

For 28 years before coming to the House I worked as a printer on the News of the World and later on The Sun in Bouverie street. I am sponsored by the largest printing union, SOGAT ’82.

Rupert Murdoch’s callous and malevolent sacking of his entire work force of 5,500 without a penny of compensation or redundancy pay is an act of savagery unparalleled in British industrial relations. It is an affront to justice and ordinary human decency.

I shall begin with what the dispute is not about. It is not about new technology. That is something that the unions accept, and already operate on other newspapers. The truth is that in the Wapping machine room there is no new technology. The machinery there is secondhand. It is 16 years old and it has been in store. It is the same as that which was running in Bouverie street and Gray’s Inn road. It is old letterpress machinery, with no facility for printing colour. The new technology in Wapping is in origination, in computerised photocomposition. This already exists and it is being worked with union agreement at the Daily Mirror and The Mail on Sunday. Let no one say that the unions are Luddite. Technology cannot excuse the barbarism that has occurred.

One of the most offensive aspects of this squalid story has been Murdoch’s lies, the conspiracy of deceit, over months and years. One example is his cynical pretence of negotiating the transfer of staff to Wapping while all the time working deliberately and cold-bloodedly to eliminate the staff completely. One myth is that the company tried to negotiate for six years and could get nowhere. That is the opposite of the truth, as I shall show.

The staff at Gray’s Inn road were not involved in negotiations because it was told that it was not going to Wapping. All the members of the clerical staff on all the newspapers were told that they were to stay put when the printing moved and that as a consequence they were not to be involved in the negotiations. The chapel and the department where I worked was the News of the World machine section. I have documents which show that what were called preliminary discussions were proposed by Mr. O’Neill for the company on 3 May 1983, when he invited chapel officials to tour the new building and then to fly to Finland to visit a modern printing plant. The management at that time gave clear, firm, categoric guarantees that there would be no compulsory redundancies.

On 2 January 1985, discussions had reached the stage where Mr. Britton could write the chapel a lengthy letter setting out all the areas of agreement and the company’s proposals. He again reiterated:

“The company has given assurances that no regular employee need make himself available for voluntary redundancy.”

These management proposals were accepted by a chapel meeting in January 1985.

On 12 January 1985, Mr. Isaacs, the father of the chapel, wrote, as he put it, “with pleasure” telling the management that relations appeared good. At the last meeting with the management, Mr. Isaacs stated that the chapel would

“accept all the constrictions laid down by management, and are prepared to move forthwith into Wapping to print the News of the World.”

But all this was a blind; it was bogus; it was a cheat —for all along, behind the smokescreen of these phoney negotiations, Murdoch was advancing his secret strategy to provoke a dispute and sack the entire work force. All talks were broken off by the management in the spring of last year. The management said that Wapping would not be used for the News of the World or the Sun but for an entirely new title, The London Post. Despite the attempted secrecy and repeated denials, information leaked about people being bussed in from Southampton and about electricians doing production work. The talk of a new title was a further deception covering the final preparations for the production of the four Murdoch newspapers at Wapping and simultaneously throwing the entire work force into the street without a penny.

These 5,500 British workers, our fellow citizens, have been the victims of a disgraceful, cynical and carefully laid plot to deny them their basic entitlements under British law. The Government should explain whether they approve, whether this is the sort of industrial relations practice that they want to encourage. These thousands of people have in many cases given a lifetime of service to these publications, often predating Murdoch’s ownership. They are not just statistics, but people, flesh and blood with lives, families, futures, hopes and feelings. Are they to be callously discarded and thrown without a moment’s thought on to the dole queue?

By this brutal action, Murdoch saves more than £40 million, and possibly £60 million, in redundancy pay and gloats about it. But who picks up the tab? The answer is the taxpayer, in state benefits. So the Government are subsidising Murdoch’s barbarism with millions of pounds. Are they happy about this? Do they approve? I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us.

If Murdoch makes even bigger profits from his British operation by this shabby injustice—he told the New York Times that he expects a 75 per cent. increase in profits next year—what will he do with them? He will export them to America to finance his media empire there. Is this what the Government want to encourage and reward? Murdoch owns 95 newspapers worldwide, yet his four United Kingdom newspapers make more profits—some £50 million last year—than the rest put together. The thanks that the British staff got for producing those profits was the sack from an unscrupulous proprietor who has just sold out his citizenship to become Americanised so as to own more newspapers in America. A former British Conservative Prime Minister once described a business man as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. Is not Murdoch’s the ugliest, most repellent, unacceptable face we have seen? Will the Government dissociate themselves from it, or endorse it?

Few would not now recognise that in Brenda Dean and Tony Dubbins the printing unions have two of the most reasonable, measured, temperate and realistic of leaders. They have leaned over backwards to reach an accommodation. The most far-reaching concessions were made to Murdoch to obtain union recognition: an unprecedented offer of no disputes without ballots; binding arbitration triggered by either party; a profitability, efficiency, productivity and job flexibility commitment; joint union comprehensive schemes; and fewer bargaining units—all this, plus direct input, both ​ editorial and advertising. Let no one say that the unions were dinosaurs—not willing to change, to negotiate, to reach agreements taking on board new conditions and working practices. What more could the unions offer and still remain trade unions?

But Murdoch does not want, and is determined to destroy, free, independent unions. Instead he wants a single, tame, domesticated, client, yellow dog union, rather like the staff association at Government Communications Headquarters. He wants all industrial action, however minor, whatever the provocation, or circumstances, even at the end of disputes procedure and after a ballot, banned completely. He goes further than General Jaruzelski. He wants servitude. His lawyer’s definition of industrial action includes refusing voluntary overtime and attending unauthorised meetings. For those offences, under the special form of legally binding agreement he wants, individual workers could be sued for damages and stripped of their homes and personal possessions. He deliberately and calculatedly laid down impossible conditions to engineer a strike.

A letter from the law firm of Farrar and Co. of 20 December 1985 to News International, advised on “the cheapest way” of

“dispensing with the present work force”.

It explained:

“The idea is to catch as many employees in the net as possible.”

It even advised:

“there may be some merit in having piles of dismissal letters at exit doors”.

That was in case the industrial action was of short duration. They wanted to ensure that they caught everyone in time. The lawyers reminded the company:

“We talked of this some months ago”.

In other words, they had been conspiring and planning it for a long time. Has anyone heard of anything more despicable and shameful in industrial relations? It is a form of industrial terror.

New technology should be welcomed by all. It should be a boon to all. Its introduction should be by negotiation, handled sensitively, in a humane way, especially for people who have given years of service. All sorts of calumnies have been spread about printers, even by the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, previously the Secretary of State for Employment. He alleged on the BBC television programme “Question Time” that he had personal experience 10 years ago of SOGAT Saturday night jobs at the News of the World being ballotted around the country and that they were paid £300 for one night. As I worked at the News of the World 10 years ago, I told him that he had grossly misled millions of people. I sent him evidence in writing which showed that pay for a long 14-hour Saturday night in. 1979, seven years ago, including all the overtime, was around £50. Ten years ago it would have been considerably less. In other words, the Secretary of State, in his gross and crude exaggeration, was about 1000 per cent. wrong. I gave him that information in writing on 15 February, but I am still waiting for him to correct the falsehood and put the record straight.

Many of those sacked were women — clerks, telephonists, librarians, cleaners, sales staff and circulation representatives—by no means excessively paid, but all victims of the same brutal treatment. Will the Government stand up for them? We should not forget the journalists, or “journos” as Murdoch disparagingly calls ​ them, who were told, without consultation, to be bussed ignominiously behind the razor-wire fortifications at 24 hours notice, or be sacked. Those who honourably refused were dismissed with standard letters addressed “Dear Sir/ Madam”. So much for press freedom and so much for the integrity and independence of the press. No wonder 108 journalists have left The Times since Murdoch took over.

We must all look at the grotesque operation of the law. If workers undertaking a strike after a ballot with an overwhelming majority can be dismissed, where is the right to strike? That could not happen in any other democratic country. Elsewhere, a contract of employment is suspended during a strike and reinstated afterwards. That must be rectified in this country.

What has been the effect of this Government’s legislation? Within days of starting a lawful dispute following a ballot, SOGAT found itself snarled up and enmeshed in a dozen legal actions, its funds sequestrated, with a firm of chartered accountants controlling every penny the union owned. Was that the Government’s intention? The union did not set out to break the law, ignore it, or be in contempt of it or to hide its funds. The union has been open and honest in its attitude. However, the law is geared to make it impossible for British workers to engage in a dispute and not be ensnared by it. Many hon. Members voted to restrict union activity, not to abolish it, but that is what has happened.

The legislation stopping secondary action was supposed to protect innocent third parties. Action was restricted to the workers’ own employer and the employer’s immediate first supplier or customer, but who is the employer if Murdoch sets up a maze of fictitious and allegedly independent companies? If former employees of Times Newspapers, or News Group newspapers knock on the door at Wapping where those newspapers are now printed, they find that the employer has disappeared and now calls himself something different.

He calls himself London Post (Printers). It would be secondary action. Is that what was intended? The wholesaler would be the first customer, but not when Murdoch sets up a company between the papers and the wholesaler. Then any action becomes secondary.

To implement this chicanery, Murdoch set up six separate companies in the year before the dispute. Murdoch has exploited, twisted and manipulated the new laws to render trade union or collective action legally impossible. That cynical spectacle is causing a groundswell of public opinion against him. Even his own Wapping-produced Sunday Times of 16 February talked of

“the legal ring-fence that now forbids or cripples many traditional forms of industrial action.”

The paper quoted Eddie Shah as saying that the dispute is being “suffocated by the law.” Murdoch’s own paper actually goes on to say:

“There is little doubt that so far in this dispute the law has operated almost entirely to corral and circumscribe the unions, to a point where some are wondering whether the balance of worker-employer power may have shifted too far.”

An editorial in The Guardian talked of the

“shock on learning that 6,000 well-paid jobs can be junked overnight, without warning and without compensation or redundancy pay.”

The trade paper, Printing World, talked in an editorial on 19 February of

“the unfairness of the position. Mr. Murdoch may well be congratulating his lawyers on the subtlety of their machinations, but others are aware that the employment laws are being twisted ​ … For a company to divide itself into associated companies solely as a means of invoking the law against secondary picketing is a cynical manoeuvre. If that is the law then the law needs to be changed.”

Do the Government agree with that? Will they now change those unjust laws?

Does the right to withdraw labour still exist in Britain? Do workers have any rights at all?

The Labour party is clear about those anti-union laws. It will scrap the lot and start afresh, with workers’ rights. But the existing laws are the Government’s. Theirs is the responsibility. Are they prepared to restore some balance, fairness and justice? Will they give an assurance that they do not have yet another anti-union Bill coming along? The present laws not only permit, they positively incite, injustice, strife, division and bitterness and situations such as Wapping. Is that the Government’s idea of “caring capitalism”?

What the House and the country will want to hear tonight is what the Government are going to do to promote a settlement. For the staff and the unions are not going to go away. The dispute and the picketing will continue until there is a settlement. A settlement can come about only by negotiation.
The electricians and the journalists at Wapping still have to live in the community. They will not want to work in those appalling conditions for ever.

Already they are complaining to management. Engineers have refused to maintain the machines. The London press branch of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications, and Plumbing Union who staff the Fleet street papers were not consulted or balloted. On 29 January this year they sent a resolution of protest to their union. The present situation with its unfairness, hardship and confrontation cannot endure for ever. There must be a resolution. I ask finally: will the Government use their influence to get the parties together, and encourage proper negotiations to end this evil situation?

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the right hon. Gentleman have the consent of both the Minister and the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) to speak?

Mr. Shore

Yes, Sir.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) for raising this scandalous matter in the House and giving me the opportunity to say a few words about it.

It is utterly deplorable that 5,500 print workers, men and women, should have been sacked by Mr. Murdoch. It is even worse that the circumstances should have been deliberately engineered so that they forfeited their redundancy pay and that their pension rights should have been put at risk.

It is a disgrace that the journalists employed on News International papers are compelled to work in an industrial complex surrounded by razor wire and security guards.

It is equally unacceptable, though so far little noticed, that the more than 3,000 people who live in Wapping— which I represent—should have their lives increasingly disrupted by a dispute in which they are not engaged and which they cannot influence. That disruption is happening in two principal ways.

First, convoys of heavy lorries leaving News International, escorted by police cars—sometimes with their sirens blaring—are being diverted away from the Highway, which is the natural route, and taken on a circuitous route through narrow streets in the heart of residential Wapping.

The noise of these heavy vehicles, the grinding of gears as they change down, and the speed with which they are driven, are a major disturbance and source of danger for the people who live in Wapping. That continues from mid-evening until well into the early hours of the morning. Minor accidents have already occurred and more serious ones have been avoided by a whisker. The worst incident yet happened in Thomas More street on Saturday night, 1 March when a TNT lorry driver drove straight at a group of local people and demonstrating print workers. The road was very icy and slippery and the driver hit Mr. Tony Flint, a sacked switchboard worker, on the site and he was knocked unconscious and had to be taken to hospital.

My second point is that Wapping is being turned, for several days of the week, into a prison for the people who live there. It is now the most heavily policed area in the United Kingdom. People are constantly being stopped and questioned and asked for proof of identity when on foot. Residents driving home have had their cars turned back. That is a gross interference with the normal and lawful rights of free access to one’s own home in one’s own community. I have had many protests by letter and telephone from constituents and from such collective bodies as the Wapping tenants association, the Wapping parent action group and the trades council.

Clearly, no complete remedy will be found to these problems until the dispute is resolved. These are powerful and additional reasons why the Minister should abandon the “hands-off’ and passive stance of his Department and lend his weight to securing an early and negotiated settlement.