The Unions - part 1

The Wapping dispute marked the beginning of the end of Fleet Street newspaper production.

Newspapers were first published in and around Fleet Street in the early eighteenth century: The Times dates back to 1785 and the News of the World, with its diet of crime, scandal and sport, first appeared in 1843. By the early twentieth century, Fleet Street was synonymous with national newspapers, a highly commercialised, competitive industry whose owners enjoyed political clout and social prestige. Literate and skilled, printers were among the first to organise trade unions. Previously craft guilds had regulated prices, discipline and entry to the trade.

The trade unions inherited many of the guild traditions, including the term “chapel” the name for workplace or department union organisation.  Almost all sections of a newspaper workforce were fully unionised: production and distribution, office and managerial staffs, cleaners and canteen workers.  All prided themselves on their trade-union principles and preparedness to stand up for their rights and for those of others.

There were dozens of print unions but by 1982 mergers had resulted in just two: the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). Journalists and photographers were mostly members of the NUJ, and all electricians and engineers were members of their respective craft unions the EETPU and the AUEW.  Irrespective of trade-union mergers or changes in newspaper ownership, the chapel structure survived in all sections and in Fleet Street they exercised considerable autonomy.

During Fleet Street’s post-war boom from the early 1950s, many newspaper owners were happy to see wages rise because this put pressure on their competitors. But from the late 1960s industrial relations often were strained and disputes increased, usually over pay, jobs, or working practices and demarcation. Also there were stoppages in support of other workers or issues, such as the NHS, the miners, and occasionally challenges to vindictive or offensive material in newspaper columns with attempts to exert a right of reply.

In 1976 print union leaders promoted “Programme for Action” a strategy developed with the employers to deal with industry problems related to jobs, costs and new technology. It was almost universally rejected by the Fleet Street chapels and members who feared job cuts and lower wages.

Chapel organisation that was based on a closed-shop system of 100 per cent membership and union-organised supply of permanent and temporary labour, meant that many but not all Fleet Street workers enjoyed higher-than-average wages.  The stereotypical image of the overpaid Fleet Street printer ignored the fact that newspaper and print workers were among the highest-paid workers in most western countries.   However, the confrontation over jobs and new technology came later to the UK than elsewhere because of the strength of the Fleet Street chapels and weak management.


SOGAT - Society of Graphical & Allied Trades: represented cleaners, copytakers, librarians, editorial assistants and messengers, engineer’s assistants, finance, payroll and sales staff, photo- technicians, print machine assistants, copy readers, regular casuals and temps, secretaries and administrators, telephonists and telecomms staff, warehousemen and drivers; all were involved in the dispute and dismissed with the exception of those who chose to support the company and move to Wapping; almost all the production workers were sacked and most of the clerical and admin staff.

NGA - National Graphical Association: represented artists and process workers, compositors, print machine managers, proof readers, foundry and stereo workers; with the exception of some very senior managers all NGA members were sacked.

AUEW - Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers: represented the engineers who were all involved in the dispute and dismissed along with the workers who were members of the print unions.

NUJ - National Union of Journalists: represented writers and reporters, editors and sub-editors, photographers; the NUJ chapels decided to accept the company’s bribes and moved to Wapping. A number of journalists who refused to betray their workmates and joined the dispute were sacked and became known as the “refuseniks”.

The London Press Branch of the EETPU (the union branch representing electricians in Fleet Street): without joining the dispute directly as they had no support from their union, Press Branch members at News Group Newspaper and Times Newspapers supported the dispute throughout, and were made redundant in the summer of 1986.