The capitalist destruction of working class power

The print unions were amongst the most powerful trade unions in the UK prior to the advent of the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher. She rose to power after the general election held in May 1979, with a rabid anti-union agenda. Up to that point, the print unions held real power in the workplace, and had a long and illustrious history going back to the final decades of the nineteenth century. They and the Steelworkers, Shipbuilders, Dockers, Miners and Car Makers were the cream of organised labour, and whether they knew it or not, the avowed enemies of the exploiter class.

The working class have always had to fight for their rights in the UK. Simply to attain a standard of living that allows for the bringing up of a family without having to exist in abject poverty, and for a fair share of the fruits of their labour. Our forebears fought long and hard for our rights and suffered terribly for their efforts, even to the point of being transported to Australia in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Sadly the modern generation appear to have forgotten the struggles and sacrifices made on their behalf, or more likely they have never heard of those struggles. Even in their current emasculated state, the trade unions are the only thing we have left. We have almost lost our freedom of speech, the PC ‘thought police’ own us, Maggie and her fawning minions bought the gullible. New Labour cynically sold us all down the river by opening the floodgates to mass immigration, and the importation of non-unionised cheap foreign labour.

The capitalists of the exploiter class may use their wealth to create companies and other commercial concerns, and that is all well and good as far as it goes, but their hands do not make the ‘widgets’ produced by those companies. That comes from the physical labour of the working class. A company cannot exist without the efforts of all those who work within it, so why should the producers of the finished products not receive a just and fair reward for their toil?

There has always been conflict between the capitalists and the working class. Workers have always been seen as mere units of production, an extension of the machinery to be worked to disablement, an early grave, or if they are really lucky, a poverty stricken retirement. The central idea of the exploiter class is to obtain labour at the lowest rates of pay possible, they are not interested in a fair society or social cohesion, only profit. 

They were happy to use child labour in the past to achieve that aim in the UK. That along with the enclosure movement and the lowland and highland clearances, that forced people into the factories of the big industrial cities. It should also never be forgotten that the capitalists were behind indentured servitude for the poor white working class, and the horrors of slavery for black Africans.

Even today they have no scruples about utilizing child labour in third world countries, where corrupt governments allow them to get away with it. I have no doubt they would use slave labour too, if they had the chance.

Western consumers are all too often happy to collude in such exploitation, just so long as the shoddy, cheap clothes and consumer goods keep coming. Would they like to see their own children toiling away for a pittance in a dangerous sweat shop? If not, why do they seemingly find it so acceptable for children in the third world?

Nowadays in the UK the capitalists use the device of cheap, pliable foreign labour to drive down the pay and conditions of the indigenous working class. Capitalism is an animal that never changes its spots.  It can only ever be muzzled and kept on a short leash by government legislation and trade union activism. In the twenty first century, under the protection of governments funded and directed by the capitalist elite, with the muzzles off and the leash removed, the working class are once again feeling the chains of exploitation, struggle and poverty. 

Amazingly, there are those indoctrinated by the capitalists who still view trade unions as their enemies, and the capitalists as their friends. How on Earth did such an abomination come to pass? The roots of such warped logic I believe lay in the government of Margaret Thatcher, the capitalist press, and the machiavellian machinations of New Labour under Tony Blair.


NATSOPA Union Card circa 1979

Before the advent of Thatcher the ‘Print’ as it was known was a closed shop. This meant that all recruitment went through the union offices and to get on the books of the union, one had to be signed on by somebody who was already a member. I left secondary school in 1979 and was duly signed on with NATSOPA – The National Society of Operative Printers and Media Personnel – by an uncle.

This union was formed in 1889 and was originally named the Printers' Labourers' Union. In 1899 it became the Operative Printers' Assistants Union, and in 1904 it changed once again into the National Society of Operative Printers' Assistants.

In 1966, the union merged with the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers, becoming Division 1 of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), but in 1970 the failure to agree a common rulebook led to Division 1 leaving to become the National Society of Operative Printers and Media Personnel. In 1972, it merged with the Sign and Display Trade Union, and in 1982 it again merged with SOGAT, on this occasion the merger proving successful.


SOGAT Union Card circa 1990

SOGAT was formed in 1966 by the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers and the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA). The National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers became the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades Division A and NATSOPA became the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades Division 1. The aim was to achieve a complete merger over time, but differences led to in-fighting and in 1970 the two divisions split, Division A retaining the name Society of Graphical and Allied Trades and Division 1 becoming the National Society of Operative Printers, Graphical and Media Personnel (but retaining the NATSOPA acronym).

In 1975, SOGAT officially became the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades 1975 (SOGAT '75) after amalgamation with the Scottish Graphical Association. In 1982, SOGAT '75 and NATSOPA finally amalgamated to become the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades 1982 (SOGAT '82). In 1992, SOGAT '82 merged with the National Graphical Association to form the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, which subsequently merged with Amicus to become that union's Graphical, Paper and Media industrial sector.


The National Graphical Association (NGA) was a British trade union. It was formed in 1964 by the merger of two long-term rival unions, the Typographical Association and the London Typographical Society. It was joined by a large number of small craft print unions including the Society of Electrotypers and Stereotypers; Press Telegraphists; The Association of Correctors Of The Press; Amalgamated Lithographic Printers; Society of Lithographic Artists, Designers and Engravers and the National Union of Wall Coverings and Allied Trades Union. By 1982 it had a membership of 136,300. The NGA merged with the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades in 1990 to form the Graphical, Paper and Media Union.


GPMU Union Card circa 1992

The GPMU was formed from the merger of SOGAT and the National Graphical Association and claimed to be the world's largest media union, having over 200,000 members working in the print, publishing, paper, IT and media industries.

Facing a decline in membership, in February 2004, GPMU opened merger negotiations with Amicus. In August 2004, results of a ballot of all members were released, showing 86% of members in favour of merger. The formal merger took place in early 2005, and GPMU became the semi-autonomous Graphical, Paper and Media industrial sector of Amicus.

Amicus merged with the Transport & General Workers Union in May 2007 to form Unite the Union. The GPMU sector became the Graphical, Paper & Media Sector of this new entity.

The End of an Era

With the merger of the GPMU and Amicus, the independent print trade unions disappeared. I still find it alarming just how rapidly this happened. In 1985 the print unions were still strong and fighting for the rights of their members, by 2005 it was all over. It took only two decades for the Tories and their global capitalist backers, such as Rupert Murdoch, to utterly decimate the print unions. Once this had been achieved, they were able to drive down the pay and conditions of print workers. The new post-Murdoch breed of print workers were increasingly no longer members of a trade union, either through fear of losing their job or through media indoctrination. I would also be so bold as to venture that the workforce has likely taken on a certain eastern European flavour.

Banging Out

The year 1979 saw the arrival of Thatcherism with its emphasis on personal self-gratification, greed and a total disrespect for the concept of society. It turned Britain into a selfish dog-eat-dog country, uncaring and cynical, the consequences of which we are still living with today. Many of the working class were bewitched by Thatcher’s Tories and their Judas silver, much of which was accumulated by the selling off of state assets and North Sea oil. This auction of state assets has left us with the legacy of greedy, foreign owned utility companies we are afflicted by today.

I joined the Print at the end of its golden age, and joined a national newspaper in Fleet Street as a Junior Messenger. It was a standard position for school leavers beginning a non-apprenticed career in the print. The Print was very traditional back then and full of wonderful characters who I still fondly remember today, many years later. I vividly recall hearing my first ‘banging out’ ceremony. This occurred when one of the Compositors on the printing floor retired, and on his last day, the printers banged on their machinery or on metal work surfaces with various metal tools. The noise was tremendous, almost deafening and heard all over the building. None of that exists anymore in the antiseptic, high technology world of modern printing. Tradition is a thing of the past and disappeared with the old print unions.


Another event I will always remember from back in the day was the end of an apprenticeship for somebody, probably a trainee compositor on one of the newspapers that were still printing in Fleet Street. In broad daylight, around midday, a van pulled up in Fleet Street outside the art deco Daily Express building and two men bundled another young guy out of it. He was naked and painted purple from head to foot. They then tied him to a piece of street furniture on a central reservation in the middle of this busy road and drove off. He wasn’t there for too long before he was covered and helped away though.

That was how the print was back then, full of long established tradition and characters. The sad thing for this young apprentice who had trained for many years, and was now qualified as a compositor, was the fact that the introduction of new technology was just around the corner. It arrived as the trade unions were broken and could no longer keep it at arms-length. With it, traditional hot metal printing disappeared almost overnight as did the trades revolving around it. However, at the time of this incident, that was yet to happen and nobody saw the storm clouds on the horizon.

Rupert Murdoch

The Thatcher government had an anti-union agenda right from the beginning. It seemed to many trade unionists that her government was engineering industrial disputes behind the scenes, in conjunction with capitalist businessmen and media tycoons, in order to destroy working class power and bend the unions into submission. The steelworkers and miners were the first to be decimated, and then the Tories and their capitalist paymasters came for the print unions.

The Wapping dispute - war on the working class

Rupert Murdoch was the vehicle used to fire the first heavy salvo in the war upon organised labour in the printing industry. The Wapping dispute started on 24th January 1986 when some 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike after protracted negotiation with their employers, News International (parent of Times Newspapers and News Group Newspapers, and chaired by Rupert Murdoch). News International had built and clandestinely equipped a new printing plant for all its titles in the London district of Wapping, and when the print unions announced a strike it activated this new plant with the assistance of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union (EETPU), a vile Judas if ever there was one.


Immediately after the strike was announced on Jan 24th, 1986, dismissal notices were served on all those taking part in the industrial action, effectively sacking 6,000 employees. As part of a plan that had been developed over many months, the company replaced the workforce with members of the EETPU and transferred its four main titles (The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World) to the Wapping plant. Murdoch had led the print unions to think that the Wapping plant was to be used for a new evening newspaper, the London Post. And so began what became known as the Wapping dispute.

The Wapping dispute was, along with the miners' strike of 1984-5, a significant turning point in the history of the trade union movement and of UK industrial relations. Trade Unionism in the UK would never be the same again and right up to the present day it remains hobbled by anti-working class trade union legislation. The trade unions still remain emasculated and marginalised, a mere shadow of their former selves. 

The global capitalists now have the kind of whip hand they had in the late Victorian period, when trade unionism arose to fight for worker’s rights. Have we really arrived at a point through gullibility, greed and inertia that we have to fight the good fight all over again? Our forebears must be spinning in their graves at what we have allowed to happen.

The Wapping dispute of 1986

News International's strategy in Wapping had strong government support, and enjoyed almost full production and distribution capabilities, and a complement of leading journalists. The company was therefore content to allow the dispute to run its course. With thousands of workers having gone for over a year without jobs or pay, the strike eventually collapsed on 5th February 1987, a day that will live in infamy in the history of British trade unionism.

Eddie Shah

This character was another of the Thatcher and global capitalist stooges, who were used to fire the opening shots of the war against the print unions.  As the owner of six local newspapers, Shah employed anti-trade union laws introduced by the Thatcher governments to defeat the print unions after national strikes that went on for seven months – despite receiving death threats. He was the first person to invoke Margaret Thatcher's anti-union laws to force the unions to the bargaining table. The Wapping dispute followed three years later.

Shah first confronted the trade unions at his Warrington print works and the Manchester news offices in 1983. As the owner of the Warrington Messenger, he sacked six workers in a declared anti-union move. In response, the National Graphical Association (NGA) began mass picketing of the Messenger's offices.

Eddie Shah

On 30th November, over four thousand trade unionists attended a mass picket. The police brought in riot-trained Police Support Units from five surrounding areas and, after some pushing and shoving, the confrontation became physical. The NGA speaker van was attacked and overturned by police, while squads with full riot gear repeatedly charged the pickets. 

The National Graphical Association immediately suspended mass picketing. For the first time in post-war Britain, paramilitary policing more akin to that used in Northern Ireland had been used to attack strikers in an industrial dispute. It was the beginning of the global capitalist’s reinvigorated war on the working class, which continues unabated to the current day.

In October 2012, Eddie Shah was charged with child sex offences allegedly committed in the 1990s. In December 2012, he denied six counts of rape involving a girl under 16. The trial started at the Old Bailey on Tuesday 7th May 2013. On 12th July he was found not guilty. Some have seen the acquittal as a reward for services previously rendered to the global capitalist elite, but I could not possibly comment upon that, or indeed agree with the sentiment, as British justice is seen across the world as being impartial, fair and transparent.


As for me, I left the print when it was going through massive changes, all of which I saw. I witnessed people in well-paid jobs being made redundant, only to be replaced by non-unionised workers from outside the industry on lower rates of pay. I saw the end of the characters who had made the print such a wonderful place to work, and the end of the traditions that had made it such a unique environment. Today the printing industry is just another place of employment, where people are all too often treated as units of production and not human beings, with lives and families outside the treadmill of working life.

On top of all that, British workers now have to contend with competition from an endless supply of cheap foreign labour. With this, they are forced to watch their pay and conditions plummet even further in a race to the bottom. 

The war on the working class has never gone away. It has ebbed and flowed over the years, but has now reached a crescendo. The exploiter class fully realise they now hold all the cards, with an ace or two tucked up their well tailored sleeves for good measure.

The shackles and fetters of the working class

We live in a world today where a small cabal of stupendously wealthy people, an elite of first degree global capitalists, take ever more of the world’s wealth and resources unto themselves, whilst the working class struggle to keep their heads above water and put bread on the table. Nothing ever seems to be enough for these voracious locusts; they behave like bloodthirsty vampires at the throats of working people. 

It really does seem to me that the cycle of resistance, protest, revolt and revolution has to take place all over again in the twenty first century. Do we never learn lessons from history, or are people today too apathetic and wrapped up in the petty distractions of life to care about what is happening around them?

I have always believed in trade unions, and the solidarity they bring as a counter-weight to global capitalism and the excesses of the exploiter class. It pains me greatly to see how many working class people today have been brainwashed by the capitalist Murdoch media to see trade unions as the enemy. 

They are in fact the only friend working class people have in the white heat of unrestricted and unrestrained capitalism. One day, the deluded millions may discover that for themselves and reject the lies and deliberate falsehoods fostered in the capitalist press and online media. The influential propaganda organs of the wealthy elite, who seek ever more power and control over our lives.

There is no doubt that during the 1970's there were severe economic and industrial troubles, and trade union power was, in some instances, excessive. That however was directly caused by the rancid class system in the UK, and the constant struggle of the working class to break free from bondage to an exploitative elite. 

In Germany during the 1970's the situation was far different. The efforts of the working class were recognised and there was worker representation on company boards. Wage levels were realistic and fair, and the wealth divide was much less than in the UK. The result was industrial relations harmony, a lack of strikes and a thriving economy. 

Incredibly, the wealth divide today in the UK is even greater than it was in the 1970's, the rich are getting very much richer, whilst the poor are getting poorer. All this is underpinned by the application of cheap foreign labour by the capitalist elite. The resultant loss of opportunity for the British working class, and the poverty wages on offer, is causing misery and alienation for millions. It cannot go on like this, there will be a reaction by the dispossessed at some point.

Under Thatcher the baby was thrown out with the bath water in respect to employment legislation and trade unionism, and we now have the situation of the working class being savagely oppressed by unfettered global capitalism. Whilst many saw trade union power as being dangerous to the stability of the country, it did not even come close to the greed and avarice of global capitalism, and its ability to destroy lives and national economies. 

The banking crisis of 2008 will forever bear witness to that. We have yet to see any of these greedy, irresponsible bankers wearing orange jump suits and serving long prison sentences for their cocky, reckless behavior. However, we have certainly seen plenty of trade union activists jailed, due to standing up for their rights over the years.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr