Chapter 09: The printworkers struggle at Warrington

Submitted by Red Marriott on July 4, 2009

Chapter 9:
The printworkers struggle at Warrington

Once again we interrupt the specific history of the miners to look at some other class struggle history that was going on at the time – the battle of the printworkers against Eddie Shah at Warrington, close to Liverpool. The first text – The Big Lie At Warrington - is by Wildcat (January 1984) and concentrates mainly on the contradictions of the printworkers union. The second – The Battle of Winwick Quay - is by A Communist Effort/Neil Fernandez (March 1984) and concentrates mainly on the tactics of the cops against the pickets, tactics which were refined during the miners' strike.


The economic crisis of capitalism which now affects every country in the world, and is here to stay, has profound implications for the working class. Above all it has revealed the reactionary nature of the trade unions, and trade unionist ideas. The more the working class comes under attack, the more the unions call upon their members to be “reasonable” and accept these attacks. The bureaucratic nature of trade unions is a sure sign that they are not our organisations, but are imposed on us by the state in order to discipline us and prevent us from struggling effectively, The trade unions are the division of the class into separate and often competing grades, trades, industries, regions and nations. Trade unionist ideology justifies this division by spreading the lie that there need be no fundamental conflict of interest between capital and labour. According to trade unionist ideology, the combination of a “strong union” and “realistic management” will enable any dispute to be solved with a minimum of fuss, and without needing to involve workers from other unions.

The growing conflict between the trade unions and their members is a clear sign that there is no meeting point between our interests as workers and those of capitalism, Either capitalism will crush us as it descends towards economic collapse, barbarism and world war - or we must destroy capitalism. The struggle to destroy capitalism will be in large measure a struggle by workers to overcome the divisions and confusions imposed upon them by the unions and trade union ideology, and by so doing destroy all unions and union bureaucracies . In their place workers will organise their struggles through mass assemblies uniting all workers and democratically controlled by them.
On one hand the unions are faced with a growing disillusionment, cynicism and hostility among their members. On the other hand, the bosses are less interested in using the “mediation” of the unions to reach “compromises” with the workforce. The crisis is forcing them to take a much tougher line. The trade unions are finding that their usefulness to the bosses is declining, and their powerful position within the state apparatus is coming under attack.

This two-sided crisis of trade unionism forms the backdrop to recent events at Warrington. Now read on…

[b]How a Small Dispute Became a National Scandal[/b]
At the beginning of July 1983, the printworkers’ union, the NGA, called out on strike eight of its members working for a small company in Stockport. The dispute was not about anything which directly affected these eight workers. What was at stake was the power of the NGA in the printing industry. Through its control of the printworkers the NGA has won the right to act as personnel manager for the entire industry; hiring and firing workers as it pleases in pre-entry closed-shop agreements with the employers. This uniquely powerful position of the NGA depends upon the preservation of craft privileges. The bosses need the special skills which the NSA jealously guards within its ranks. The workers tolerate the dictatorial behaviour of the union because of the high wages their craft status brings them. Now high unemployment and new technology mean that the “good old days” are nearly over for one of the last great craft unions.

Mr Shah, chairman, of the Stockport Messenger group, at first seemed to be according the NGA the respect its leaders felt they deserved. He signed a closed-shop agreement for his new printing works at Stockport, at the same time, as is customary, joining the NGA himself, along with his fellow directors. This fact should give food for thought to those who think that the NGA exists to defend the interests of printworkers. The NGA is part of the management, and vice versa !
However soon afterwards the Stockport Messenger Group opened two more print works in Warrington and Bury, using non-union labour at cheaper rates. The NGA called out its members in the Stockport works on strike, who were promptly sacked by the management. Having thrust these eight workers into the front line of battle, the NGA proved more reticent about giving them support in their struggle to get their jobs back. With no prospect of an easy victory the dispute quickly became an embarrasment to the union. Two months later, in September, NGA officials said that the dispute was “the biggest issue currently facing the union” ... but not big enough, apparently, for them to do anything about it.

At this stage it seemed that the dispute might well end up like other similar strikes involving a handful of workers, which have dragged on, almost unnoticed, for months or even years. But instead it became, for a few days in December, front page news. It became what Socialist Worker dramatically proclaimed “a battle for the future of working class organisation.”

Why was it that this dispute became the battleground for the first test-case confrontation over the new union laws?

Partly it was due to the intransigence of the employers, who were determined to use the new laws to stop “secondary picketting” by the Stockport workers at the Warrington works.

More importantly it was due to the militancy of NGA workers which forced union leaders, very much against their will, to take a stand. Many workers in Fleet Street were eager to take strike action. After the success of the first one-day strike, the mass pickets were arranged to divert the energies of the militants into an action which was lass effective but (so NGA leaders believed) less politically damaging.

Unfortunately for the NGA, the police (and the government which sent them in) had their own ideas about mass pickets. An eye-witness describes what happened:
“From early on in the night the pickets were content to block the road en masse . They were left pushing the police backwards and forwards for many hours using up a lot of valuable energy. At this point in time (up to 5 o’clock) the police were content to pull pickets from out of the front of the line. They did not arrest them but just gave them a good thumping. We believe that this tactic was deliberate and pre-planned, as it softened up many of the militant members of the demonstration. For a couple of hours before the vans came out the police used baton charges to disperse many hundreds of pickets. When the vans eventually came the pickets were in no condition to fight back, The police tactics had succeeded…” (From a leaflet published by Middlesborough Direct Action Movement, c/c Box A, 120 Victoria Road, Middleborough).

However, even if the police finally succeeded, the pickets did fight back. Another eye-witness, describing events on the same night of Tuesday, November 29th, reports:
“The police foolishly smashed up the NGA control van, causing union officials to lose control of picketting workers. The picket then defended itself against the police with bricks and bottles, barricades were set up, and local unemployed workers joined in the fight with the police.” (From a leaflet published by the London Workers Group)

NGA leaders were horrified by this class violence. Workers actually fighting back against the police. This wasn’t what they wanted at all. Even more worrying, lots of the pickets clearly wanted to go back the next night and have another go. Union leaders were determined not to lose control of the struggle again. So they concocted an extraordinary manoeuvre to sabotage the picket. Pickets were bussed en masse to Manchester for a rally. While the workers listened to trade union leaders making militant speeches, thirty miles away the newspaper lorries emerged from the Warrington works almost unopposed.

If the unions had really wanted to win the dispute, there were many other forms of solidarity action which could have been used to hit the Stockport Messenger Group. Workers at Telecom could have been asked to disconnect the phone lines, postal workers to block the post, and power workers to disconnect the electricity ... But at this point NGA leaders wanted nothing more than to let the dispute slip quietly back into the obscurity from which it had emerged. Len Murray’s “‘betrayal” was the answer to their prayers. NGA leaders must have felt like they’d won the pools: now they could call off the action and put the blame on someone else.

The Limits of Militancy at Warrington
What appeared as a battle between the Tory government and the unions, or later between ‘the NGA and the TUC, masks the fact that all parties involved are part of the capitalist state with vested interests in supporting the capitalist system. What is at issue in the dispute over the new union laws is: who is going to control the workers ? The unions insist that it’s their job. Thus Len Murray said of Tebbit, “Is he trying to stir up unofficial strikes? He must know that every union does everything in its power to control a strike”.

In other words the unions are jockeying for position within the ruling class. The new laws threaten the power of the trade union bureaucracy and have provoked a real conflict between them and the government. But despite their differences, all sides in this conflict have the same fundamental aims. This is why they all wanted to make sure that any confrontation took place in circumstances where, whoever won, the working class was bound to lose .

This is the real reason why it suited all sides that the new. laws, should be “tested out” in this small dispute in far-away Warrington. They were able to ensure that despite Socialist Worker’s grand claim that the dispute had become one between “the working class and the Tory government”, the genuine interests of the working class were not represented at all.

The militancy on the picket lines went much further than the unions intended. NGA leaders joined Labour, SDP and Tory MPs, and the TUC general council in condemning the “violence” of workers defending themselves against the onslaught of military trained police riot squads. Surely if all these people were against them, many people will say, what the workers were doing must have been good! However workers militancy was not, and at Warrington could not have been, directed towards the right aims.

It is important that workers are prepared to use violence when necessary to defend their interests. However the nature of this working class violence is and must be very different from the violence of police riot squads or the army. Working class violence does not depend on military discipline and sophisticated technology of mass destruction: it is by its very nature turbulent and apparently uncontrolled, but in reality based on self-discipline and self-organisation, and fuelled by creativity, enthusiasm and, above all, solidarity. Workers can never hope to defeat the police in a set-piece confrontation such as took place at Warrington. But even these specially trained and well-armed forces must give way to the irresistible pressure of the mass struggle of the working class. When the mass strikes in Poland were at their height, even the Russian army hesitated to invade.

This is why in every struggle the aim of militant workers must be to spread the struggle . “Spreading the struggle” means increasing the numbers of workers involved. It means joining in a common struggle with workers from different unions, companies, industries and regions. And to achieve this it means broadening the aims and raising the demands of the struggle. In this context, it can he seen that the whole question of “secondary picketting” is a red herring. What the bosses and the unions call “secondary picketing” at best aims at limited solidarity action by other workers such as sympathy strikes, blacking goods etc. At worst it is no more than a ritualistic act. The aim of the bosses and the unions is to make workers think that strike is just the affair of the particular group of workers directly involved. To make an issue about whether we’re allowed to engage in what they call secondary picketing, means accepting the bosses’ definition of what is the legitimate primary area of dispute.

In fact workers habitually go beyond the limits of “secondary picketing” even, at times, such as today, when there are not many strikes. The action by workers at Moss Morran described, in the following article; the flying pickets sent by Yorkshire miners to call 14 pits out on strike over the over the victimization of one man; the picketting by Shell workers in their recent dispute which aimed to spread their strike to the tanker drivers – all these are examples of when workers in 1983 organised themselves to spread their struggles . Unlike the blanket media coverage given to the picket at Warrington, the media keeps quiet about these examples of workers successfully defying the new union laws in a way which went beyond the limits of “secondary picketing” as advocated by even the most “militant” of union leaders. In fact all these actions were actively opposed by the unions. This is why the unions could hardly have used them as the test-case for the new laws.

At Warrington on the other hand, there was much less danger of the struggle spreading in a way which escaped union control. There was never any question of calling the workers at Warrington out on strike - they had been hand-picked by Shah for their anti-union views. Nor did the issue at the centre of the dispute - the victimisation of eight workers in a union somewhat isolated from the main body of the working class- have a direct relevance for other workers.

At Warrington the unions were able to take up the issue of secondary picketting as a principle. If through a struggle over secondary picketting the Shell workers, for example, had won their claim for higher wages, millions of other AUEW and TGWU workers might well have been inspired to follow their example. But the last thing the unions wanted was for workers to gain a sense of their class power through putting secondary picketting to practical use in a struggle over wages, conditions or factory closures.

Arthur Scargill could confidently polish up his radical image by calling at Warrington for the “biggest mass picket in history”, without any fear that this might affect the outcome of the strike at Monktonhall colliery which was at that time being sabotaged by NUM officials. This is the scoundrel who in 1981 addressed a meeting of striking steelworkers, pledging the support of the miners they desperately needed, while offering them nothing except ... a miner’s lamp!

The Unions and the New Laws
There is another reason why the unions could feel confident that the dispute at Warrington would not get out of hand. The NGA is possibly a uniquely well-disciplined union. When the NGA withdrew the pickets from Warrington, official Joe Wade was able to confidently predict that “if we give this instruction to our members, they are very loyal ... I’m quite sure that they will accept the advice that we give.” Very few other union leaders could have said this. Certainly not NUM leaders, whose members habitually reject their recommendation to strike and then come out against their orders when they are least expecting it. Nor AUEW leaders, who, after smashing the strike at Laurence Scott, to name but one, are virtually synonymous with shit in many parts of the North-West. But the NGA can still use its members like well-disciplined troops.

This is something which all unions leaders wish they could do. Indeed they used to be able to: after leading their members in a series of more or less successful strikes in the early seventies, the unions were able to call hundreds of thousands of workers out to demonstrate against Heath’s Industrial Relations Act. But having used their power to help get Labour back into power in 1974, the unions collaborated with this government’s austerity programme, of which they were the joint architects. They called, and still call, for “realism” in the face of the crisis — which amounts to workers accepting wage cuts, worse working conditions, and redundancies. From the “ordinary workers” point of view they are no longer able to deliver the goods. Their attempt to mobilise support against Tebbit’s union laws in the Days of Action was a miserable fiasco. On the other hand when workers do struggle, the unions are often unable to contain them.

The “loss of control” by the unions over their members is essential to an understanding of the new laws. The Tories are well aware of the value of the unions in controlling the working class. But they also know that workers do not have the same unthinking loyalty towards them as they used to. Their credibility is wearing thin. The new union laws are part of an attempt by the government to compensate for this weakness by creating an atmosphere of repression and fear, to frighten workers away from confronting the “tough” Tories. The Tories want to be seen to confront the unions because it fits in with this image: they decisively reject the ideology of “we’re all in this mess together” which the previous Labour government used to carry out the same policies as the Tories, with the open collaboration of the unions during the period of the “Social Contract”. The new laws do weaken the power of the unions, which is why they tried - unsuccessfully - to mobilise their members against them. But the unions are still integrated into the decision-making apparatus of the state at every level, through their membership of hundreds of committees, The Tories are not seeking to destroy them, but to redefine their role in society in the light of the economic crisis which forces the bosses to take a much tougher line against the workforce. The unions are no longer to be the “free and equal partners” in all aspects of government, as they aspired to be under Labour, but to have a much more limited role of selling wage restraint, speed-ups and labour discipline to their members, within the framework of an acceptance of the fact that government policies cannot be challenged, since they are determined by “economic realism”, and backed up by “public opinion”. The new laws restrict the unions’ freedom — but offer them in return increased legal restraints against their more militant members who have caused them so much trouble in recent years,

A majority of the unions are now prepared to accept this new role. But they want the decision to collaborate with the government to appear to be forced upon them by their members, They will not be all that dismayed by the “defeats’ at Warrington.

Where Next?
For the working class what happened at Warrington has a different significance. As the mass picketting was underway, Socialist Worker wrote:
“But it is not just the NGA which is threatened, based on tight-knit class loyalties. So if the NGA is beaten at Warrington by the use of the law, then very few other groups of workers are going to feel they have the power to defend union organisation under the same threat.”

In fact no single group of workers is powerful enough today to win major victories on its own. This idea that workers should “take on the government” union by union, with the “weaker unions” waiting for the outcome of struggles waged by the stronger ones, is an ideological attack on the working class, Its aim is to prevent the unification across union boundaries which is becoming more and more essential as the deepening crisis erodes the economic power of individual groups of workers. The example of the defeat of a “strong union” can then be used to foster demoralisation among the rest of the working class.

The 1981 steel strike provided a classic example. Other groups of workers, while waiting to see if the steel workers could win what was seen as a test-case confrontation with the Tory government, held back from taking the very actions which were desperately needed by the steel workers, and could have led to the success of their strike. Then the defeat of this “powerful group of workers” led to the downturn in class struggle from which we have yet to emerge.

In fact there is no reason why the “defeat” at Warrington should prevent workers from continuing to successfully defy the picketting laws. However union leaders will try to use it to justify their suppression of future attempts by their members to do so - as part of their overall strategy of reaching a compromise with the Tory government. In this they are supported by arguments like those used in the above quote from Socialist Worker, which can only contribute to any demoralisation the “defeat” might have caused.

But what in any case would the union “victory” which the SWP called for amount to? Something like the victory claimed by McGahey at the Monktonhall colliery, where none of the workers’ original demands were met ... but management agreed to use the “officially agreed negotiating procedure” in the future. In other words, management will work more closely with the NUM before making any further attacks on the miners!

Workers have shown time and again that they are quite capable of successfully defying any picketting laws. But the workers at Shell who had broken the picketting laws without giving them a second thought, were finally defeated by a series of union manoeuvres. The unions are a greater threat to our struggle than any law: we know the law is against us, but the unions stab us in the back. Workers do not yet have the confidence to openly defy their unions. But when the picketting laws are next broken during the course of a major struggle, the unions will line up with the government against the workers, and then the stage will be set for the real battle to be fought.
WILDCAT, January 1984.

The Battle of Winwick Quay

On the night of 29th November, 1983, took place the biggest battle between strikers and cops in Britain since Grunwicks 1977 and before that the struggles of 1972-4. 4,500 workers fought a battle with 2000 cops, including official police, Tactical Aid Group squads, and a ‘paramilitary’ private security gang hired personally by Edward Shah. The police – all sections – were very well organized and the dispersal and combat tactics were reminiscent of those used in the 1981 riots in Moss Side and Toxteth, when squads of the Tactical Aid Group were also deployed. At one point, Land Rovers chased pickets back across a rough field behind the factory whilst squads with helmets, visors, and padded jackets managed to push back several groups of pickets to the nearby M62 motorway.

The action began on Tuesday 29th, when 2000 demonstrators who had gathered in front of the printworks at Winwick Quay experienced a disciplined police assault. First, the police loosened up the crowd by walking amongst it in groups of four (it, of course, shows a weakness of the picket that they allowed the police to do this without attacking them); secondly, a large group of about 200 or 300 police in a nearby car park formed themselves in a phalanx of “flying wedge”. This wedge marched in disciplined fashion into the centre of the crowd to physically split it after having already spread it out….Thirdly, police from the middle of the wedge, presumably themselves in smaller wedges, further subdivided the crowd. It took the police over two hours to clear the workers from the yard in front of the factory, but they were unable to prevent them from re-grouping later, on the edge of the main road which led to the estate. Police then assembled in front of the entrance to the main access road to the works, and began to try to clear the road and push the pickets further back. By this time, the riot squads had arrived and formed into small combat groups behind the police line. In a psychologically well thought-out manoeuvre, the offical police then moved forward and suddenly opened up gaps in their ranks to let the riot police through to attack the pickets. Apparently the pickets then dispersed in fright, they had probably not expected a battle against riot police. However, the more radicalised of the pickets could still manage to re-group at 3a.m. And, as they were attacked by riot police, dragged blazing braziers onto the road – probably not as a barricade in the sense of a defended position from which to attack, but as an immediately accessible way to halt the police advance without explicitly aiming to extend their own territory. Still, the pickets managed to attack the police with bricks and bottles, and 25 cops were injured, along with 18 of the workers themselves. 86 arrests were made; one worker was arrested for carrying a .45 automatic but it turned out to be only a replica...

Let us note that at this time the leaders of the NGA were ostensibly “in support” of a mass picket, but of course for non-violence, orderly behaviour, no autonomous intitiatives, no attacking the cops, etc. Joseph Wade, boss of the NGA, stressed on television that what he wanted was a small semi-illegality to “protect trade union rights under the law” in order that trade-unions could pursue their legal function (mediation). Remember that even peaceful mass pickets, or picketting at anywhere else than one's own work-place, are now illegal. He and other bureaucrats could even blame “police provocation” and police brutality (“bad management of the police”?) as instigating the battle, thus displaying his own belief that his own bureaucrats could curb workers' anger more effecitvely than the police and courts. The capitalist nature of trade-unions became even more glaring when they tried to organise sit-down passivities when nearby there was a raging battle of strikers against riot police.

Significantly, Robert Maxwell, another press boss who has never shied away from sacking strikers en masse (for example, the printworkers at Park Royal), was reputed to have telephoned Edward Shah to warn him to cool things down in order to forestall “disastrous” effects in Fleet Street. This surprising revelation shows the fear, and at the same time the strategic consciousness, of parts of the British bourgeoisie: it may have kept the number of strikes down since 1978-9, but is aware that it has not yet definitively succeeded in demoralising proletarians, whether in waged work or on the dole. Just as in the economic sphere, in the political sphere too there are no more long-term plans of the rulers, even on the scale of 4 or 5 years. Just as the Russian capitalist class has had no faith in its recent 5-year-plans, so now its British counterpart increasingly play everything which concerns politico-economic plans on a year-to-year level. Note that on a military counter-subversive level, though (defence aganst possible proletarian assaults), the bourgeoisie, or at least its strategic centres, is capable of extremely intelligent planning for contingencies, militarily and psychologically.
From: A Communist Effort, March 1984.