In my early days as a journalist, especially when I worked at Holywell and used to go to the head office printing works with Peter Leaney, one particular point was always drummed into me: “Don’t upset the printworkers.”
Once the stories for the newspaper had been sourced, written and subbed the journalists passed over control to the printworkers, who came in many shapes and sizes.
In those days printers mainly belonged to one of three unions, the NGA, SOGAT and NATSOPA (which joined SOGAT but then left before rejoining in the early 80s) , each representing a different set of workers in the printing process.
The National Graphical Association represented typographers and related workers; the National Association of Operative Printers and Media Personnel mainly represented the press operatives and machine minders; the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades, represented those dealing with graphics in newspapers.
Journalists were allowed into the printworks but had to remain on the opposite side of the stone (a metal-topped bench on which blocks of print were set into forms as part of the process to make printing plates) to the printworker. Journalists were not allowed to touch anything, not even to pick up an item dropped by a printer which happened to land by your feet.
Such an action could immediately lead to a call to down tools and it could take hours of discussion between union officials and management before normal work could be resumed.
This tended to create a wariness between the two groups of people who made their money from the same product.
On that November day in 1973 it wasn’t the printers who had stopped work at the Westminster Press Group offices in Basildon – it was the journalists.
The NUJ had called for a 24-hour stoppage during negotiations with the Newspaper Society for changes in pay and conditions.
Having walked out at 11 am all the journalists were prepared to start work at 11 am the next day – except management, who had accepted the 24-hour stoppage, decided to change the rules and demanded a return to work of all staff at 9am.
The journalists stuck to their guns but when they attempted to return at 11am they found they were locked out.
While waiting instructions from NUJ head office a temporary roster for pickets had been set up.
At 3pm one of the pickets returned to the meeting room early, saying: “We’ve got company.”
Behind him we could hear feet on the stairs, lots of feet.
Then in came a large body of men – the printworkers.
It was not normal for printers to take action other than when it involved their own sphere of the production process. Today, however, the printworkers had held their own chapel meetings and all of the unions had decided to stop work in support of the journalists.
We still hadn’t heard back from the NUJ head office but in the meantime we accepted the presence of our colleagues with gratitude.
Before long the printers, who with their combined numbers outnumbered the journalists, were starting to get everything organised – then again they had more experience than us in these meetings.
The first thing suggested was the formation of a temporary joint chapel with the officers, FoC, Deputy FoC, Clerk and Treasurer (if this lasted we would need to raise money), being drawn equally from the individual chapels.
The print unions had soon agreed on their choice of delegates and I suddenly found myself being put forward as a journalist representative. Maybe head office journalists, subs and reporters, felt it better not to have too high a profile and my own colleagues, possibly aware of my socialist leaning, were quite happy to put me forward.
The official roles were then allocated and it apparently seemed obvious that the journalist should be the Clerk of the Chapel.
The first job was to inform management that the printers had joined us (although by now I thought that would be obvious); then new groups were rostered for pickets at head office and at the town centre office as well as district offices (Billericay and Wickford).
Rather than everyone performing picket duty it was also agreed to utilise the talents of the individual workers and one thing that came to the fore was getting the local people on our side.
The chief sub-editor and a group of subs and journalists were immediately put onto preparing daily news pamphlets to offer a limited news and sports reporting content as the Echo and Recorder would not get printed. The news sheets would also include details of what the dispute was about.
Going against all the principles of good journalists we would be putting propaganda into our publications – but this was in a good cause.
A small group of printers were sent out to find local printing companies (union works only) to print these news sheets for us.
I was impressed at the efficiency of the print union workers in getting a dispute headquarters up and running within an hour of them joining us.
There was much to be done as we did not know if the stoppage would last a day, a week or a month. After all without printers management could not produce newspapers and would lose revenue from advertisers.
At that point we were a bit like the British soldiers in World War One and just as they expected it to be over by Christmas we expected it all to be over by the weekend.
The journalists tended to know any major diary stories for the next couple of weeks but didn’t expect to still be out when these happened. Certainly nobody was worried at that time about not being back in time for special editions covering the marriage of the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, to Captain Mark Phillips, on November 14th.
We were mistaken.