During the 1980s the newspaper industry in the UK underwent a huge transformation. Up until that time, Fleet Street in central London had been the centre of the newspaper industry, with papers being written and printed on site before being distributed across the country. The 1980s saw new developments in printing techniques and newspaper companies began to move away from the traditional, time consuming methods of Linotype printing rather than the more flexible and adaptable digital methods.
One of the most powerful men in the newspaper industry during this period was Rupert Murdoch, owner of News International which produced titles including The Times and The Sun. He saw the benefits of moving to the new digital offset printing methods and started to construct a new newspaper printing services facility in Wapping, in the east end of London. He saw the move to the new facility as a chance to change some of the practices in journalism that he saw as restrictive, such as allowing workers to go home early if their allocated work was finished or paying overtime payments to workers covering for colleagues who were off sick. Murdoch saw the removal of these practices as the key way to make his operation more competitive and profitable.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) was strongly opposed to any change in working practices that they felt would harm their members. After lengthy negotiations with News International the Union called its 6000 members out on strike at the end of January 1986. News International responded by sacking all employees who were participating in the strike, and began employing new workers to fill their positions. This was a highly controversial move and prompted large scale demonstrations outside the company’s headquarters and also at the new newspaper printing services building in Wapping. Ordinary people were encouraged to boycott the newly printed papers in support of the striking workers. Despite massive picketing operations at the new site to try to stop journalists and other workers getting in to work, News International managed to keep production of its titles going throughout the dispute, without a single day being lost. A large police presence was required at the Wapping site every day to try to ensure that the new employees who wanted to work got into the building safely. Many police and strikers were injured as often the picketing turned angry and violent.
The strike lasted over a year into February 1987. By this time many of the strikers were becoming disillusioned and they had not been paid a salary for over a year, and many of them simply could not afford to continue in their dispute for any longer. The strike changed the way newspapers in Britain were printed for ever, and by the end of the 1980s all major newspapers had switched production to new, efficient sites away from their traditional Fleet Street home. It also changed the face of the Trade Unions movement in the UK along with the Miners’ strike of 1984 to 1985.