'Naive? I was not going to be a female Scargill'

CALM,
COLLECTED, softly spoken and immaculately turned out, Baroness Brenda
Dean looks – as she looked back in 1986 – the furthest from the image
of table-thumping trade unionist that it’s possible to imagine. The
first woman to lead a big industrial union, and considered a Fleet
Street outsider when she took over leadership of the print workers’

union,
Sogat, in 1983, Dean’s less combative negotiating style and acceptance
of the inevitability of new technology went a long way to changing the
nature of talks with newspaper management.

Coming from the north
of England where, as Greater Manchester assistant branch secretary, she
was made very aware of the power of the London branch, Dean was perhaps
able to take a more objective view of industrial relations on Fleet
Street.

Shocked by the “near anarchy” she encountered, Dean, who
was made a life peer in 1993, says that what she saw of the
negotiations convinced her that ultimately the Fleet Street management
had the unions they deserved. So much of what went on in Fleet Street
was down to “macho posturing” that she was determined to act
differently, says Dean.

There were those among News International
management who hoped Dean might be able to secure an agreement over
Wapping: “They’d say to me, ‘Are you going to sort this out?’ and I
told them, ‘This has been going on for years, it’s ridiculous to think
I can come along and sort it out. When you start behaving differently,
when you are prepared to negotiate properly and not play games, we
might get somewhere.'”

Dean, now Baroness Dean of
Thornton-le-Fylde, says she doesn’t “have sufficient ego” to agree with
those who have said that had she arrived on the scene a year earlier
the dispute might have been averted, although she saw immediately that,
in an attempt to end the two-year stalemate, she had to try. One of the
first things she did was ask for a meeting with Rupert Murdoch, the
proprietor of News International.

“I could see that there was no
way Wapping could have sat there with a cloth over it for ever and a
day,” she says. “Even if Murdoch had the patience to allow it, his
bankers wouldn’t. It was a highly geared company: something had to
give. Murdoch was a damn good businessman. If he couldn’t get it
through negotiations it was pretty clear he would find some other way
of getting it.”

For so long the print workers had been bullishly
confident that they could prevent any changes going ahead unless they
agreed them, because they could stop production and therefore had the
“the ultimate weapon of power”.

“That had worked over many years,
but I knew there was going to be a day when it didn’t,” says Dean, who
led delegations to Japan and the US to demonstrate the impact new
technology was having on newspaper production there.

Ultimately
she believes that had chapel representatives not persuaded London
branch members to reject the Programme for Action, which would have
brought in “civilised” working conditions and technological change,
things might have gone differently.

“In a way my view is that the
whole of the dispute goes back to that decision. I honestly believe
that if that had been carried, we would never have had Wapping.” Aware
of the political context they were operating in – the Wapping dispute
was the first test of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s
anti-union laws – Dean says there was a “Hampton Court maze of complex
reasons” that led to the dispute.

Sitting in a restaurant in the
House of Lords, Dean says what strikes her looking back is “the awful
inevitability and brutality of it all”. Given the bitterness that many
of the print workers felt towards journalists who decided to go to
Wapping at the time, it is perhaps surprising that Dean says she felt
sympathy for the journalists because of the choice they faced.

“That
weekend was probably the worst weekend for most journalists in their
whole career. My heart went out to them,” she says. “I was obviously
delighted with those who didn’t go and upset with those who did, but
privately I understood, of course I did. The print workers failed to
realise how their frequent unofficial stoppages had eroded journalists’

goodwill, says Dean, adding: “There were some very bitter memories, particularly among Sunday Times journalists.”

The
Insight team, which was responsible for the paper’s investigative
journalism, had been hit particularly hard, she remembers. On one
occasion, having successfully fought an injunction to prevent them
publishing its thalidomide investigation, the team then learnt that the
paper wasn’t going out that week because of a dispute.

“If you are a Sunday paper you have a maximum of 52 papers a year, to stop one of them is really damaging,”

says
Dean. “The production workers expected the journalists to support them.
But they had taken that for granted and they were wrong because they
had not done much to foster good relationships.”

Although Dean
concedes that the “extremes” of high salaries way beyond those of
journalists and shorter working hours meant there was scant sympathy
for the print workers, she counters this with the argument that at the
other end of the spectrum they received no sick pay, no pensions and no
continuity of employment. Responsibility for the “very fragile”

industrial
relations in Fleet Street should also be laid at the door of what Dean
says was extremely flawed management. “I always believed the unions and
managers were as they were because of each other,” says Dean, likening
Fleet Street managers to “ferrets in a bag”.

“It wasn’t quite
anarchy, but it was bordering on it,” says Dean, who adds that the
power chapel officials wielded was in part due to the fact that no
senior managers worked at night when the papers were being produced.
“If the management weren’t there then clearly that space is going to be
filled by someone else.”

Macho attitudes also went some way to
explaining the actions of the electricians union EETPU in guaranteeing
Murdoch the electricians to work in Wapping – a decision that gave
Murdoch the confidence to go ahead. But what she still describes as
“treachery of the highest degree” could be traced back to a decision
she opposed, to poach members from the EETPU: “They weren’t going to
forget that in a hurry,” she says. “You have to remember that Fleet
Street was probably one of the most macho workplaces in the country and
there were very few that would measure up to it. It was a case of you
hit me and I’ll hit you harder. There was a lot of that in it.”

When
the dispute did finally happen, Dean moved quickly to scotch rumours
that were circulating early on that she was not emotionally strong
enough to see the strike through.

“It was all this presumption
that because I was a woman I really couldn’t be involved in all this,
that this was men’s stuff. But it was men’s stuff that made the
industry the mess it was.”

Union officials quickly recognised
that Dean’s demeanour did a great deal to counter the image of
belligerent and intransigent trade unionists and she made frequent
appearances on television and radio.

With the miners’ strike
still fresh in people’s minds Dean knew that people would be looking
for similarities between the disputes and says she made sure they
wouldn’t find any. There was an official ballot, they co-operated with
the sequestrators and resisted calls to condemn the police.

“We also had people who would turn up looking for trouble, so I did condemn violence,” says Dean.

“Some
may have regarded the way I went about it as naivity, but I wasn’t
prepared to try to be a female Scargill, that was not me.”

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