The Times Lockout

When The Times and Sunday Times suspended publication on 30 November, the owners had given all the unions involved a time limit to accept a new and wide-ranging agreement, while the National Graphical Association, the union whose members stood to lose most by the new printing methods, was refusing to negotiate at all “under duress”. Fears were expressed that the papers might disappear like the News Chronicle, Daily Herald and Star. Indeed, the General Secretary of the NGA declared: –

It appears that Lord Thomson and The Times are determined to act as executioners in the killing of The Times and Sunday Times. We are to be cast in the role of undertakers—which leaves us with no alternative but to bury it. (Daily Mail, 5th December 1978)

But this last ditch declaration did not reflect the realities of the situation, which pointed to the employers’ aggressive action securing for them the substance of their demands while conceding something to the NGA, as has happened in the resumed negotiations.

The dispute attracted quite exceptional publicity, suggesting that it was one entirely without precedent. Apart from the claim that The Times itself is something special, there was nothing in this, for the dispute did not involve anything that has not happened before. It was just the old familiar ugly face of capitalism.

Lockouts are as old as capitalism, including those aimed at forcing unions to accept new production techniques; like the great engineering lockout of 1897. Lord Thompson’s stand is just the same as that of the then engineering employers with their declaration “we will be masters in all our shops”.

Every generation has seen workers who had acquired high skills robbed of their jobs and livelihood through the development of new techniques: the hand-loom weavers ruined by power-driven factory textiles, the canal boatmen and the drivers of horse-drawn vehicles driven out by the railways; the morse telegraphist hit by machine telegraphy and the telephone, the railwaymen in their turn squeezed out by motor transport. Printing itself had the problem of manual typesetting displaced by the steam press, the rotary press and the linotype machine.

In its defence The Times says that it offered relatively generous redundancy pay and that all redundancies will be voluntary; but this only meets part of the workers’ problems. Men with specialised skills who have worked at them for years and have taken pride in their work lose what, to many of them, has come to be regarded as a way of life. Even if they get, and like, another sort of job — and many cannot hope to do so — it is likely to be at lower pay.

All of this has happened many times before. What shocked journalists and printers on The Times was that it should happen to them; some even thought that Lord Thompson was bluffing.

The technical developments behind the dispute concern the new computerised process which enables those who use the keyboards to set the type directly, thus eliminating the old type-setting by the printers. The National Graphical Association said they accepted the new methods but demanded that all, or most, of the keyboard work should be done by their retrained members. According to the Observer (3 December 1978) the NGA was prepared to allow a limited amount of the work to go to clerks handling advertisements, but wanted the practice of journalists directly type-setting some of their own articles to be deferred for five years. A complication is that some of the journalists want to take over the work from the NGA members; one of them is reported to have described the NGA claim as being like a claim that “horse-drivers should be the only people driving cars with combustion engines”.

In a lengthy statement The Times (24 November) set out what the owners regarded as the three main issues. The first related to the increasing number of unofficial strikes which have interrupted production. The Times demanded a return to the situation as it existed before the early 1960s, when the union executives were able to exercise control over their members and prevent unofficial walkouts. This is what The Times means when it says it wants to deal with “strong Trade Unions”.

The second issue named in this article was the new technique. “The electronic process is more efficient, more flexible, cleaner and much less expensive”. Unless it is adopted, says The Times, they cannot compete with their rivals and cannot make adequate profit. The third issue flows from the greater efficiency of the new method, in the form of greater productivity and consequent big reductions of staff — with the promise of higher pay for those who keep their jobs.

It was in this situation that Times Newspapers decided to shut down unless the unions would accept the new agreement by 30 November, with the implied threat (in spite of Lord Thompson’s denial of any such intention) that in the last resort the suspension would become permanent. There was to be no repetition of the action of the late Lord Thompson, who met a £3 million loss out of the family fortune. So the owners were prepared to lose much more than £3 million in order to coerce the unions. An important factor in the struggle was that they were financially able to stand a long struggle. It was reported in the Observer (3 December 1978).

The International Thompson Organisation, run by Lord Thompson from its base in Toronto, is expecting to declare £45 million after-tax profit this year. Most of that comes from North Sea oilfields which will soon reach peak production.

Publishing The Times is only a small part of their activity: if need be they could give it up altogether.

Two incidents early in the dispute deserve comment as illustrating the naive attitude of some workers towards capitalism. The General Secretary of the NGA appealed to Lord Thomson to negotiate over the heads of the management, a request that was refused. And The Times correspondent, Mr. Clifford Langley, in a letter to the Guardian (4 December 1978) deplored the action of the management and of the editor “who has allowed his staff . . .  to be exposed to the intolerable threat of dismissal, against an impossible deadline”. He said that the staff had “lost all confidence in the management” and called on the editor to resign in protest at the management’s attitude.

What makes the NGA General Secretary and Mr. Langley think that “the management” and the editor have some sort of independent authority? The Management is there to carry out the owners’ policy and if the editor refused he would be sacked like any other employee. This is capitalism; in The Times as in any other organisation run for profit.

And what is there in the belief that The Times is in some ways special? It rests on the claim that the newspaper has a high standard of objective reporting, allows critics access to its columns and puts the wellbeing of “the people” before party advantage and private profit. There is something in the first two points — after all, the ruling class have needed to know what is really going on in the world — and that newspaper is one of the few which has, on rare occasions, allowed us space to put our case in our own words. But the present dispute shows how ruthless they can be when their own capitalist interest is at stake.


(Socialist Standard, January 1979)