Fatally Divided: An analysis of the role micro-political divisions played in the unions’ loss of the 1986-87 News International dispute.

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On 5 February 1987 the SOGAT National Executive Committee (NEC) voted 23 to 9 to end its dispute with News International Limited. One day later the NGA National Council, followed suit and ended their industrial action. These decisions brought to a close one of the most bitter and acrimonious industrial disputes of the twentieth century, which had lasted over a year and seen the dismissal of over 5,500 union members.
There has been a wide variety of explanations as to why the unions’ action was unsuccessful. Many authors have asserted that the dispute was unwinnable, whatever tactics the unions had deployed (Melvern, 1986; Gennard, 1990; Gennard and Bain, 1995; Dean, 2007). This, they argued, was owing to the combination of technological advancements and the hostile political and institutional environment in which the unions were operating (Melvern, 1986; Gennard, 1990; Gennard and Bain, 1995; Dean, 2007).
Other scholars (Richardson, 2003; Cockburn, 1991; Bain, 1998; Cohen, 1990) have taken a different view, focusing on tactical errors and divisions within and between the printing unions, which adversely affected their chances of success. However, these authors disagree over the reasons for inter and intra-union disunity and policy blunders. Richardson (2003) and Bain (1998) assert that long running political, occupational and geographical conflicts created serious rifts within SOGAT and between the print unions. Cockburn differs (1991), asserting instead that gender segregation and misogyny caused disunity within the print unions, which undermined the dispute. Cohen (1990) disagrees, insisting that the defeat can be broadly attributed to the leaderships of SOGAT and the NGA failing to continue with secondary industrial action, following the sequestration, or threat of sequestration, of their assets. Within all of these analyses the role played by micro–political factors, such as personal friendships, enmities and loyalties are occasionally noted (Bain, 1998; Richardson, 2003), but are not credited with significantly contributing to the loss of the dispute.
This paper challenges these explanations for the unions’ lack of success and puts forward an alternative hypothesis. It asserts that micro-political factors were the central reason why the unions were unsuccessful in the 1986/87 News International dispute. Specifically, that the long term dysfunctional relationship that existed between the News International senior lay activists and the SOGAT General Secretary, Brenda Dean, played a major part in the unions’ defeat. Additionally it contends that personal enmity that existed between Brenda Dean and NGA General Secretary, Tony Dubbins, contributed significantly to the unions’ loss of the dispute. Finally the paper asserts that Dean’s deep personal loathing of Robert Maxwell, and her considerable regard for Rupert Murdoch, significantly affected how she dealt with News International before and during the dispute.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2016
EventBritish Universities Industrial Relations Conference - Leeds University, Leeds, United Kingdom
Duration: 29 Jun 20161 Jul 2016


ConferenceBritish Universities Industrial Relations Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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