Undercover trade unionists - Special Branch just can't leave us alone;
The Freedom of Information Act has revealed the insidious nature of police surveillance, 25 years after the Wapping dispute, says Solomon Hughes
First Published - Morning Star
March 11, 2011 Friday
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Wapping dispute - a vicious battle launched by media baron Rupert Murdoch to derecognise the unions and shift his newspapers to his east London fortress.
Losing the battle for Wapping weakened the unions and strengthened Murdoch, and we are all paying the price now - in worse conditions at work and more lies in the press. It's harder for us to strike and easier for politicians to crawl to Murdoch.
Murdoch had a lot of help at Wapping, not least from the police. Papers released to me under the Freedom of Information Act show the "anti-terrorist" police of Special Branch mounted daily surveillance of picket lines at the Wapping plant in the 1986 dispute.
The 217 pages of documents show Special Branch subjected the dispute to intense scrutiny, clearly had informants close to the labour movement and kept files on trade union leaders. The papers reveal Special Branch officers spent time recording the speeches to strikers from John Prescott, and accused other Labour MPs of giving "valuable assistance" to "factions of the left," who wanted to fan the "sparks of violent anger" on the picket line.
Some Special Branch snitches were clearly fantasists - on May 3 1986 an "informant" reported that the "leader of engineers union heard to remark 'there is going to be 16,000 at Wapping tonight. They are going specially to do up the Special Patrol Group'." On the same day another "informant" note stated: "A large contingent from Glasgow will be marching from the embankment to Wapping at 19:00. Informant states that the object of the march is to take over the plant and set it on fire."
Special Branch noted tiny details of the dispute. For example, they recorded that May 3 1986 - the reception for a Printworkers March For Jobs - was low key and "generated little interest, with support for the participants being at a subdued rather than token level. No more than 80 persons attended the social arranged to greet them last evening." This detail shows undercover officers or their informers were in attendence at the event.
Special Branch mounted national surveillance of the dispute. The files contain notes from Swindon, south Wales and Kent Special Branch detailing the number of coaches - especially those containing miners - sent to Wapping demonstrations.
A Special Branch Threat Assessment reports a "behind closed doors" mass meeting of print union Sogat 82 members on May 21 1986 when the leadership of the union were "given a rough ride" for giving in to the courts.
The High Court seized the Sogat union's funds until it called off a boycott of News International.
Sogat leader Brenda Dean gave in and "purged" the union's "contempt" of the court. Special Branch were worried about the "increasing militancy of a large number of print workers directly involved in the current dispute." They said: "The emergence of a substantial group of militant print workers may now mean that there will be two chains of command at the Wapping site with the more reasonably minded printers continuing to follow the Dean approach to the dispute and the militants devising their own methods of protest and perhaps joining forces with the now established extremist elements."
This report shows that Special Branch had access to closed union meetings and a sophisticated understanding of the dispute. It also shows that the police worried about strikers' involvement with "extremist elements," including "anarchists."
There was also a great deal of correspondence about how "the SWP are using a council flat at XXXX as their headquarters for organising activities against News International." I am pleased to note that police surveillance included regular reading of "today's issue of the communist 'Morning Star'."
Special Branch only reduced its "daily coverage" of the picket line towards the end of the dispute. It produced written daily briefs on all aspects of the strike, negotiations, union meetings and demonstrations. Surveillance of the demonstrations and pickets was painstaking, including full lists of "banners taking part," and even a list of "chants heard during the evening marches" - including "TUC get off your knees, call a general strike," and "I'd rather be a picket than a scab."
Officers made notes on speeches to strikers given by John Prescott MP. Unsurprisingly Prescott, then Labour employment spokesman, "castigated government trade union legislation and said that everyone present must work and vote for the return of a Labour government at the next general election."
By March 17 Special Branch referred to an "increasingly held view that the cause is lost" for the Wapping strikers. They added "it is this sense of 'hopelessness' which drives many of the strikers present to vent their frustration against the police and the sparks of violent confrontation so generated are then fanned by factions of the left who may be relied upon to exploit such conflagrations for their cynical propaganda purposes in which they receive much able, and valuable, assistance from Members of Parliament and other prominent political figures of a similar persuasion, some of whom are known regularly to attend the Saturday pickets in the role of 'observers'." In a report of an earlier demo, Special Branch note Tony Benn talking about the "butchery practiced by the police."
The records show Special Branch kept its own files on trade union leaders. Each report has a list of those named in the surveillance in a table showing their "SB (r)" references - referring to the squad's records. There are long file descriptions of Ken Cameron of the Fire Brigades Union and Ben Rubner of the furniture makers' union, although the words have been "redacted."
These files are a reminder that the undercover cops recently found acting the clown inside protest movements will also be involved in any major industrial disputes. They do not, however, show that the police spies had any effect on the dispute. The Wapping strikers lost because of aggressive policing on the picket line and because of a shortage of solidarity from the TUC and Labour leadership, not because of what plainclothes policemen wrote in and their notebooks.