Brenda Dean (1943-2018)

Harry Mottram reports

Brenda Dean, one of the leading figures of the print industry trade union movement has died at the age of 74 bringing to a close in one sense of the Wapping dispute that saw print workers in conflict with Rupert Murdoch.

Brenda Dean led the trade union Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) in an ill-fated battle with News International in Fleet Street in the 1980s which sounded the death knell on Fleet Street’s pivotal position in the print industry. The dispute lasted from 1986 to 1987 and ended in defeat for the workers after Murdoch’s News International set up a new plant in Wapping making the Fleet Street site redundant along with 5,500 workers. Dean had attempted to broker a deal with Murdoch for which she was heavily criticised for by many of her Sogat members.

There were bitter clashes between workers and the police

With Sogat broken and financially drained after the punishing strike the trade union merged with the smaller National Graphical Association (NGA) to become the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU) before joining forces with Unite. Brenda was narrowly defeated in a leadership battle to lead the new GPMU and served for a few months as its deputy leader. In 1992 she was nominated to join the House of Lords which she did as Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde.

For those too young to recall the bitter trade union disputes of the 1980s when the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher took on and defeated some of the biggest names in the trade union movement then Brenda Dean’s name may seem meaningless. At the time she appeared on TV news regularly and was known for her good looks and passionate but pragmatic views on the rights of print workers. And remarkably she was the first woman to lead a major trade union in what was then a male dominated industry – and it has to be said – still is. Incidentally Sogat became Sogat82 after the union merged with the Natsopa union (National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants) in – you’ve guessed it: 1982.

Anne Field of Unite told Print Monthly that the Wapping dispute had changed the industry forever. It led to management excesses, the collapse in the working conditions for those in the print industry as well as for journalists in the newspaper industry and heralded in anti-union legislation that continues to this day. However others saw the dispute differently. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper five years ago Andrew Neil who was then a News International editor (and now a regular host of BBC political programmes) described the situation that created the dispute as: “…all that was wrong with British industry: pusillanimous management, pig-headed unions, crazy restrictive practices, endless strikes and industrial disruption, and archaic technology”.

Fleet Street in 1890 when it was the centre of the printing industry

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