Striking out: How Maxwell mastered industrial terrorism
In 1986, Robert Maxwell’s idea of industrial relations culminated with barbed wire round the Anderston Quay building in Glasgow as the unions fought a bitter three-week battle over his so-called “survival plan” for the Daily Record and Sunday Mail. That phrase was a Maxwell favourite. Its previous Scots incarnation was when he ran the ill-fated Scottish Daily News.
Now here it was again at Anderston Quay: the last major industrial dispute in the Glasgow newspaper industry.
Strikes and lockouts had been the order of the day as newspaper unions fought to keep the controls of the gravy train, in the teeth of advancing technology. In Glasgow, the power of the unions kept Rupert Murdoch’s Kinning Park plant shuttered for years.
No-one should underestimate the stress of these horrific, dragged-out confrontations as long-time employees and friends were pitted against each other Record executives were not alone in being intimidated by the “bouncing Czech” as Maxwell was dubbed by Private Eye. Members of The Reed International board, were similarly intimidated in 1984 as he stared at them from his Ritz hotel suite, across the street from where they were meeting in London. Finally they sold the Mirror to him.
Tom Bower – whose book on Maxwell The Insider was somewhat delayed after the tycoon bought the publisher – tells of Maxwell’s first meeting with The Mirror unions in London, following his coup. That morning Mirror boss Clive Thornton had walked in to find Maxwell sitting at his desk.
The new proprietor arranged to meet the union leaders – fathers of the chapel in newspaper parlance – in The Mirror’s Rotunda restaurant. At first jovial, he turned nasty, when the discussion turned over a threat to stop the papers the previous night in a protest over his takeover
The infamous Robert Maxwell ruled at Anderston Quay and was determined to get his way, no matter who got in his way .
“If you had stopped the paper, it would have stayed shut,” Maxwell said in a menacing tone. “If you don’t believe me ask the people at Park Royal.”
At Park Royal print works in London, a “survival plan” introduced by Maxwell had failed to stem two years of strikes and he closed the works down.
Now it was the turn of The Record, whose profits for years had eclipsed the rest of the group. As deputy editor of The Sunday Mail, I was to find myself in the middle of Maxwell’s theatrics.
The threat to the journalists then, as now, was, “If you won’t produce the papers, we will do it elsewhere.” And the “elsewhere” for The Record was to be Manchester. Today that is technologically actually very easy. But then the technology was not in place.
Jim Wilson, deputy editor of The Daily Record, and I were despatched to Manchester on the nightmare mission. I had no idea what reception we would get from the journalists at The Manchester Mirror.
In fact, they could not have been more hospitable or sympathetic. I think they realised from the start this was all a Maxwell terror play. The corpulent tycoon had no more wish to print in Manchester than to launch himself as a hot-air balloon.
As Wilson and I drew lines on page plans, there were more than a few invitations to the pub to distract us. But still the pretence rolled on. At one point, I was drawn into discussions about trains to Scotland for this vast print run.
The railway people were rubbing their hands over this lucrative business – and talking about reorganising timetables. As Jim and I made the repeat trip back and forward to Glasgow, he was outwardly cool; I was a bundle of nerves.
There was more horror, of course, before this chilling dispute ended. At one point letters were to be sent out firing the entire staff. Bernard Vickers, editor of The Record did the deed for his paper. As my editor was absent, I was instructed to do the same for The Sunday Mail.
Before the letters went out, I foolishly called an old friend to tell him what was on the way – and that the letters were so much hooey. He told me, “If I had been asked to sign, Noel, I would have resigned.”
To me, behind the barricades, it was always clear that the letters were another bit of Maxwell play-acting. But as an old colleague said to me this week, “Noel, they said we had dismissed ourselves. We were to lose everything, pensions the lot. It was frightening.”
My judgment was right, of course. You might have expected my high-principled former friend to decline to join the rush back to work when the dispute ended. You will not be surprised that he did no such thing. By his lights, the only one out of a job at the end of the day would have been me.
The good life at The Record had never been comparable to the excesses of The Mirror. But the lifestyle of journalists was enviable: it was quite possible, with sabbaticals and the four-day week to work less than half the days of the year and still draw your full salary. According to Bower, Maxwell ended with a victory: a 30 per cent cut in the overall labour force and new work practices.
Not long after that, the unflappable Jim Wilson suffered a stroke. I visited him in hospital and he seemed his usual cheerful self. Then quite suddenly, he died.