The untold story of how the British printing unions adapted to technological and organisational change: perspectives from magazine publishing

Mowatt, S
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The University of Sydney

Whilst the story of technological change and de-unionisation in the newspaper industry in the UK is generally well known, the parallel changes in the magazine industry have not been subject to such academic interest. The magazine industry underwent a profound transformation from the 1980s, driven both by organisational and technological change. Subject to different drivers of technological change to that of the newspaper industry, union responses were more fragmented and emergent. These responses were markedly different from those of unions in the more regulated newspaper industry, as magazine publishing companies were quite heterogeneous, often smaller, implying closer and more pragmatic relationships between firms and labour. The paper first outlines the development of the British print unions serving both the newspaper and magazines sectors. In particular the paper uses a review of hereto unexamined documents relating to the print firms, such as Odhams (Watford) Ltd, within the IPC magazine publishing conglomerate, and examines how technological change in the magazine sector was driven not by changes in printing technology, but by ultimately by developments in the micro-computing industry and the desire to enforce the “right of managers to manage.” In contrast to this many of the smaller entrants into the industry developed a different relationship with labour unions. The advent of desk-top publishing (DTP) systems undermined both basis of demarcation in the labour force, and of the organisation of production. The main unions involved, the NUJ, NGA and SOGAT, found that the boundaries between their responsibilities were eroded. The unions involved underwent a period of restructuring, where several of the unions merged (or failed to merge) and consolidation in response to technological change, which had many implications to how the unions positioned themselves and approached issues such as collective agreements and training. Within smaller firms however the unions had put working arrangements in place to overcome the technologically-driven erosion of demarcation. In conclusion the differences between changes in the newspaper print business, print relationships at IPC and within the sector more generally are contrasted. What emerges is a different story of change in the print sector to that which is generally given for the 1980s period, adding to a more subtle and contextualised story of how labour unions have adapted to technological and organisation change. This may serve to reposition debates on print union change from more politically-driven narratives of government-union conflict based in industrial relations approaches, towards a more productive domain of debate located in employment relations models as outlined by Belnave and Mortimer (2005.) This approach negates the excessive managerialist approach of HRM focused on worker flexibility, but acknowledges the positive outcomes of widening industry participation beyond unionised workers. With digitisation currently fuelling debate on the changing the nature of employment relations in the industry this story outlines how many of these issues were addressed by the actors involved in the 1980s and 1990s, and reveals that for print relations, the past could be the future.

5th Annual Conference of the Academic Association of Historians in Australian and New Zealand Business Schools (AAHANZBS) held at the University of Sydney, Sydney, Austalia, 2013-11-07 to 2013-11-08
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