IPC/Fleetway and the NUJ: interview with Pete Wrobel

In previous posts on this blog, I have managed to interview some of the original creators and editors working on Jinty and other comics titles of the time. Having heard from these and other sources various stories about the strikes and other industrial action that took place in IPC/Fleetway, I decided to write to the National Union of Journalists to see what, if anything, they might have that was of relevance in their archives. My original query was as follows:

I am an independent researcher interested in some data that might perhaps be available in the NUJ archives, and I’d like to know how I can best proceed with finding out more. My interest is in weekly girls’ comics published by IPC Fleetway in the 1970s. There were a number of strikes and other forms of industrial activities that caused some disruption to publication schedules during that time, so I am pretty sure that the editorial staff at any rate will have been union members, and I assume they would have been members of the NUJ. Can you advise me who I should talk to, or how I should proceed, in order to start to find out more?

I am particularly interested to know if there are any relevant records pertaining to the IPC / Fleetway staff or office in any way (perhaps from the time of the strikes in the 1970s – I can supply more precise dates as necessary), or other information about the publishing of these comics at the time which might have been recorded for Union purposes.

I received a very helpful reply from Pete Wrobel, contacted by the NUJ following my query. Below are quotes from the email exchanges on my original and follow-up points. Many thanks indeed to Pete for all his information! For clarity, as some of the quotes are rather long, Pete’s text is marked PW and mine is marked JS/comixminx.

Your email has been passed to me, though I’m not sure how I can help. I should say first of all that the NUJ has no records from this period, other than individual membership records.
I worked for IPC from 1977 to 1992, and was part of the Fleetway Chapel (office branch) of the NUJ… so called because its members worked on titles brought over from Fleetway House when they were relocated to King’s Reach Tower. I later (around 1978) became the union rep of what was then known as the Juveniles Chapel. I worked at the time on Look and Learn, and didn’t have too much to do with the weekly girls’ comics (which I remember as including Tammy, Pink, Mates, and Oh Boy) though I knew all the staff (at the time… memory fades!). PW

 

Sadly Pete had no information on what happened to Mavis Miller, which was one of my questions (a perennial one I will keep asking in every interview). He did suggest contacting Gaythorne Silvester, the editor of Oh Boy, who ‘might have set up My Guy before moving to Woman magazine in the 80s’ and who, ‘originally worked at DC Thomson in Dundee, and will have had a lot of relevant experience.’ One for a future interview request, but I mention his name here for reference in case anyone is reading who has a particular interest in those areas.

Regarding the industrial action itself, I would be very interested in your memories for a piece on my blog, as I would your memories about the union activities generally. As the union rep, is it correct to assume you had a wide-ranging contact with many members of the Juvenile Chapel? I would be interested for instance in knowing whether union membership was pretty wide-spread and normal, or limited to certain areas within the group (and if so, why); and generally your views on why it was that strikes seem to have been quite a feature of IPC in the 70s, whereas rival publisher DC Thomson had few or none. (I have plenty of assumptions about this but won’t mention them for fear of leading you!) I know the story is that at least one girls’ comics title was cancelled due to the negative impact of the earlier strikes – I believe this is supposed to be why June merged with Tammy in 1974 – so presumably strikes carried risk too in terms of the decisions that might have been made by management in their wake?

Finally, from your own memories of working on Look and Learn and any memories you might have of conversations with colleagues who worked on Tammy/Misty/Jinty, I’d be very interested in any recollections you have of editorial directions and principles that might have been in play, again for a blog post. Look and Learn was obviously a title that was seen as educational so it had a certain remit. Was it important to people working on that title to be ‘respectable’ or were there times when it was seen as useful or viable to push the envelope and rebel in some ways – for instance by covering topics that were seen as a little risqué or daring? In Tammy/Misty/Jinty there is that sense, and I wonder how much or how far that might be accepted within the company, and/or how far that might be down to individuals who wanted to push the boundaries (John Wagner and Pat Mills are the names that come up in this sort of story). (JS/comixminx)

Pete’s reply:

Union membership was indeed widespread. When it was a separate chapel, Fleetway had what we in the NUJ would think of as a very good agreement. It included a post-entry closed shop – ie, you didn’t need to belong to the union before you got a job there, but you had to join if you got a job (and join the pension scheme too, and very good it was/is). When Fleetway moved to King’s Reach everyone came under one agreement, and by then the closed shop was illegal (following the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act); however, almost everyone was a member. I recall that when I was Father of the (Fleetway) Chapel there were 146 members out an “eligible” 147 – and that included the editorial management up to and including John Purdie and John Sanders (though he was by no means enthusiastic). The one non-member worked on one of the comics, I think. Hours of work were impressive (to my eyes!): 10 to 5.30, with 1.25 hours for lunch! And indeed, most people left at 5.30 most of the time, because that was when the printer’s messengers came and collected the day’s work, and there was no point in staying late, so people went home or to the pub. Holidays were good for the time: 5 weeks plus bank holidays etc.
I know nothing about industrial action prior to 1977.
During my time as a union rep at IPC (in various guises, from 1978 to 1992) there was no industrial action specific to the Juveniles chapel. There were issues, of course, but mainly relating to staffing and the employment of freelancers, and they were dealt with without any industrial action. There was a major dispute in 1977/1978 affecting the whole of IPC Magazines, over what we called the “house agreement”. Basically, the union agreement at IPC was part of a huge one covering IPC Magazines, IPC Business Press, Hamlyns and Butterworths. In the late 1970s, there was a lot of frustration over the level of pay (it was a time of high inflation), but restrictions via the Social Contract with the TUC/Labour government about what unions could negotiate. So as part of the 1976 IPC agreement, it was agreed that there could be “local” agreements at each of the four constituent parts which “might not exclude money-related matters”. The IPC Magazines Group Chapel (like the others) duly put in a claim, but management dragged their feet, and by the middle of 1977 things came to a head and the group chapel registered a formal dispute (I remember this well: my first day at work involved a huge chapel meeting – so large we had to walk across the river to Conway Hall – which rejected the company’s position). We then began a campaign of guerrilla-type action, stopping all work outside contractual hours, taking our full lunch breaks, taking accumulated time-off-in-lieu, and taking any new time off in lieu (for example, after attending a lunch-hour press conference) immediately. Work dragged, deadlines slipped, and then we said we would not alter the set deadlines, so that most publications – just about all in Juveniles – simply stopped publishing as we would only press an issue on the scheduled press day. Eventually the company caved in, and we got our agreement, including an allowance for a late meal if working more than 1.5 hours after 5.30, and a “reading allowance” that allowed us to claim (explicitly without receipt!) for one daily paper, two weeklies and one monthly. Naturally, everyone looked up the most expensive they could claim – many claimed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine, or National Geographic, or – and hundreds claimed this – a photographic magazine called Zoom (which was actually a bimonthly, but no one noticed that), so that the allowance could reach £10 to £20 a month… a lot of money then.
Lest anyone criticise the members then for “greed”, note this: at the time, there was a huge strike affecting provincial newspapers, with thousands of NUJ members out; the Magazines Group Chapel voted to donate the first two months’ reading allowance to the provincial journalist members. At the time, all expenses were reimbursed in cash from the petty cash office (oh, those days!), and I remember going round from desk to desk in the Juveniles chapel – in the comics and elsewhere – collecting the first reading allowance from members. I then went round to the old HQ of the NUJ, Acorn House, with £1800 in cash – more than £9000 in today’s money.
DC Thomson had no strikes because it was actively anti-union. In 1952 it had sacked 74 printers for their union membership, and was boycotted by the TUC from 1953 on. As to how it managed to maintain that stance, I am not the person to answer. But the fear of getting sacked was quite a disincentive to joining a union. Certainly many of those who came from Dundee to IPC to work on our titles were enthusiastic union members!
As to magazine closures, IPC would close titles if they ceased to be profitable, and industrial action really didn’t play a huge part in that.
I’m afraid I can’t be of much (or, indeed, any) help on editorial policies. I have no memories at all of discussing them with people on the comics. I think that on Look and Learn we were not trying to push the envelope. We were only risqué or daring by accident. Or sometimes not. I remember a wonderful piece of artwork imagining the Colossus of Rhodes by Roger Payne (a brilliant illustrator), where we had to airbrush out the highlight on his penis. And there was the odd double-entendre in a headline (“Bionic man is coming” was one of them). I do remember though that 2000AD consistently pushed any envelopes it could lay its hands on. PW
I wanted to follow up this detail by seeking an answer to a point that I saw raised on the Comics UK Forum. Apparently in David Bishop’s Thrillpower Overload history of 2000AD, he quoted John Sanders thus regarding strike action at IPC in May 1980: “These strikes were very common and they were almost always about money. I would say the most militant union officials at IPC were in the Youth Group. I decided to make a point. We would have to concentrate our resources on fewer titles once the strike was over. The one I wanted to close was 2000AD.” – Bishop goes on to say “Sanders instead shut a girls’ comic with very high circulation, whose editor was one of the NUJ militants within the Youth Group. ‘The staff lost their jobs, the whole thing was tragic’.” My question to Pete was therefore whether he could shed any further light on this story, to confirm it and in particular to confirm the girls’ comic in question. He replied by re-sending the text he wrote previously on the Thrillpower Overload blog:
I came across this while looking for something else about IPC, but just for the record (I was a union official at IPC at that time): there was no five-week strike in 1980. The union voted to start an overtime ban in protest against a below-inflation pay offer, and the company said that unless union pledged not to implement the ban it would sack everyone. Indeed, that’s what it did, before any action had even started, saying we had “dismissed ourselves”. Naturally, we were disinclined to believe that we had sacked ourselves, and turned up for work the next day. We carried on trying to work for six weeks, during which the company refused to let anything be published (lest that prove that we were working). Six weeks later it saw sense, reinstated us and paid us lost salary (and expenses). If anyone was “obliging” staff to stop work, it was the company. Strange times. I remember Steve, and he’s a great guy, but memories fade into legend, etc: in fact there was no strike over free coffee; there was a work to rule over a number of issues wrapped up in IPC Magazine’s refusal to honour a pledge to negotiate a “local” (i.e., IPC Magazines-wide rather than also IPC Business Press etc) agreement that included late working allowances, reading allowances and also, yes, free tea and coffee. No one in their right mind would have a strike about free tea and coffee on their own! As for what John Sanders said, well, virtually none of it is credible. He never liked 2000AD because its staff were not under his thumb. The magazine closed during the 1980 dispute was not high selling nor recently launched. It was Pink, I think, which was old (by girls’ magazines standards) and ailing, and would have been closed anyway. Sanders’ comments about NUJ militants there and at 200AD are ridiculous. I don’t remember any particular hotbeds of militancy. Most of us were pretty much sickened by IPC’s attitudes towards its journalists. PW
PW adds: IPC never closed down magazines with “very high circulation”.
Once again, many thanks to Pete Wrobel for his kind replies and input!
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7 thoughts on “IPC/Fleetway and the NUJ: interview with Pete Wrobel

  1. Pete doesn’t happen to have any information on the unpublished material from Tammy that got lost because of the strike, does he? I am aware that this may be a long shot…

    1. I think that is indeed a long shot given that he didn’t work on Tammy himself and has no particular memories of the girls’ comics end of things!

    1. Thank you for the link! Very interesting. I see Wagner talks about The Terror Behind the Bamboo Curtain in that link too, saying i’s failure might have been passivity or lack of proactivity, which is not quite the same as Mills’ explanation about boys not being interested in mysteries.

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