Sean Geraghty: Union leader who took on Murdoch


Sean Geraghty became one of the most controversial trade union leaders of the 1980s when he was taken to the High Court by newspaper proprietors and threatened with imprisonment, having taken his members out on strike in support for a pay deal for nurses.

In August 1982, 12 million copies of national papers were lost when some 1,300 electricians, members of the Fleet Street branch of the Electrical Electronic Telecommunications and Plumbing Union came out on a one-day strike on behalf of National Health Service nurses, who were claiming a 12 per cent pay rise. No national paper was published, as the electricians led by Geraghty, their local leader, defied the Conservative government's 1980 Employment Act which outlawed secondary picketing; it was seen as the first test case against the Act.

The left-wing branch, often in dispute with its own right-wing union, defied pleas from the General Secretary, Frank Chapple, not to take action. He warned that there would be no financial support from the union for the action itself or for any consequences. The reaction from the bosses was quick; an injunction was taken out in the High Court by the National Proprietors Association against Geraghty. Other unions such as Society of Graphical and Allied Trades threatened to take action if he was jailed, while the health service union COHSE offered to pay any fine or costs.

"I don't want to be a martyr," said Geraghty. "We never contemplated that anyone would have to go to jail, and that was the last thing that crossed my mind." Instead of jail, Geraghty received a fine of £350, with legal costs of £7,000 awarded against him; the fine was paid anonymously and the costs were never collected.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, at that time General Secretary of the National Union of Public Employees remembered how much his support meant. "He was always ready to help everyone," Bickerstaffe said. "Solidarity was a key part of his make-up. It wasn't only just the nurses, but also other health workers who knew that he would always be there whatever the cost. Everyone knew that he wasn't in it for himself but that he was there to support others, especially those who were most vulnerable. There was terrific respect for him throughout the movement."

Geraghty might have been a hero to the trade union movement, but to some employers and to his own General Secretary, he was a figure to be vilified. The Daily Express devoted a full page to him, designating him as "Public Enemy No 1". Other employers took a different attitude; George Healey, former Director of Labour Relations at the Financial Times, was one of those who respected him.

"I always found him a tough negotiator," he said,"'but you knew where you stood with him, he stuck to the agreement. He was straight and committed. He was a charming man, a good man to negotiate with."

Geraghty's background laid the foundations of his union activity. He was born in 1936 in Dublin into a family of republican socialists – his mother was a member of the Irish Communist Party while his father was a lifelong republican. He was the eldest of five sons, all of whom became union activists and officials. They were taught that everyone was equal and to stand up to bullies, a lesson he adhered to for the rest of his life.

Originally apprenticed as a coppersmith, in 1956 he moved to London, where he studied to be an electrician on a City and Guild night-school course before joining Odhams Press as an electrician in the early 1960s. He later worked for the Daily Mirror, a job in which he remained throughout most of his time in Fleet Street.

He became Branch Secretary of the London Press Branch of EETPU in the mid-'70s, and found himself in conflict with Chapple, and later with Chapple's successor Eric Hammond, who frequently tried to close down the branch. In 1972 the branch closed down Fleet Street as part of the TUC protest at the jailing of five shop stewards for secondary picketing; Rupert Murdoch would subsequently cite this action and others by the Branch on behalf of the health workers, and later by it and other unions for the miners, as being partly responsible for him making the decision to move his operation to Wapping.

Geraghty and the Branch were plunged into dispute with EETPU when Eric Hammond defied the TUC and agreed a secret deal with Murdoch which saw electricians working in Wapping throughout the News International dispute. Press Branch electricians refused to enter the plant and were made redundant alongside other workers at the end of the dispute. The union was thrown out of the TUC in 1989, many of the Branch joining SOGAT. Geraghty left the Mirror and moved over to become a full-time staff officer of SOGAT, looking after members in the print sector until his retirement.

Sean Geraghty, trade unionist, electrician and print leader: born Dublin 19 February 1936; married 1960 Breda Coloe (died 1988; one daughter); died London 6 July 2012.