The Role of Natsopas (Assistants)

Compiled from information supplied by Len Leach, Jack Clarke, and others

In 1899 the ten-year-old Printers’ Labourers’ Union in the UK changed its name to the Operative Printers’ Assistants’ Society. A few years later the name was changed again to the National Society of Operative Printers’ Assistants. When skilled workers were brought into the union in 1912 another adjustment of the name was needed and so the union became known as the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA).

NATSOPA soon absorbed the Revisers and Readers’ Assistants’ Society of London, the London Press Clerks’ Association, and, for a time, members of the Stereotypers and Electrotypers’ Assistants’ Society. In 1966 the now sizeable union merged with the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers to form the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT). Within this framework the two unions continued to function as separate entities, with plans to fully merge their operations over time. Internal wrangling eventually put paid to the idea and, in 1972, the unions went their separate ways. NATSOPA retained its original acronym although it changed its name to the National Society of Operative Printers, Graphical and Media Personnel, reflecting recent social and industrial changes. The other union amalgamated, three years later, with the Scottish Graphical Association, to create SOGAT 1975. Seven years after that, NATSOPA and SOGAT 1975 merged to become SOGAT 1982. Finally, in 1991 – still with us? – SOGAT 1982 merged with the National Graphical Association (1982) to form the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU) – which still exists.

Owing to various union restrictions, the career paths of assistants (often called Natsopas) were limited. For instance, assistants could not move up the ranks to become machine minders, the latter being journeymen who had completed a formal apprenticeship of seven (later, five) years, a form of intensive training that was usually only undertaken by young men just starting into the trade.

At the Sun, there were NATSOPA members in most departments. In the offices they were called Natsopa/Clerical. In the Readers they were called Copy Holders. In the Process Department they were known as Natsopa/Process. They were assistants in the Research Department, the Ink Factory, and the Paper Store, as well as in the Warehouse for the bindery, the collating lines, and all other finishing jobs. And in the Machine Room, they played a large and vital role, helping to ensure a smooth-running operation.

On a gravure press, assistants were an integral part of the crew, aiding the machine minders generally. They brought new cylinders to the press and helped to put them on the machine. They kept the press oiled and greased during a run. Once magazines had been automatically folded, stitched, and deposited onto the ‘fly’ (a construction of spring-like wire), Machine Room assistants stacked them for transfer to the Warehouse. Some presses had Igranic wires that took the magazines up over the other presses and then down to the Warehouse, there to be removed by assistants (warehousemen). At the end of a run the press area was cleared by assistants (floorhands), the old cylinders were removed by minders and assistants, and the press was washed down by assistants. Assistants cleaned the machine’s ink ducts when this work needed doing. They cleaned the folder, which after a long press run would be thick with accumulated paper dust – often to the point where the parts could barely be distinguished from one another. They inspected and cleaned the stackers, replacing worn parts and resetting the machines for the next job. Reel-hands (also assistants) cleaned, reset, and operated the reelstands.

Until the NGA merged with SOGAT in 1991, the reel-hand’s job was the highest-paid position to which an assistant could aspire. After the merger, however, things changed significantly. At the Sun, some assistants were retrained as machine minders, and some minders were shifted to assistant positions. If there happened to be a slack time on the press, a machine crew might be sent to the Warehouse to do work traditionally done by assistants and which the press crew felt was menial. It was a situation that would have been unthinkable in previous decades, when separate unions ensured that no two unions’ responsibilities overlapped, and no boundaries were crossed by members of their own or any other union. But all the printing trades were now part of the GPMU, and the days of turf wars, and all that they meant for individuals and for the firms they worked for, were over.