A FIGHT between low paid journalists and a multinational corporation has reached a decisive stage this week. The Newsquest corporation is one of Britain's biggest owners of local newspapers, and is a subsidiary of the US multinational Gannett.
It is digging its heels in against journalists striking to win decent pay - contrary to popular myth most journalists are on very low pay. This week staff at the Newsquest's Bradford titles were due to go on all-out strike in a fight that has become a crucial test for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
'Two steps forward and one step back,' is how one NUJ activist described the latest developments in the Newsquest battle. Journalists at Newsquest's Bolton and Bury titles last week called off their indefinite strike over pay after five weeks out.
Meanwhile staff at Newsquest titles in south London and north Kent kicked off their low pay campaign with a one-day strike on Friday of last week.
But the Bradford strike will be critical, and not just for journalists working for Newsquest titles. Last year staff at the Bradford titles went on a half-day strike and won salary increases of up to 14 percent.
That action sparked similar strikes and gains against Newsquest as well as at other newspaper groups around the country. The wave of victories was the sharpest edge of a revival of union organisation in the media after years of union derecognition which has led to low pay and poor working conditions across the industry.
Now journalists at Newsquest papers have hit back hard against the company's pathetic below-inflation pay increase of 2 percent - by going for all-out, not limited, action. But Newsquest has dug its heels in - and if it succeeds in holding out it would be a signal to every other media company to do the same.
Equally, says Phil Turner, a longstanding NUJ activist, 'If the Bradford journalists succeed, it will send a message to every employer that the union can finally win. And that we will come for them all and win back what we lost during the derecognition years. Even pay rates on the nationals are a lot less than they should be. Also it will make us think about how we organise the union and go forward. Bradford NUJ members have shown a magnificent stand. They were the first to strike and set off a wave of industrial action.'
But to win now, Phil argues, the NUJ plus other trade unionists need to get behind the Bradford strike.
'They are a strong union group, but they need solidarity. We have to pull the stops out right across the country. I would like to see this week the NUJ organising speaking tours for the strikers. Every NUJ chapel [workplace branch] in the country should be organising collections and inviting Bradford to speak, particularly at the national newspapers. We need to up the solidarity stakes nationally and the union should call for action in other sectors. This campaign is not just about low pay but about how the NUJ goes forward. Big multinationals like Gannett will ride strikes out unless we show them the whole union is behind it.'
Retreat in Bury and Bolton as workers go back
JOURNALISTS AT the Bolton and Bury Newsquest titles voted by 30 to 19 to go back to work on Friday of last week. After five weeks many were beginning to feel they couldn't win. Money was also tight, despite good fundraising efforts.
They decided to go back and use management's offer as a basis to negotiate. One journalist said he felt terrible despite voting against continuing strike action: 'If I could go back I would vote differently. We had only one week left before the automatic protection from sacking ran out. We felt one more week wouldn't have made a difference. At least this way we go back together under our own terms and are not forced back. In an ideal world it would have been good to say 'Bradford are out next week so let's stay out' but it didn't happen like that. Although we agreed to go back we are still in dispute.'
Dave Thompson, Father of the Chapel (workplace branch secretary) at Bolton and Bury, said, 'This is the first time we've been on an all-out strike and we learnt a few tactics which next time we will adopt earlier. It was important to try and spread the word to get more support from the local people and from trade unionists and unions.'
Bolton and Bury chapel made links with local firefighters and Unison as well as sending people to speak to meetings in Preston, London, and Manchester. 'I think Bolton and Bury should have stayed out, but they also needed more support from the union,' says Phil Turner. 'The last thing Gannett needs is two groups out at the same time. The 19 who voted to stay out will have to argue this with the others.'