JOURNALISTS AT the Independent and Independent on Sunday were set to start a strike ballot this week. They had given management at the national newspapers until Wednesday to come up with a serious pay offer or a ballot for action would begin. Management at the papers, owned by Irish businessman and newspaper baron Tony O'Reilly, want a pay freeze for staff.
Workers at the papers, based in east London's Docklands, were furious. 'It's not just this pay freeze,' explained one member of the NUJ journalists' union. For years people have had below inflation pay awards which have effectively meant they have seen their pay get worse. On top of that job cuts have meant that people are having to work harder and harder, doing two or three people's jobs. Put that together with an arrogant management and you get a lot of resentment.'
The NUJ has recently won back union recognition at the papers, after a ballot which saw 99.6 percent back union rights. Some 140 people attended a union meeting last week to debate a response to the pay freeze.
There was an overwhelming vote to give management a week to offer a decent rise or to ballot for strikes. The workers' confidence was boosted by the attendance at the meeting of NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear.
Journalists at the Belfast Telegraph, the most profitable title in O'Reilly's empire, have also voted to ballot on strike action over pay, and they say they will coordinate action with the London workers. Action could force management to cough up. A recent strike vote at the Express saw management forced to pay a rise of £1100 to each worker after starting with an attempt to freeze pay.
That Express vote and now the Independent vote are clear signs of a revival in workers' confidence in the industry. It comes after years in which management had the whip hand following the great defeat of the mid-1980s when Rupert Murdoch moved his operations to Wapping in east London and smashed the unions.
There has been a spate of pay strikes and victories in local papers, especially in the north of England, in recent months. Journalists at a series of local titles owned by the Guardian Media Group in the north west of England last week won a significant victory on pay after striking. If the Independent workers strike, their fight needs to become a focus for solidarity.
Rebuild the unions
THE REVIVAL of the unions in the print and media industries was given an important boost by a successful meeting last week. The 'Rebuild the unions' meeting took place in the heart of east London's Docklands, which is now the centre of the print and media industry.
Over 50 activists from local workplaces came together to hear Tony Dubbins, general secretary of the print, clerical and admin workers' GPMU union, and Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the NUJ journalists' union. The meeting was chaired by Kate Simons, union rep for the NUJ at the Independent.
Her union branch had called the meeting, which was also officially backed by the print workers' GPMU workplace branch at the nearby Newsfax printing plant. Paul Vernon, GPMU convenor at Newsfax, told the meeting of how they were fighting to win back union recognition, and that they were hopeful of success in the near future.
Also there was a delegation of workers from West Ferry Printers, the giant plant which prints many of Britain's national papers. Matt Smith, deputy union convenor of the GPMU at West Ferry, addressed the meeting and told people of the important victory workers there had won after voting for a strike against compulsory job cuts before Christmas.
'It was the first ballot in the industry since Wapping, and we won. It took a lot of hard work but we did it. And the human resources director has since left, which is a bonus,' said Matt.
Other workers had come from a major magazine publisher in the area owned by UBM, the media outfit controlled by New Labour peer Lord Hollick, as well as workers from the Express, News of the World and Racing Post and others. A message was also read out from journalists at the local papers in north west England owned by the Guardian Media Group who had just won a victory over pay through striking.
Tony Dubbins argued, 'There has never been a better time to rebuild the unions.' He also stressed that the NUJ and GPMU 'must work together. The opportunities are there and we need to grab them. Tonight's meeting is a step towards helping do that.'
Jeremy Dear strongly echoed the need for the two unions to work together. 'We have to let people feel their collective strength. The unions are back-we're alive and we're kicking,' he said. An excellent discussion saw people agree on the need to organise solidarity with any action that did take place.
And people also agreed to form a network linking activists in different workplaces.