WHO WRITES the wrongs of journalists? They suffer bad pay and long hours, and it takes around five years of studying to become fully qualified. Now journalists are beginning to take action, utilising the watered-down ‘Fairness at Work’ union legislation, reluctantly brought in by New Labour in 2000.
Journalists from Bolton and Bury are on an indefinite strike against a pitiful 2 percent pay offer. This is the standard rate bosses at the US-owned Newsquest are offering across all 300 titles. This is despite the fact that inflation stands at 2.9 percent and national insurance contributions have increased by 1 percent. The strike by Bolton and Bury journalists, members of the NUJ union, is sparking a revolt among other Newsquest journalists.
Their colleagues across the Pennines at the Bradford-based Newsquest titles have voted for all-out strike action starting on 26 May. They have already taken 30 days of industrial action.
The revolt is spreading as journalists from 12 News Shopper Newsquest titles in south east London and parts of north Kent are currently balloting for strike action. Strikers on the picket line in Bolton and Bury have come across comments like, ‘Why are you striking? You have a good job with good pay.’ In fact a graduate trainee working within the Newsquest Lancashire starts on less than £11,000 per year.
A journalist earns less than £16,000 when they are fully qualified after 18 months to two years of further training. The 60 striking journalists have put out a leaflet titled, ‘Mega-Rich US Media Giant Rips Off North West Journalists’. It explains how much journalists really get paid and exposes the fact that Newsquest is owned by US media giant Gannett. Newsquest Lancashire has profits of £15,000 a day.
People have been shocked to hear this. The strikers now have local support, with shop windows displaying the journalists’ leaflets. Nick Jackson is a subeditor who has worked at the Bolton Evening News for 20 years. He said, ‘Since I’ve been here I don’t remember being given a pay rise in line with inflation. I don’t tell anyone how much I’m paid because I regard it as an embarrassment.’
Now it is management’s turn to be embarrassed. The journalists successfully balloted last year for strike action but called it off after management agreed to negotiate. The bosses then dragged out negotiations over six months, which taught the journalists to be even more suspicious of them. Some 22 journalists joined the NUJ as a result.
The Bury Times has 95 percent NUJ membership and the Bolton Evening News has 100 percent. The journalists held two 48-hour strikes last month, which was the first industrial action taken at the workplace for around 20 years. The journalists are getting strike pay, and are raising funds locally.
They say after the strike they want a proper agreement to deal with bullying and harassment, long hours, low morale, shoddy equipment and poor training opportunities.
Lucie McFall is a Bolton Evening News reporter and joint mother of the chapel (union branch secretary). She explains, ‘Staff turnover is high. People are leaving journalism because they have been unhappy here.’ Various penny-pinching schemes introduced by the bosses have also added to people’s anger, especially when management bragged about saving half a million last year in cuts.
The journalists’ tea and coffee allowances were scrapped. The petrol allowance is just 36p a mile. The computers are old, and sometimes the databases freeze for up to 15 minutes at a time. The strike has already brought a change for the better.
Terry Morgan, a Bury Times reporter, says, ‘Management had tried to be divisive in the past but the strike has really brought all the newsrooms closer together. If you cut one everybody bleeds.’
THE MEDIA unions were among those that suffered the most from an offensive by the government and employers in the 1980s and 1990s. This reached its height during the infamous Wapping dispute. But the effects were felt right across the country, with union branches being derecognised. The tide has begun to turn within the last year and a half.
The first pay strike in newspapers for more than ten years took place last January at Newquest Bradford. A half-day strike won them pay rises of up to 14 percent. Within months there were strikes at Greater Manchester, Rotherham, Newcastle and Spalding.
In other places the threat of strike action was enough to win journalists a decent pay offer. Journalists at weeklies in Merseyside – which are owned by Trinity, the same company that owns the Daily Mirror – won rises of up to 58 percent. At Greater Manchester Weekly Newspapers journalists won rises of 24 percent after four days of strike action last year.
This year they have just got a 3.4 percent pay rise, plus a £200 lump sum and increases in expenses. It’s not just newspapers. The magazine sector has also gained considerable ground.
At the end of last year journalists at Emap Healthcare won a deal which included a 35-hour week and set the minimum salary at £21,000. This year 94.7 percent of staff at Britain’s biggest publisher of law books, Lexis Nexis UK, voted in favour of union recognition.
National newspaper gains include the Independent and Independent on Sunday. They won union recognition last year with a 99.6 percent yes vote. They then went on to win their first decent pay rise for many years. Journalists at the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph are due to ballot on union recognition.
The NUJ’s enthusiastic recruitment drive turned New Labour’s limited law into an opportunity to build the union. Phil Turner is the secretary of the Rotherham Advertiser NUJ chapel (union branch).
He said in the latest Journalist magazine, ‘The change in the law was a huge opportunity which meant that we recruited on the biggest scale for years. ‘That recruitment activity created a momentum, but for members it wasn’t just recognition that mattered, it was getting better pay and clawing back what they had lost.’
MEMBERS OF the NUJ union at the BBC are organising a day of action in protest at the sacking of two journalists in the Arabic service. A BBC-wide ballot saw a narrow majority against taking strike action. However, workers voted for industrial action short of a strike.
The day of action on 15 May includes protest rallies, leafleting and meetings. Individual chapels (union branches) are voting on what form of industrial they will take that day.
Journalists are boycotting Greg Dyke’s ‘Big Conversation’ on 15 May where he will launch a new set of ‘BBC Values’. As one BBC worker said, ‘People are disgusted that Greg Dyke is trying to push his BBC Values down our throats when union members have been victimised for standing up for their rights’.
Reballots have opened the way to bigger struggle