Source > Tribune
In June the Daily Mirror ran a dramatic double-page story with the banner headline ‘GIVE US A FAIR WAGE’. It applauded the workers taking strike action and included a comment article by Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite. For everyone struggling to make ends meet as prices outstrip wages, at least one paper was on our movement’s side.
Or so it seemed. Because despite the paper’s campaigning about workers’ pay, rising prices, and the fuel emergency, the headline’s words now feel hollow.
During pay negotiations with Reach—the company that owns the Daily Mirror and other national titles such as the Express, Daily Record, Daily Star, Sunday Mail, Western Mail, and Irish Star, along with regional publications like the Manchester Evening News, Liverpool Echo, Bristol Post, Birmingham Mail, the Journal, South Wales Evening Post, and the Live websites—the NUJ case has been simple. The company has recorded impressive profits, its journalists are already paid relatively little, it is vital for their wages to keep pace with inflation. Without this, staff will suffer a challenging pay cut.
Based on editorial lines taken across the group, not to mention its advertised corporate ideals—’Speaking up and shining a light on the truth… serve(ing) communities with integrity and passion’—the union had hoped for a constructive response.
We got precisely the opposite. Over months of negotiations, the company did not move from its offer of three percent. At today’s rate of inflation, which represents at least a seven percent (and rising) cut in pay. When our threats of strike action led to them coming to the table at the eleventh hour, we pulled out of one of our strike days and I spent the bank holiday weekend in negotiations, brokered by ACAS, in a London hotel room.
But ultimately, the lack of willingness on the part of Reach chief executive Jim Mullen to budge an inch meant the negotiations were doomed to failure. This is a business with cash in the bank, a business that is happy to spend £7 million on lavish pay packages for its top two executives, a business that is about to hand over millions more to shareholders.
Yet is also a business that believes its hard-working journalists deserve a whopping real-terms pay cut, and refuses to come to an agreement on pay that will ensure our members can keep themselves and their families afloat this winter. It’s shameful that a media company that positions itself as a voice for communities, with many titles that claim to be an ally of working people, would choose to treat its own staff so shabbily.
Our journalists reacted furiously, and that’s why we are striking today, why we are escalating our industrial action with the more days in September, during TUC Congress week, and why we have extended our work to rule.
Despite the NUJ already having dense membership among most Reach titles, joiners have flooded into the union—more than two hundred, at the latest count. When we balloted for strike action, seventy percent of those entitled to vote returned their ballots, and seventy-nine percent voted to withdraw their labour.
To be clear, no one wants this strike. Not union officials, not lay activists, and least of all not the journalists. But facing the prospect of genuine hardship round the corner, and a company acting egregiously, they are compelled to act to defend the integrity of their livelihoods.
The actions of Reach management are surprising, and not only because their papers have championed fair pay. Company finances are healthy, shareholders are about to receive a £4 million dividend payment, and through some bizarre bonus-scheme alchemy, CEO Jim Mullen and CFO Simon Fuller will receive £7 million between them in remuneration this year.
Times are rosy for some of the company’s stakeholders. There is a disconnect and a lack of respect, however, for the key stakeholder that creates the content and journalism that fuels the company’s growth.
Journalists are saying enough is enough. The crisis within the newspaper industry, played out in years of successive cuts and redundancies among the main players, and short-term corporate approaches in a weak business model, have left a legacy. Casualisation is rife. Job security, holiday entitlement, and pensions for journalists fall far behind comparable occupations. Finding your feet as an unpaid ‘intern’ is unheard of in hospitals and schools. In much of the media, it is the norm.
The economic pivot, brought about by the energy crisis, Brexit, and government mismanagement, makes quiescence today untenable. Day in, day out, reporters seek out stories illustrating how the cost of living crisis impacts ordinary people. In Liverpool, for example, the Reach-owned Echo reported in the summer how bus drivers were struggling to get by on a basic wage of £27,000. Many reporters keeping their communities informed earn less and work long hours in pressured environments, where paid overtime is almost unheard of.
For now, journalists at Reach are united, angry, and motivated to challenge their bosses’ hypocrisy. Their dispute will almost certainly affect the weather for other wage settlements in the sector. Its broader and long-term effects will be more profound, however.
Over the past two or three decades, trades unions have become less prominent in national life. As highly unionised industries have contracted or disappeared, aggregate membership has fallen. Some unions like my own have the same membership today as at the 1979 high water mark of overall union membership, and have retained our independence as a union representing journalists and journalism, but the NUJ is unusual.
This strike changes that. You won’t find a British journalist, whatever their political persuasion, who does not think that Reach staff deserve a pay rise that keeps pace with inflation.
Until today, few newspaper journalists, even those who cover trade disputes, could have told you little about the laws that restrict workers from striking. Now they are receiving an up-close-and-personal demonstration of how these opaque laws hand employers endless petty-fogging means to frustrate industrial action. Even when a strike is clearly supported by the overwhelming majority, the law provides sneaky means to remove this most basic basic human right.
Those politicians who are calling for yet more laws to hidebound organised workers will find that they have dramatically misjudged the public mood. A year ago the right to strike was one about which few people had given recent thought. The mishandling of this economic crisis has changed that forever.
In recent years, Reach has led the way in reinventing legacy news platforms, developing new markets, and fighting for readers’ attention. Its final transformative leap should be to recognise that newspapers are only as good as the journalists they employ.
The better they are treated, the more impressive will be their work. Do this and Reach will remain true to its promise of corporate integrity, as well as throwing down the gauntlet anew to its competition. I hope that is the route it will eventually choose.
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