Long distance recognition
Journalists on the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea and its associated weeklies have won a marathon battle to be represented by the NUJ. It took 18 months for them to become only the third newsroom in the Northcliffe Media group to achieve that right.
Shortly after journalists at South West Wales Media voted decisively in favour of the NUJ being recognised by the company, one senior editor was heard to say the result “was a dark day for management”. One staffer said in response: “At last the dark days are over”.
In a postal ballot of 92 members of staff, 45 voted for union recognition, 34 opposed it and 13 abstained. The result was the culmination of an 18-month long NUJ campaign. In that time members had to overcome the often bitter hostility towards trade unions from senior editorial staff holding the anti-union line for parent company Northcliffe.
Their aim was always modest — to establish the right to be represented by their union. But at times it must have felt as if they had been thrown into the darkest recesses of a Harry Potter film, fighting off nefarious dark forces. There were letters to staff and newsroom meetings that attacked union reps personally. Management’s tone went from the union campaign being described as “fanciful” to reps being berated as a “disgrace” in front of over 70 people at a newsroom meeting.
They spent hours trawling the internet for anything “incriminating” about the union or its local and national reps. Even the fact that the NUJ is considering the sale of its headquarters was portrayed as an indication of why it was profligate and irresponsible — when the reverse is true.
Despite their efforts, the one thing managers could never resolve was journalists’ frustration and anger at the decline in the pay and conditions in the two decades since the union was derecognised. Last year management scrapped a Sunday working payment, cutting up to £2,000 a year from some journalists’ salaries, and a new sickness policy meant that three periods of sickness in any year could see a staff member lose all their sick pay entitlement — and possibly their job — regardless of the nature of their illness.
As a sop, managers introduced coffee and cakes for staff on a Tuesday afternoon, one of the busiest production days. Staff saw this for the empty sweetener it was.
As a result of managers’ behaviour, over the past 18 months 30 people have been recruited to the NUJ; more than half the journalists are union members now.
For NUJ reps this hard-fought campaign has been well worth it. As one member said to one of the reps after the result: “Thanks for taking it in the neck for all of us.”
‘Fairness at work’ law that’s not so even-handed after all
LAWRENCE SHAW, the NUJ’s full-time official for Wales, sets out the legal hurdles that unions must jump to win recognition — even under ‘Fairness at Work’ legislation.
WHEN THE NUJ chapel at South West Wales Media decided in February to put in a formal claim for union recognition, nobody was under any illusion about the consequences.
In the next six months there were hysterical outbursts on the newsroom floor from middle managers, high-profile defections from union activity, character assassinations of NUJ reps, a barrage of bitter anti-union letters sent to all staff and the spectacle of the editor Spencer Feeney, himself a former NUJ rep, darkly warning that the union would soon have everyone out on strike — and not win a single thing in the process.
The legal right of trade unions to be recognised for the purposes of collective bargaining was part of the 1999 Employment Relations Act, one of the few crumbs tossed at unions by the New Labour regime as it feasted at the table with their new-found friends in the CBI.
The recognition laws gave unions a much-needed focus for rebuilding. However, like most of New Labour’s supposed great leaps forward for workers, they have proven a nightmare to enforce as companies grow savvy to the many loopholes the laws contain.
The first major stumbling block is the time set aside under the law to reach a “voluntary” agreement — which effectively gives the boss three weeks to denigrate and attack the union before having to respond to any official arbitration.
Then there’s establishing the “bargaining unit” — the group of workers to be covered by any eventual deal. Time is put aside for unions and management to “negotiate” an agreement that is “compatible with effective management” and this can go on for more than a month.
Bosses know they can frustrate the process for months by including other workers, not eligible to join the NUJ, within the bargaining unit. In Swansea, management included secretaries and advertising copywriters to dilute the NUJ membership density.
If the union does not accept the bosses’ list, this process can go to an arbitration “hearing” adding many more months to the procedure.
Finally, there is the recognition ballot. Unions are supposed to be given “equal access” to employees, but in reality the bosses still have carte blanche to bully people into leaving the union, while the union has just a few hours of official access time and a noticeboard in the corner of the newsroom.
We won in Swansea not because of the recognition laws, but in spite of them — and because a team of committed NUJ reps stuck to their guns in the face of outrageous management attacks. In other battles, the NUJ has not been so lucky. At other Northcliffe centres where it did have a majority in membership it was cheated of recognition by management tactics that gradually wore the members down.
The current government could easily have strengthened the laws, dramatically shortening the tortuous process. Unsurprisingly, it seems unlikely that anything will be done to improve them by either major party.
We must always be prepared to fight for our right to force the bosses to talk to us, whether the law is on our side or not.
A VOTE STACKED AGAINST US
Northcliffe titles where journalists have won recognition for the NUJ are the Western Daily Press and Evening Post in Bristol and the Leicester Mercury.
At other centres, the Daily Mail-owned group has managed to hold the union off, sometimes after really bruising battles. Journalists on the Stoke Sentinel fought for six years before being cruelly denied in February last year.
After clearing all the hurdles, they lost the crucial ballot by just three votes. A series of briefings were held. Sections of staff were herded into an outbuilding to listen to management and union representatives. Union reps were not allowed into the office.
Sentinel editor Mike Sassi used the sessions to deliver furious tirades against the NUJ. Journalists who joined, he said, were either young and misguided, political ideologues, or “lazy people”.
When the vote took place the result was a tie, with 36 employees voting for and against. This was three short of the total needed for the union to win: 39 votes out of the 96 staff would have made the 40 per cent required by law.
Journalists at the Gloucestershire Echo likewise lost their fight in 2002, but colleagues on the Bristol Evening Post held out and voted for the NUJ.