As staff at socialist daily newspaper, the Morning Star, prepare to go on strike this Sunday over pay and conditions, Ed Goddard from libcom.org caught up with one worker and found out about low pay and union busting in the name of "peace and socialism."
1. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the dispute?
Back in October last year we got an offer of £1,000 for 2010, which was probably the best in the industry in terms of percentage. The problem was that this had been hitched to a three year deal, with increases for following years capped at 4%. That's effectively a pay cut when RPI inflation is already at 5.3%, and there's very few trade unionists who'd be happy to sign away annual bargaining rights under those circumstances.
The headline £1,000 figure is also pretty misleading if you don't know what it represents, which is catchup pay because we remain some of the lowest-paid people around for the kind of work we do - £19,000 as opposed to £24,500 which is the industry average (and it’s higher in London where we’re based, around £26,000). We certainly aren't demanding that!
But the Star is actually a fairly complicated job even by normal standards. Our industrial reporter for example has to know about the situation nationwide covering millions of working people on top of normal daily news writing, while our subs need a huge range of technical knowledge because they don't have things like a picture desk, so they have to find their own pics, photoshop things themselves, deal with a really variable quality of work etc. Some staffers at the paper who also do the occasional shift elsewhere reckon it's usually an easy day compared to working here, even at the Guardian, because you're not trying to do the job of three people!
So there does need to be some sort of encouragement to keep or hire high-quality staff even if they're lefties, and we've been asking for ages now about getting something extra for anti-social hours as a gesture towards alternative forms of compensation.
This should help put in context our initial suggestion, which was £1,500 over one year, plus discussions over compensation for anti-social working hours. We were of course expecting to come down from that bargaining position and have repeatedly dropped it already (I think it's £1,000 plus some time in lieu for Sundays and bank hols atm).
However management only recently agreed to change their offer, just days before we were due to strike. After initially telling us it would be £750 for one year instead, they said they simply wouldn't talk about anti-social hours, even though it wouldn't cost them anything financially. Eight months down the line they’ve finally shifted a bit on lieu time and suggested £900 plus a percentage rise next year as a two-year deal. This incidentally is despite them having already paid our sister branch Unite (covering admin, sales, that sort of thing) the £1,000, so we know they've had the money for that as a one year deal all along.
2. Do you have any idea of the pay that the Morning Star management are on?
It's about a £5,000 difference as far as I know, but I'm not sure of the exact figures. It was originally flat across the board I think but they wanted to "provide a career structure" to encourage people to stay longer. Like treating their workforce with respect might, for example.
3. What has been the level of participation from the workers in this dispute? What are the feelings of workers on the shopfloor about these issues?
Depends on who you speak to, there's a fairly hefty split into two camps with one being pro a three year deal and the other being anti. All but two of the pro-deal group are publicly acknowledged Communist Party of Britain backers or members (and one of those two is the daughter of a member), while the other side is made up mainly of left wingers from all kinds of different groups and theoretical backgrounds. At the moment though there’s a slim but solid majority in favour of fighting our corner.
4. So where can you see these feelings going? Do you think there is a chance that this could result in staff taking strike action?
We've already been on strike, technically! Having finally confirmed with the NUJ we had this really odd 10 minute mandatory chapel meeting in the meeting room, surrounded by memorabilia from the CPB's hey-day, to initiate the strike period. We're due out for our first full day on June 20th. To their credit, most people have already pledged not to cross the picket line regardless of their personal views.
5. How have management responded to the organising activities of its staff? In ‘regular’ capitalist enterprises we often hear of management bullying in response to workers organising; has it been any different at a newspaper dedicated to “peace and socialism”?
Not really to be honest, most of the hallmarks are there, just in a different form. They're careful not to actively victimise people individually but as a group we've come under constant pressure through a variety of different tactics and the atmosphere in the office has been horrendous – even worse than it was last year.
One of the more noticeable things has been the rising number of CPB members and sympathisers in staff roles as people have come and gone over the last while, and some of those have been brought in regardless of their skills base or the views of their immediate line managers. With one, his name was included in an analysis we found of who'd vote which way in a strike ballot - before the job had even been advertised! Such behaviour amounts to packing the branch with people who are prepared to take any offer going as long as the boss tells them its a good idea - union busting, in effect, even if the shell of the branch is left intact.
Related to this, we've had huge problems because various CPB sympathisers and members in the branch have said they're in favour of passing on our internal minutes to the chief management negotiator, editor Bill Benfield, on the grounds he's an NUJ member - an idea so absurd that even Bill excuses himself from meetings because he knows we wouldn't be able to wear it. One of our members is currently under an investigation about this, so I can’t talk in full about it, but effectively their attitude means we can't have meetings in which people feel free to say their piece, because we don't know what might be given over.
Beyond that there's things like the "Rock and a Hard Place" document they've been sending out, basically painting us as a bunch of crazed greedy paper-wreckers who are going to bring down the last left-wing paper in Britain. It's very similar tactics to those used in charities, where the workforce are told "how dare you ask for decent conditions when every penny goes to starving kids/puppies/blind people." It's rubbish there and it's rubbish here, if you expect people to do a job then you have to pay them for it properly.
There's also definitely been a concerted effort to spread around this idea that we're being totally unreasonable to try and undermine us in the trade union movement, despite them being the ones who have repeatedly made no effort to compromise or even talk seriously about how to reach an amicable settlement. At the People’s Press Printing Society AGM1 meanwhile Bill officially branded us “irresponsible adventurists” to a crowd of hundreds of people – which gives you some indication of the attitudes we’ve had to deal with.
This has come on top of a number of informal complaints being made about our chapel officers which are yet to be substantiated. It's very unpleasant for them being the subject of nasty rumours like that.
Most damaging though I think has been the constant threats of going into liquidation if we go on strike - the exact same thing BA has been threatening its staff with during their recent dispute and which we have criticised in the paper itself.
6. Isn’t there a possibility that the Morning Star could go bankrupt as a result of the strike?
Over a weekly Sunday strike? Unlikely and we've been careful not to throw too heavy a body-blow at them. However what we do know is that they've been setting up for going into administration for months on the off-chance they can't beat us into submission. If you have a look on the Companies House website you'll find a company called Lextra Ltd, an "off the shelf" concern registered at Unity House (the RMT headquarters - yes, we found that interesting as well) on April 20th. This company has apparently been incorporated to try and save assets in the event they close it down.
We're not sure of the legalities of all this but it seems weird they'd need a whole new company to do that - more usually you incorporate a limited company to, well, start or restart the selling of something. If they were to restart the Star under a new company like that, it would amount to them using the absolute worst of the anti-trade union laws to break an independent trade union, which would be an astonishing fall from grace even for the CPB.
7. Has there been much contact between the Morning Star and the trade union movement about this dispute?
If you define the Morning Star as its management and CPB backers, then yes, lots. They've been whinging about us for months to anyone who'll listen, sending out missives, collaring people at the various headquarters - we've even heard from some sources that CPB members have been turning up to Trades Council meetings and conferences with a specific agenda of slagging the anti-deal side off.
However if you define the Morning Star as the shop-floor professionals who actually do most of the work in putting it out, then no, not really. It's notable that pretty much nobody from the top of the tree at the TUC has asked us our side of the story. This interview is part of an attempt to rectify the problem, because to be honest we were unprepared for the sheer spite which would be thrown our way and we're only just starting to get our running shoes on to counter it.
- 1The People’s Press Printing Society is the readers’ co-operative which nominally owns and controls the Morning Star and its direction. In practice its activities are signed off by the paper’s Management Committee, which in turn is largely directed by four CPB stalwarts, Tony Briscoe, Bill Benfield, Liz Elkind and Carolyn Jones.