Unionisation drive at a UK local newspaper

Submitted by libcom on May 27, 2006

A short account by one worker in a local UK newspaper of a successful NUJ unionisation drive he was involved in in 2006

The company I work for is a successful one, making vast profits despite, like every other newspaper in the country, having a falling number of readers.

The managers at the company, again like at every other company in the UK, have for years been attempting to offset loss of readership by making their papers more attractive to advertisers. Money has gone into the printing operation, so more pages are colour. The quality of the print has gone up, the amount of advertising space in the paper has risen, as has the price per advert.

At the same time, cost cutting has been an annual part of the newspaper's cycle for years now, with consultants paid massive fees to tell the Managing Director and his close allies what they want to hear - that jobs can be cut without the quality of the paper, or the number of readers, suffering. That the cuts which have gone through already and the lack of interesting reading material, the lowering of wages and subsequent loss of all the most talented and long-term journalists aren't the reasons behind their poor performance.

Lack of investment in reporters living in and learning about their patch is reaping an inevitable dividend of disconnection from the community, and readers are dropping. But managers are told every year to hit a target, and regardless of next year, when that target will be harder still, they engage in the destruction of their own business for short term gains from the wages of workers.

It was with this background in mind that people were laid off as part of a company cost-cutting drive last year, which happened to coincide with me getting in touch with a rep who had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get people to sign up for the union, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

The severity and unilateral nature of the cuts took people by surprise a bit, so a few people got a bit scared and signed up on the spot, helping to kick-start a campaign for recognition.

I wasn't in the main office, so went off and concentrated in recruiting with my lot, and got all bar one by a mixture of argument and suggestion. Particularly with the younger staff, and even with some in their mid-20s, none had been in a union and few knew anything about them at all. This generally meant I had to start from the ground up giving them a union education that had been so far lacking - an education I had to give them as someone who had never been in a union before.

The newness of the people I was talking to however did have an immense positive - there was little preconception. I was able to put forward a straight view of how unions can work, and make it clear what needs to be done, and even touch on more negative aspects without turning them off the entire concept.

It did however take time. I found it counterproductive to bring unionism up at every opportunity, as people tended to get bored if you talked at about the same subject for too long. I found short bursts of conversation - usually precipitated by something happening at work which people wanted to moan about - tended to keep people interested and asking questions, or at least listening to views.

Signups were still quite hard work. Particularly when a department is not being directly attacked, as ours wasn't, asking them to sign up to union dues in a time of relative peace didn't get a hugely enthusiastic response even if they agreed with the concept. Tacit agreement to sign up 'at some point' had to be followed with regular reminders, spare copies of the forms to hand, an ability to guide them through the process and at times, a few pointed words. Badgering people did pay off however, and using a deeper and lengthier process of explanation has produced people seemingly more committed to unionism and with more awareness of their place within the branch than would have occurred otherwise.

While I worked off on my own, the main office did a proper recruitment drive, persuading the union to do a one-off half-price signup, with visits from regional branch reps bringing in larger numbers of people - though having spoken to some of the new people recruited in this manner, they still seem almost clueless beyond a vague belief that things will be 'better after the recognition'.

We got the numbers fairly easily once it came down to it, there was a bit of a domino effect in the main office apparently, and although my lot took a bit longer than the main drive but we ended up with well over 50% membership, got a petition to support it, and sent off to the regulator.

Then things went quiet for four months. The company, which is fairly strongly anti-union in character, tried various tricks to derail the process. An anti-union letter was sent out, which was badly written enough in the angry post-cuts atmosphere to get us several more recruits, particularly given the evident enthusiasm of the unionist I was working with, who was subsequently made Father of the Chapel.

Up to a few days before we got it, the company also kept on trying to change the numbers around by attempting to include a larger bargaining group, or reorganising the workforce and demanding that it be recounted, but the numbers were good enough that they failed to wriggle out of it in the end.

Our cause was helped immensely by having just one or two people in each department talking to everyone, staying positive, selling the union and generally making sure everyone except management knew what was going on and where the process was at. Getting the half-price deal with the union chiefs was also invaluable, though there is a chance that this will cause problems later if a) it doesn't deliver benefits immediately b) it tries to rely on people who aren't aware of how unionism works at its best to understand how those demands have to be delivered - with force.

But with a company that knows what it is doing in trying to stop you, numbers are everything. It is not enough to have exactly 50%. There has to be room for the inevitable attrition that occurs through management attempts to discount union strongholds, or count areas that were never organised, and prevarication techniques of all kinds. And petitions are important if you are on a knife edge and want to risk it, with the possibility of a complete collapse in morale if you miss. A petition signed by enough people is worth its weight, as it shows the assessing body you have the support of the staff, even if not the paid subs.

So at last we have a union, the process having taken about four months. Next, getting the entire membership to understand it's not just the equivalent to a workplace protest group, then demonstrating the systemic weaknesses of the traditional union system, then suggesting the alternative...