Journalists at the Johnston Press Group are to be balloted again on industrial action after their management used a technicality to block a strike on May 19 by the NUJ.
Johnston Press argued in the High Court that it doesn't employ any journalists. This came as a surprise to the 550 NUJ members across the group’s titles who will now be balloted again on strike action.
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “Our members at Johnston Press share the frustration that workers at Network Rail and BA have felt recently, where overwhelming ballot results in favour of strike action have been successfully ruled out of order by managements exploiting the technicalities of the anti-trade union laws. The subsequent court decision to permit Unite cabin crew to go ahead with the strike for which they had voted overwhelmingly may represent a welcome attempt to restore some sanity to British industrial relations."
Johnston Press produced a 600-page court submission purporting to show that the group ‘employs no journalists’ -- despite the JP stamp on the pay slips of staff working on their titles; the JP company handbook issued to all staff; the Johnston Press plc intranet that publishes company-wide procedures including policies on grievance, disciplinary procedure and health and safety; despite the group's claims in the annual report, in company bulletins and external publications that it employs 1,900 journalists and more than 7,000 employees. Johnston Press made the claim although there were group-wide decisions on the recent pay freeze, pensions, and employment terms and conditions.
Jeremy Dear said: “Johnston Press management’s claim that it employs no journalists would be laughable, did it not have such serious implications for industrial relations in the UK. It’s clearly part of an emerging trend amongst employers to derail democratically-agreed industrial action by skilfully exploiting the anti-trade union laws. In this case, by creating a web of subsidiary companies set up as multiple employers, JP management has been able to argue at the High Court that our dispute around group-wide pay and the introduction of a new content management system across the titles is, in fact, a series of identical disputes with JP's multiple subsidiaries.
“Unfortunately, given the threat of injunctions, legal costs, the loss by individual members of their protection against unfair dismissal and punitive damages being imposed, we have been forced to call off Wednesday’s strike action and will re-ballot members.
“Johnston Press plc closed the group-wide pension scheme. Johnston Press plc imposed the group-wide pay freeze. Johnston Press plc imposed the group-wide introduction of the ATEX content management system. Yet Johnston Press plc has worked hard to ensure that under the anti-trade union laws, we are forced to have a dispute not with it, but with each and every one of its wholly owned subsidiaries. It is patently unfair and the law is an ass."
NUJ representatives across Johnston Press are angry that the company has put so much effort into challenging the legality of the ballot rather than seeking to resolve the issues which give rise to this dispute -- the under-resourcing of newsrooms, the health and safety concerns over ATEX, and the pay freeze and the damage to the standards of local newspapers.
The NUJ will now re-ballot members in each centre and each chapel. Johnston Press members in Scotland will also be balloted following the company’s refusal to rule out compulsory job cuts. Any action resulting from these ballots will be coordinated across the whole group. Meanwhile, the NUJ will continue to seek talks and meaningful negotiation with Johnston Press management to resolve the outstanding and pressing group-wide problems that exist throughout the titles.