Fight for all our pay

Fight for all our pay

I have just made a contribution to the Reach strikers’ hardship fund. I would encourage everyone else who cares about pay in the media to do the same, whether or not you are a member of the NUJ.

The NUJ’s Reach chapels start four days of strike action tomorrow (31 August), after a holiday weekend of talks broke down. Throughout the talks, union negotiators were confident that progress was in train. Despite this, the company would not budge from what is, in effect, a seven-per-cent reduction in pay. NUJ reps unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in CEO Jim Mullen as a result.

Tomorrow’s will be the biggest action by newspaper journalists in this country for nearly 40 years and the first opportunity for media workers to respond to the personal impact of the cost-of-living crisis.

There is much about the current Reach management that is impressive. They have significantly enlarged the company, pursued a strategy that radiates confidence in the future of their titles, and appear determined to expand into new markets. It places them among the most successful custodians of a large, mixed newspaper group since news went online.

Reach’s strategy in respect of paying its staff is wholly mistaken, however. In recent decades nearly all the private-sector media has kept down journalists’ pay. “The web is costing us sales, and killing our advertising market, there is no money for a pay rise”, has been the repeated refrain.  

The result has been twenty years of ‘not quite keeping up with inflation’. Employed journalists have seen their relative pay slide, and the differential with comparable professions and slowly opened. (Freelances have fared much worse.) With inflation averaging two per cent over decades, the change has been sufficiently gradual, however, to provoke more irritated shrugs that fighting spirit.

No more. The shocking return of double-digit inflation and the prospect that it might reach twice that has cast in sharp relief media employers’ attitudes. Workers who fail to stand up for themselves can expect radically diminished spending power and, in many cases, a struggle to make ends meet.

There is no question that Reach can afford a pay rise. Its accounts show that it made £47m profits last year. Senior staff are paid millions. And, shareholders were recently handed £14m. The company’s determination to pay staff just three per cent is motivated by one thought only – ‘we can get away with it’.

If the effort to secure fair pay at Reach succeeds, it will change the weather across the media. Every other news platform will see that, like many other groups of workers, journalists will fight to defend their living standards. Pay rises that keep up with inflation will become the standard, not the exception.

The contrary scenario requires no spelling out, save to say that the Reach agreement will frame ever other wage negotiation in our sector. 

For a sense of just how mean Reach is being, incidentally, a quick look at the supermarket Aldi is instructive. As a company, Aldi has turned wage restraint into something approaching a cult. Controlling the aggregate cost of pay is store managers’ most important performance indicator – not sales, as you might expect. Despite this, the German discounter has just awarded staff a nine-per-cent pay increase. 

To date the campaign among Reach staff has been brilliantly conducted. The vote to strike was overwhelming. Around 200 new members have joined the NUJ during the course of the push. And at centres around the country and enthusiasm and determination to defend pay is palpable.

Successful industrial action, however, depends on maintaining confidence and momentum. That is why it is essential for Reach chapels to really feel that their colleagues from across the media are behind them. Should they wobble, should they face bullying, or unfair inducements from their bosses, the knowlege that thousands of journalists beyond their newsrooms are willing them on, and pledging their support can make all the difference.

So don’t be a doormat. Tweet your support for the strike #NUJReachstrike. Go to a picket. Attend the online rally (2 pm 31 August passcode: 603486). Phone a friend who works at Reach and tell them what you think. Pledge a few quid to the hardship fund. 

The clearer it becomes that as journalists we consider this to be our fight, not their fight, the greater will be our chance of protecting wages across the industry. Manage that, and of course it will benefit journalists. More importantly, however, it will benefit journalism, and the democracy on whose health it depends.