More than eight out of ten NUJ members working for the Newsquest group have indicated that they are prepared to take strike action if they are not given a pay rise this year.
Newsquest, the UK's third largest regional newspaper group, does not have an official group-wide pay freeze. However, no chapel has reported being made a pay offer with most being told the situation will be reviewed at the end of March. Newsquest has not given its staff a pay rise in three out of the past four past years, yet the profits for its US owners, Gannett, have risen by 15 per cent to £82.5 million.
The NUJ's indicative ballot asked: "Would you support your chapel taking strike action in a dispute with management over a refusal by them to make a pay offer for 2012?" The response was 82 per cent saying yes and 18 per cent saying no. The chapels were also asked: "Do you have confidence in Gannett Co. Inc. as the owner of Newsquest newspaper titles and associated websites on the UK?" The vote was 95 per cent saying no and 5 per cent saying yes.
A report, based on a group-wide survey of Newsquest chapels published last month, showed that a relentless regime of cuts to journalist and picture desk jobs mean that staff struggle to provide quality journalism and have to rely on readers to provide photographs. A rep from the North West said: "Reporters are less likely to get out of the office to see contacts and have less time on individual stories, developing and investigating them. Subs have less time to check stories, design pages and have less time spent on proofing pages."
The indicative ballot sends a strong message to the Newsquest management that staff are not prepared to put up with these conditions and also suffer the hardship of a pay freeze.
Journalists in Cheshire and Merseyside can earn as little as £14,500 and staff throughout the group are being asked to take unpaid leave referred to as "furloughs". Yet, the sacrifices are not being shared by Newsquest management. Craig Dubow, head of the US parent company Gannet Co Inc, resigned last year with a £23 million golden handshake. Paul Davidson, the elusive UK chief, had a salary package worth £612,000, with an additional stock options bonus of £200,000 and 61,000 shares.
Chris Morley, Northern & Midlands Organiser, said: "Our members are massively sceptical that the company has the slightest intention of paying any rise at all this year which will make it three years out of four that salaries stand still while inflation ravages the modest incomes of our members. The result of the ballot the NUJ has conducted among its members shows that they are in no mood to accept this sort of cynical and miserly treatment and would be prepared to take strike action to support a campaign for fair pay, if necessary. The company should take careful heed of the powerful message our members have expressed by such a strong result."
Bob Smith, FoC of the Newsquest Group Chapel, said: "This overwhelming vote of no confidence in Gannett's ownership of our local newspapers and websites demonstrates the despair of our members who are trying to maintain a decent level of journalism in the face of relentless cuts. The resounding majority prepared to strike to defend wages shows the determination not to let Newsquest bosses excuse themselves from paying a rise for the third time in four years. Newsquest managers need to realise the strength of feeling of journalists as we near the date they set to review their decision to freeze pay. Our members are sick of hearing hollow promises and excuses from a company that is, let's not forget, still very profitable."
Barry Fitzpatrick, NUJ deputy general secretary, said: "Our members have also delivered a thumbs-down on the barren and grim years of Gannett's ownership of newspapers and associated websites in the UK. They clearly have lost all confidence in the stewardship of distant American bosses who continue to rake in telephone number salaries and bonuses while editorial staffing is stripped to the bone."
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: "I hope the result of this ballot will make the Newsquest management think twice before using the usual excuses for not rewarding the hard work of their hard-pressed staff. A recent NUJ conference highlighted how the greed of newspaper proprietors is sounding the death knell for local and regional journalism. "