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Journalists need to work together to improve working conditions - #heartunions


9 February 2016

Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ ethics council

I joined the NUJ in 1974. I’d always believed in unions and had been in other unions before, but moving into journalism the NUJ was the right choice.

So why join a union at all? There is an expression that money talks and this sums up the meaning of capitalism. Those with money have the power and influence; those without have nothing, except the ability to come together and work as a collective. This works best in the workplace where organised labour can pressure employers to improve working conditions for those they employ – despite the wishes of employers, and the Tory politicians and Tory media who support them.

That’s what the trades union bill that this government is attempting to introduce is all about; another attempt to bind unions in red tape and bureaucracy to prevent them dealing with their core business of bettering the lives of working people.

Details of who can strike and how soon, how they must picket and who needs to be in charge; it is another attempt by Cameron to prove to his backbenchers that he’s even tougher than Thatcher. It’s a surprise there aren’t clauses on precisely how union leaders should wring their cloth caps or bonnets whilst begging their employers for a decent wage, sound health and safety for workers and the kind of work-life balance that is taken for granted in more civilised parts of the world.

I joined my trade union because I believed my view of how the enterprise for whom I worked should operate was as valid as my boss’s. He (it certainly was a he then) might control the capital, but I was part of an equally important element, the workforce that provided the skills without which the money at his control would be useless, or worse than useless; wasted.

I, along with all the other workers in the business, played an important part in the success of the operation. Over the past 50 years of my working life, I have seen this importance devalued, derided and ignored despite the fact that the skills my fellow workers and I were expected to bring to the enterprise steadily increased. As governments (through the eighties in particular) tried to reduce union power, so the expectations on workers increased in terms of providing greater skills for lower salaries, longer hours, fewer holidays, less workplace flexibility, reducing health and safety and a far worse work-life balance.

Not only are conditions of employment far worse for individual workers but they are also worse for groups of workers whether under a single employer or in an industry. The Leveson inquiry exposed a shameful period for journalism in terms of standards, but we need to understand that this was allowed to happen because employers believed they could do what they liked having cowed their workers into quitting unions leaving them too scared to complain for fear of their jobs. In times of strong NUJ collectives in newsrooms chapels were able to improve the standards of reporting in their newsrooms; as a Father of Chapel in the eighties, I was able to discuss such issues with the editor, occasionally persuading him to remove material that breached the code. The Press Council may have lacked the power to hold papers to account, but it did listen to the views of union members – something employers were delighted to ditch with a new and ultimately discredited Press Complaints Commission.

Many people nowadays fear the pressures brought to bear on union members by greedy employers and their friends in government but to quote those with better rhetoric than my own, they really have nothing to fear but fear itself. If every journalist were to look dispassionately at their industry and see the mess their employers have made of it they should thrust their fears behind them and scream "I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!" Come out of the shadows, join with your colleagues, join the NUJ and fight for a better life with better working conditions, better pay and a better work-life balance. You deserve to be able to enjoy time with your family and friends without worrying constantly about scratching a living and paying the bills.

Students of journalism often ask me why I am in the union; I tell them the truth. I’m in it for three things:

  1. I believe journalists need to work together to improve our working conditions. A strong union leads to a professional workplace producing top class journalism with well-paid, happy staff.
  2. I feel safer knowing the strength of the union is behind me as an individual should I be bullied, sacked or discriminated against at work.
  3. I want to be able to play a part in producing quality ethical, responsible journalism and the NUJ allows me to campaign and lobby government on those issues.

I’ve worked for the union for more than 40 years as a Father of Chapel, branch chair, industrial council member, NEC member and ethics council member and it’s been tough watching employers and government play on the legitimate fears of journalists in the workplace for their own political and financial advantage. But I know that if we could persuade more journalists to join and build strong chapels that can represent them in the workplace, those members would feel more secure and happier in their work. I know – I’ve seen it and we deserve to see it again.

The NUJ is supporting the TUC week of action #heartunions to celebrate the work of the trade union movement and to campaign against the government's divisive trade union bill.

Tags: , heartunions, tuc, trade union bill