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Newsquest NUJ newspaper chapels unite to ballot for strike action

21 May 2014

The NUJ has notified Newsquest of co-ordinated ballots for strike action in response to redundancy threats, pay freezes and plans to transfer staff and work away from local communities.

The ballots will start next week and will cover five NUJ Newsquest chapels. Union members have decided to come together to oppose the company’s existing plans and the co-ordinated ballots show the strength of feeling amongst the staff involved. If the proposals go ahead, the company will cut staff with decades of experience and skill, risk editorial quality and create heavy workloads for those who remain. NUJ members included in the ballot have only had one pay rise in the last six years.

Nearly 150 NUJ Newsquest members will be balloted for industrial action:

The ballots include NUJ members working for Newsquest in Blackburn and on titles including the Warrington Guardian; Northwich Guardian in Cheshire; the Sale and Altringham Messenger in Stretford; the Wirral Globe in Birkenhead; and the St Helens Star in Merseyside.

NUJ members in Sussex, Southampton and South London will also take part in the ballots. The titles covered include The Argus in Brighton, Southampton’s Southern Daily Echo and the South London Guardian series where proposals to close a title and shut an office have angered staff.

NUJ members want to ensure the Newsquest titles in print and online can have a sustainable and strong future. NUJ members do not want their work to move to subbing hubs in Weymouth or Newport.  

One staff member who has already been moved onto the new way of working said:

"Each day, every day, problems continue to beset us that involve more and more work for less and less people – you know, the Newsquest way."

The templates used for the new system and the associated training offered are not fit for purpose.

"The new staff at Newport are unfamiliar with terms such as columns, hampers, end legs, lead stories, captions – the new staff have not been properly trained and are paid peanuts."

The NUJ members do not in any way blame their colleagues in Weymouth or in Newport - where they are simply trying to cope with a system that does not work. Its failure damages the credibility, integrity and reputation of Newsquest and represents deteriorating working conditions for journalists.

On Friday 9 May, Press Gazette reported that the Swindon Advertiser was censured by the Press Complaints Commission over an inaccurate heading written at a remote subbing hub. This example serves to highlight the union’s existing concerns about changing staffing levels and ways of working – the changes already implemented have harmed the brand, company and products. The Advertiser accepted that the headline was inaccurate and offered to publish a clarification. In 2011, the subbing of the Swindon Advertiser was moved 30 miles away to Oxford.

The union is demanding the company immediately put on hold their current proposals and calls on Newsquest to meet the NUJ with a genuine desire to consult staff and consider alternative proposals.

Laura Davison, NUJ national organiser, said:

"There is a real feeling of enough is enough across Newsquest chapels. We've actually had other centres ringing up wanting to ballot too. Cost cutting is forcing out dedicated and experienced staff with little compensation, to the detriment of readers and local communities. In the South there is concern about how the proposals are impacting on part-time workers, largely women, whose working hours don't appear to fit conveniently into Newsquest's concept of efficiency. For those who stay it means frozen pay, long hours and heavy workloads especially when other vacancies are persistently unfilled. There is also concern that in the post re-structure world one of the new roles proposed merges both editorial and commercial work, jeopardising journalistic integrity."

Jane Kennedy, NUJ assistant organiser, added:

"We have a great deal of evidence to show that the system is not working and that the pressure being put on remaining staff is unacceptable and unsustainable. We call on Henry Faure Walker, CEO of Newsquest, to halt this process and meet with the NUJ to find a better way forward. The current plans are destructive and unnecessary, they waste the skills and talents of our hardworking members and the existing proposals should be reconsidered."

Tony Howard and Vicki Stockman, joint Father and Mother of Chapel of Cheshire and Merseyside Newsquest, said:

"The company has shown a distinct disregard for the feelings and personal situations of our members throughout this process. The first announcement was made in a room full of strangers with no senior management present, while those affected had to sit at the back and strain to listen to their fate.
"The letters for individual consultations were not received by most members until well after the day the meetings were meant to take place due to them being posted out too late, meaning those affected had no idea what was going on. Even after this, it was only after great collective pressure was applied by our chapel, that the company backed down and rearranged the meetings.
"We have attempted to arrange for our members to take part in a site visit to Newport to help with consultation, as offered by the HR department in a group consultation meeting, but the company since ruled they won't allow this to take place until the consultation has ended, meaning our members cannot make informed choices about the rest of their lives until it is too late.
"We have supplied an alternative option to prevent all redundancies that won't add any costs or present any technical issues for Newsquest, yet we have not been allowed to discuss this in detail as the company has indicated it will not hold further group consultation meetings with our reps.
"It is clear that job losses are completely avoidable and unfortunately it may take a ballot for industrial action to focus the minds of those running Newsquest to consider the alternatives seriously. We are very keen to get around the table and discuss our proposals in detail.
"It has not escaped our attention that the jobs we have been promised will be available for our members should they move to Newport, are seemingly being advertised on Hold the Front Page, with the deadline being the exact date for the end of our consultation period.
"Furthermore, having heard the horror stories from NUJ chapels elsewhere who already use the new system, we have put forward our concerns for the staff who will remain at our offices, in regards to extra training and changing roles with added workloads. Yet the company's vague and ambiguous replies have done nothing to satisfy a need for our members' welfare to be taken seriously. Hopefully this ballot will make this more likely."

Tags: , relocation, subbing hub, ballot, newsquest, pay, newspapers, industrial action, cuts, blackburn, warrington guardian, northwich guardian, sale and altrincham messenger, wirral globe, st helens star, sussex, southampton, london, local newspapers, regional newspapers, online, argus, brighton and sussex branch, southern daily echo, south london guardian, press gazette, weymouth, newport, pcc, swindon advertiser