Staff at Midlands news group to ballot for action over pay, potential job losses and working practices

  • 06 Jul 2020

The editorial staff at Bullivant Media Limited have unanimously voted to ballot for strike action and action short of strike action.

Journalists at a Midlands weekly newspaper and website group are balloting over pay, potential job losses and working practices.

The editorial staff at Bullivant Media Limited have unanimously voted to ballot for strike action and action short of strike action. The dispute concerns pay after unauthorised deductions in salaries over three months, potential compulsory redundancies in the coming months, divisive working practices and and use of flawed performance data.

All working staff across departments were hit with unannounced huge shortfalls in pay for March, April and May, when they might otherwise have been furloughed with 80 per cent of their wages paid by the government.

Many of the journalists earn salaries close to statutory minimum wage levels, and were left out of pocket by tens of thousands of pounds combined.

The company, established in the 1980s, runs weekly free newspapers and websites the Coventry Observer, Leamington Observer, Rugby Observer, Stratford Observer, Solihull Observer, Redditch Standard, Bromsgrove Standard, Worcester Observer and Evesham Observer.

Following complaints from the union, they were finally paid what they were owed last week (1 July), but future salary payments remain uncertain. Chapel members say the company has not implemented across-the-board pay rises for over a decade.

The situation follows declining revenues since the coronavirus outbreak and nationwide wrangling over short-term government advertising revenues for local news outlets including Bullivant Media Limited. The government subsidies are set to expire.

Its latest accounts, filed in April for the year up to January 2019, revealed net liabilities of around £390,000. The unaudited accounts contain a director's report which stated the company's intentions to establish a break-even position during the coronavirus pandemic, but failed to mention its difficulties in paying staff.

Half of the chapel's membership last month joined in NUJ-backed pre-tribunal action involving early conciliation for the recovery of salary shortfalls. It did not include the furloughed members who have been paid 80 per cent of their salaries by the government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. The scheme tapers off from next month and expires at the end of October.

The Bullivant Media Limited NUJ chapel said:

"Working non-furloughed staff, many already on the breadline, had to consider going to foodbanks after getting to the end of each month of working hard in good faith, only to discover no salary in their bank accounts, or 70 per cent and 50 per cent unauthorised deductions.
"We understand the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses and the media industry. But those working staff who were told they would not be furloughed have been consistently left in the dark and out of pocket.
"There has been no attempt to find agreement on pay and working practices and little goodwill from the company. The company's response to the Covid-19 crisis has been to demand more output from staff in an attempt to address its cash flow issues and deficits.
"Working staff have gone without annual leave and there are health and safety concerns with a skeleton staff being pushed beyond the limits. Also at dispute are incursions without agreement by non-editorial staff into editorial roles, despite journalists' track-record of growing digital audiences by working as teams.
"We continue to invite the company to respond to our reasonable demands for fair pay and working practices and strike action would be a last resort."

Chris Morley, Northern & Midlands senior organiser, said:

"Our members at Bullivant Media have had to contend with an enormously stressful and difficult period since the lockdown started which has been made considerably worse by an employer that has failed to deal with them in a straightforward manner.
"We are clear that management have to meet their obligations in full and move quickly to remove the uncertainties and barriers to journalists doing their important and professional jobs for local communities. There is no excuse for not communicating clearly with our members and resolving the issues in dispute."

Chairman Chris Bullivant Senior, whose son is now managing director, emerged from a previous administration of Birmingham Press in 2010 which left some creditors and journalists recovering just 2p in the pound.

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