Why the NUJ oppose Fire and Rehire schemes

  • 13 Sep 2021

Michelle Stanistreet's speech to the Fire and Rehire TUC Congress fringe meeting

At the risk of going all Jackanory,  I want to tell you about a man called Henry Faure Walker. Henry is the chief executive of Newsquest, which publishes around 120 local newspapers in this country, including famous titles like the Herald in Glasgow, The Telegraph and Argus in Bradford, the Argus in Brighton, and the Oxford Mail.

Henry does very well for himself, as you might expect. In recent years he has been paid over half a million pounds a year, and this summer the Queen awarded him an MBE for “services to regional journalism and charity”.

The murky world of awarding honours and gongs is not one I am familiar with. In light of Henry’s award, though, I find myself thinking that Buckingham Palace might benefit from the services of an investigative journalist helping with its due diligence.

It’s true that the company that Henry leads generates significant profits for its American owners, the equally rapacious Gannett Inc. But as he’s presided over years of cost-cutting, job losses and title closures, it’s hard to  see what tangible beneficial service to journalism and local news in the UK has warranted his elevation.

Take the Oxford Mail. A typical journalist on that paper will have a degree in journalism, likely a post-graduate qualification as well as years of experience and skill. They will almost certainly work upwards of 45 hours a week and they will earn around £25,000 a year.

Conditions are tough, workloads are too high because staffing levels have been cut to the bone and pay has suffered from years of freezes and stagnation. Regular weekend shifts and work on public holidays are expected – otherwise there would be no editions on Mondays or the days after Easter, Christmas and the rest. They are motivated by their passion about journalism, about local news in particular, about serving the community.

In the Spring this year, just as lockdown restrictions were easing, Henry signed off on a plan to change the contracts of journalists on the Oxford Mail. Up to then, if they were required to work on public holidays, they would be paid time-and-a-half. If you are on a modest wage, in a job where overtime is expected but generally unpaid, it is a token acknowledgement that it matters when you miss family time.

Henry’s instructions were that staff should be sent termination notices, and re-employed on changed conditions scrapping the bank holiday payments. This from a man paid around £2,262 a day – to his hardworking staff who earn just £115 a day.

The enhanced payment he wanted to remove allowed staff the potential to earn an extra £60 up to eight times a year. Where were his charitable instincts, you might well wonder, when he took time out of being the industry’s poster boy for local news and gave the go ahead for staff to be told, in the middle of a pandemic, to accept it, sign a new contract, or consider themselves out of a job?

This is emblematic of employment practices in much of the media. Arrogant, greedy, and shabby employment practices have wrought terrible damage to a sector which exists to inform the public, scrutinise power and reflect back to us all news about the communities in which we live.

When it comes to poor practice, and prioritising profits over resources and investment, Newsquest is the gift that keeps giving. In 2003, the company bought The Glasgow Herald and the Glasgow Evening Times. At that time, 351 journalist worked on those papers. Today that figure is fewer than 70 – and they are producing an additional national daily paper. That means radically fewer reporters in courts, in council chambers, and chasing up leads.

So what can we do?

Inevitably the answer is that we need to take on these greedy, unprincipled employers by every means available.

In Oxford, our very brave members threatened strike action and a stand-off ensued. Eventually we arrived at a negotiated settlement that retained enhanced payments for some public holidays but not all. It was not everything that we hoped for, but it showed that resistance is possible, and it prompted renewed organising and vigour at our NUJ chapel.

As employment markets in many sectors tighten, we must empower workers to take this kind of action when they are threatened. And our members in Oxford did a brilliant job of engaging local politicians and the wider community that they work within, who were loud and vocal in telling the company that it expects better from their local paper.

We need to call employers out in the public arena. Newspaper editorials are full of condemnation for shoddy, unprincipled employment practices. But they don’t like it up ‘em. All the more reason to call out hypocrisy, when the moment demands. It is no less true in any other industries where corporations try to build cosy brand images that are at odds with how they treat their workers.

We must also be bold with the law. In 1989, the Daily Mail ripped up its collective agreement with the NUJ and announced that journalists who insisted on their existing contracts of employment would be henceforth denied the pay increases offered to other staff. The NUJ took the Daily Mail to the High Court. We took them to the Appeal Court. We took them to the European Court of Human Rights. Candidly, we came close to betting the farm on the case. When we won, however, it established beyond all doubt that discriminating against workers because of their trades union membership was unlawful.

So in my industry, there is nothing new about fire and rehire. We long ago learned that relying on the charitable conscience of people like Henry Faure Walker was a fools game.

But the public reaction to fire and rehire is new. There is a fresh sense of collective outrage at this practice. It is on this that we must build, stepping up our work building  alliances across communities, trumpeting our successes across the whole movement, to inspire others and to give workers’ confidence to have that collective voice at work

At its essence, fire and rehire is a bully’s strategy that takes advantage of people’s understandable fear that they will lose their jobs. Its prevalence today is the result of unscrupulous employers hoping to exploit the ‘anything goes’ atmosphere created by the pandemic, a cynical power play inspired by a 'never waste a crisis' approach to running a business.

But we all know there is only one way to deal with bullies, and that is to stand up to them. And never wasting a crisis is an approach that works both ways – our job as trades unionists is to show our members that with support, resistance is possible.

Many of our members have made extraordinary sacrifices over the past two years to keep society functioning. They deserve better pay and enhanced rights, not the shameful, shabby raid on their terms and conditions that fire and rehire represents.

If we work together, if we share experiences, if we harness public anger at fire and rehire, it can be beaten. We don’t need charity.

Collective power is the cure for shabby employment practices. As Frances O'Grady made clear in her speech today, we need to come together and make the fight to outlaw this practice a collective priority.

Access the NUJ's round-up of TUC Congress 2021.

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