Monday, January 21, 2008

Dispatches from the picket line

I was on the picket line at 8.30am this morning supporting NUJ members at the Milton Keynes Citizen in their dispute over pay and in defence of quality journalism.

The strike sums up everything that our Stand Up for Journalism campaign is about. Their hugely profitable owners, super-rich Johnston Press, have cut jobs and expect remaining staff to fill in tne gaps. Staff struggle to maintain quality in the face of too few resources. Their reward? An effective pay cut. They have been offered 3% and want 3.5%. Given the wages they are paid it would cost Johnston Press very little. But, instead of reward hard-working committed journalists, Johnston bosses choose to squirrel their profits away and reward shareholders. I and President Michelle Stanistreet, IFJ President Jim Boumelha and National Organiser Barry Fitzpatrick joined the pickets - and Richard Brennan a journalism student doing work experience with the NUJ. Here's his account of his first strike.

The start of a three-day strike was well attended by the Milton Keynes Citizen NUJ chapel and their supporters. Around eighteen, including myself, attended the picket line near the Auckland Park offices while passing motorists hooted in support. A Stand Up For Journalism banner was taped to bushes while NUJ placards with slogans supporting local journalism were waved at passing traffic.
The reaction from local people has been extremely positive, with photographer David Langfield telling me that there have been “e-mails from people saying they’ve lived all their lives in Milton Keynes, and when they look at the Citizen it used to be news, now it’s just adverts.” Both local members of Parliament have also been lending their support to the dispute. The CWU has refused to deliver any mail to the Citizen offices while the dispute is on.
A BBC Look East reporter and cameraman covered the dispute while I was there, and Mother of the Chapel, Karen Jeffery, told me that and the Press Gazette have also been in contact as well.
The dispute centres on a pay deal and cutbacks. News editor Steve Larner told me that there has been a steady reduction in staffing, with a sports reporter replaced by a reporter having to cover both sport and news. The number of photographers has also been cut back from four to three. Replacement of senior staff with junior members has also been a concern. Steve Larner told me “The Citizen still has a good name” and those on the picket line today were keen to keep it that way

MoC Karen Jeffery talks to the media

Support for the strike was just one of many issues the National Executive Council discussed on Friday and Saturday. The NEC also discussed the financial problems facing the union, the BBC dispute, plans for the Annual Delegate Meeting and a host of other industrial and organisational issues. Central to our discussions was a really good debate about recruitment.

Sunday night I tuned in for the start of the African Cup of Nations. I hope to be there in Ghana next week - but with the BBC ballot result due on Wednesday I may yet have to cancel my holiday.

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