Chop, starve or build?
There are two ways to get rid of a railway line. The first, the Beeching method, is to cut it directly. The second is to reduce the number of trains running on it, to the point where it can be cut because so few people use it. In the NUJ, the ability of union to represent freelances is under attack - using one or other of these methods.
Being a freelance in a trade union is a difficult proposition. But despite this, the NUJ has been able to work effectively for freelances because the current structure of the union gives control of each sector to lay members who work in that sector.
Through the directly elected Freelance Industrial Council
(FIC), freelances have been able to prioritise work on the issues that concern them, even when the national executive council (NEC) and annual conference have been indifferent or hostile.
Annual conference this month is presented with a proposal to save money by reducing the number of people representing members on the industrial councils and to continue current restrictions on the number of meetings that they hold. This is one of the motions that came out of the general secretary Jeremy Dear's strategic review of the union.
Jeremy apparently accepts that FIC definitely, and the broadcasting industrial council (BIC) probably, do a good job but that the other three don't. Yet the proposal to cut numbers will only affect the ones that he believes work, as these are the only two that regularly have more than nine members attending.
Could the aim be to make FIC and BIC less effective so they are easier to get rid of in the future? Surely not. However Jeremy is a signatory to a report proposing abolition of the councils. This document is not scheduled for open debate at conference but it is still on the NEC's agenda.
Thomas Beeching's axing of branch lines was followed by 30 years of decline in the railways.
Misplaced "efficiency savings" - or the replacement of industrial councils by NEC-controlled expert groups as proposed in the report - would be likely to lead to long-term decline in the freelance sector and in union democracy and member led activity. If that happened, everyone would lose out.