September 2001

Northcliffe Will Not Block Recognition

It is fifteen months since new employment laws giving us union recognition rights were introduced, and for many unions, not least the NUJ, it's been exhilarating.

We've achieved our best recruitment levels for over 20 years, established or re-established dozens of workplace Chapels and signed the union's first recognition agreements in some sectors for more than a decade.

But we've also faced those companies, who despite the overwhelming support of their staff for union recognition, have used the loopholes in the legislation to block, frustrate and deny workers their fundamental rights. During TUC week we should celebrate our successes but also pledge to campaign actively to remove the obstacles to workers' rights to organise.

For the NUJ our Recognition 2000 campaign began at a small local newspaper in Sussex. No sooner had the legislation been published than we submitted our claim, negotiated an agreement and signed, all within the space of a couple of weeks. It seemed an anti-climax to a ten year campaign to re-establish collective bargaining in local newspapers. But when we sat back we realised what we'd achieved - the first breakthrough in a decade, brought about by consistent campaigning, effective organising, a hardworking and loyal membership and the threat of a statutory recognition claim.

Whilst the law provides for a statutory route to recognition we sought voluntary recognition in the first instance and with that first deal under our belt made a general approach to major newspaper, magazine and book publishers.

The reaction from most was encouraging. US-owned Gannett/Newsquest the largest regional newspaper publisher in England and Wales agreed a procedure for voluntary ballots to see if journalists really did want the NUJ to represent them, Trinity-Mirror offered recognition if we could demonstrate majority membership amongst journalists, others opened up talks about voluntary recognition.

Then came the first ballots. There was a certain amount of trepidation. After ten years of derecognition and with a new generation of journalists would we be able to convince enough people to vote yes? We soon got our answer. Yes votes of 86% and 84% were recorded in the first two ballots. That set the pattern. Since then we have achieved yes votes ranging from 75% to 100%. Not one ballot has been lost.

It became clear that where we were given the opportunity to put the case for recognition we could win.

Young journalists were enthused and were eagerly joining the union and those who had left, questioning the need for a union during the days of derecognition, were coming back acknowledging the link between the deterioration in conditions and the removal of union negotiating rights.

The first fifteen months have resulted in 40 recognition deals covering 4000 journalists. Whilst this has surpassed many expectations given the weaknesses in the legislation there have been those companies who have refused to talk, who have delayed, obstructed and in some cases actively attacked union organisation.

Northcliffe, part of the Daily Mail group, have distributed hundreds of anti-union leaflets. In response the union resorted for the first time to the statutory procedures with claims at three titles. The statutory procedures are complicated, time-consuming and leave much to chance - they should only be used as a last resort but there are times we will have to use them. Having fought for so many years for union rights we cannot abandon members just because their employers seek to oppose fundamental human rights.

Rupert Murdoch has been at the forefront of those who've opposed recognition by setting up a tame staff association and funding it to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. A staff association with no members, funded by the company is able to block the legitimate aspirations of independent trade unions - and the Employment Relations Act provides no help to workers denied their rights in this way.

The experience of the use of the statutory procedures has highlighted the importance of the need to continue to fight to reform the legislation. At present applications for recognition can only be made in places where there are more than 20 workers and unions have to achieve an arbitrary 40% threshold.

What is crucial in all our campaigning is to remember recognition is only the first step. Recognition is vital - it opens doors, restores collective bargaining and gives people confidence. But recognition needs to be backed by strong, well-organised union branches who will work with companies where possible to improve conditions but are also prepared to take action to assert their rights when necessary and are backed by a positive framework of workers rights, not hampered by crass anti-trade union laws. Since derecognition the union movement has devoted much of its time and resources to campaigning for rights at work. Significant progress has been made in large part thanks to the work of the TUC and its affiliates, but more needs to be done before we can proclaim fairness at work. We need to campaign actively around a charter of workers rights. The right to strike, repeal of the anti-trade union laws, employment rights from day one and the right of trade unionists to be represented collectively and individually by their union should all be enshrined in a charter. An active campaign, led by the TUC would build on what we have all achieved in the first stage of our recognition campaigns.

 
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