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28 July 2005

Fighting the low pay scandal

About 50 predominantly young journalists at the Coventry Evening Telegraph, part of the Trinity Mirror Group, are striking over low pay.
Stephen Hallmark, a member of the NUJ Coventry Evening Telegraph chapel (sub-branch), explains the background to the dispute for The Socialist.

Knowing that the wage you earn in relation to the profits your company produces is pathetic is one thing. But the question is how to change it.

The figures speak for themselves. Trinity Mirror last year had profits in excess of 250 million, whereas a trainee reporter will start on 11,500.

Adverts are carried in the Evening Telegraph encouraging would-be reporters to sign up to a Trinity Mirror journalism training course, a package that costs 4,000. It fails to explain how a newly qualified trainee would be able to pay that debt off as well as afford to rent a property in Coventry, and eat.

Our protest was sparked by this year's pay offer, a 2.75% rise - below the rate of inflation. The company's justification for the miserly increase was that the figure represented inflation on a basket of goods - excluding house prices. Presumably they expect us to live either with our parents, or in a tent.

It was my first time on a picket line, and it was an experience I shall never forget.

The usual colourful antics such as placards, banners, flags and "honk your horn if you support us" signs were combined with one of our photographers clad in a monkey suit handing out peanuts and explaining to bemused passers-by that if you pay us peanuts you get monkeys. The police were less impressed when the monkey began cooking sausages on a disposable barbeque on the main drag into the city centre, but he was allowed to feed the picket line before extinguishing the fire.

But for me the most amazing thing about the strike was how it brought the chapel together, and how it created a special spirit between us.

The older hands reminisced about protracted action in the 1970s. I got to talk to people from different departments who I'd never really met before, and those of us making our striking debut learnt the true value of being a member of a vocal trade union. Each of us sacrificed money to make a stand and to ram home the message that trainees deserve more.

I am privileged to work at a newspaper with many passionate and committed trade unionists.

We believe that local journalism is a wonderful vocation. But we also believe the time has long since passed whereby the management is able to take advantage of the fact that we love the job, and therefore can be fobbed off with pitifully poor pay. And how can a newspaper be truly representative if the working classes are priced out from getting the work experience and training necessary to get the job?

We have a young newsroom, and being present in the NUJ chapel meetings in the run-up to the first day's strike action was an invigorating and emotional experience.

We were all committed to taking a stand. We were not swayed by two derisory offers - each of 100 - which management bizarrely anticipated would satisfy us, and we were not scared by a string of badly worded and threatening letters which informed us of the ramifications of our actions. Quite the reverse, the management's clumsy approach strengthened our resolve.

It was more sobering to learn that the management hadn't budged, and initially I felt dispirited, but the strength of feeling at the next chapel meeting took most of us by surprise. We had thrown down the gauntlet, and were not ready to fold.

The fact that management had made 'loyalty' 50 payments to the few who had broken the strike - 43 members of our chapel refused to cross - again served to convince us to take more action, in the form of mandatory meetings. And when we were told that attending a mandatory meeting would result in us not being paid for the (whole) day, we refused to crumble and called a two-day mandatory meeting!

After four days of action during a three-week period, the management agreed to come to the table, and pledged to introduce a 'skills matrix' next May. And backdate it by one month.

They had previously agreed to implement the 'skills matrix' in 2003, and the offer again served only to strengthen our resolve.

So now we are on strike for five days, and we are committed to making our stand.




http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/4881