Johnston Press legal challenge blocks group-wide strike

The National Union of Journalists has called off a planned group-wide strike at Johnston Press after a legal challenge from the regional press publisher at the High Court.

A day-long strike was due to take place tomorrow, but Johnston argued on a technicality that it does not employ any journalists but that they are in fact employed by autonomous regional centres.

Last month the NUJ balloted some 550 journalists at 50 chapels across the group and revealed that 70 per cent of those voting said yes to industrial action. The turnout was just above 60 per cent.

According to the NUJ, Johnston Press put together a 600-page submission to the High Court on Friday which argued that that Johnston Press plc does not employ any journalists.

The NUJ said that this was ‘despite the JP stamp on the pay slips of staff working on their titles, the JP company handbook issued to all staff, the Johnston Press plc intranet that publishes company-wide procedures including policies on grievance, disciplinary and health and safety, despite their claims in their annual report, in company bulletins and external publications that they employ 1900 journalists and more than 7000 employees”.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: ‘Johnston Press management’s claim that they employ no journalists would be laughable, did it not have such serious implications for industrial relations in the UK.

‘It’s clearly part of an emerging trend amongst employers to derail democratically agreed industrial action by skilfully exploiting the anti-trade union laws. In this case, by creating a web of subsidiary companies, set up as multiple employers, JP management have been able to argue at the High Court that our dispute, around group-wide pay and the introduction of a new content management system across the titles, is in fact a series of identical disputes with their multiple subsidiaries.

‘Unfortunately, given the threat of injunctions, legal costs, individual members losing their protection against unfair dismissal and punitive damages being imposed we have been forced to call off Wednesday’s strike action and will re-ballot members.

‘Our members at Johnston Press share the frustration that workers at Network Rail and BA have felt recently, where overwhelming ballot results in favour of strike action have been successfully ruled out of order by managements exploiting the technicalities of the anti-trade union laws.

‘Johnston Press plc closed the group-wide pension scheme. Johnston Press plc imposed the group-wide pay freeze. Johnston Press plc imposed the group-wide introduction of the ATEX content management system. Yet Johnston Press plc has worked hard to ensure that under the anti-trade union laws, we are forced to have a dispute not with them, but with each and every one of their wholly owned subsidiaries. It is patently unfair and the law is an ass.”

The NUJ has said it now plans to ballot members at every chapel and every centre and then hold a co-ordinated group-wide action.

Journalists are unhappy about cutbacks to staffing levels and the way the new Atex content management system has been introduced.

Earlier this month Johnston Press revealed that it would increase planned cost-savings for 2010 from £10m to £15m.

A spokesman for Johnston Press was not available for comment at time of writing.

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