Journalists at Johnston Press are to hold a group-wide ballot on industrial action in what is believed to be the first such nationwide strike vote by members of the National Union of Journalists in at least 20 years.
Disruption and complaints over lack of consultation following the introduction of the Atex content management system have been the catalyst for the move but according to NUJ general secretary, Jeremy Dear, the main concern amongst union members is low staffing levels on Johnston Press’ 18 daily and 300 weekly newspapers.
Last week union chapel representatives from across Johnston Press met and agreed to hold the nationwide ballot. The vote is expected to get underway early next month.
Journalists at the Johnston Press-owned Blackpool Gazette and Herald have already been working to rule after voting in favour of industrial action.
NUJ members on the Scarborough Evening News are also poised to hold a strike ballot after six sub editors were told their jobs are moving to a new subbing “hub” 90 miles away in Sheffield.
Dear told Press Gazette: “Johnston Press has been incredibly badly managed and has created for itself a mountain of debt by buying papers at a high costâ€¦in order to repay the loans, they are having to cut to the very bone their editorial resources
“It is not a choice they are making because they believe it will enhance the quality of their newspapers, it’s a choice they are making because their banks demand they pay for their past mistakes.
“The people who are suffering are the communities whose newspapers are increasingly being produced on a smaller and smaller budget and the people who are losing their jobs.
“The issue for us will be about forced job losses and quality. We believe there needs to be minimum staffing levels in order to ensure the papers can maintain a level of quality.
“We’re saying the cuts in staffing have gone too far and are now threatening the quality of papers because the workloads that people have are unsustainable.”
The NUJ has strong membership across Johnston’s main centres in Leeds, Sheffield, Portsmouth and across The Scotsman titles in Edinburgh, Dear added.
Dear said that the union’s membership decline has been slower than the pace of overall job losses resulting in “membership density” at Johnston Press being higher than before the economic downturn.
The NUJ, Dear added, was not against journalists “multi-skilling” but staff being over-burdened with work.
He said: “It is absolutely central to every journalists’ ability to protect their job and further their career that they are as multi-skilled as they can be…
“Our members are extremely concerned that they are being asked to do too much with too little and therefore they are being compromised on the quality.”