The year 1907 was an eventful one in British labour history. The 1906 election had resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberals, who would enact significant social reforms.
The 1906 Trade Disputes Act reversed a legal ruling of 1901 that had left unions liable to be sued for damages by employers if their members went on strike. The 1906 Act gave unions protection, as well as legalising peaceful picketing.
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There were also new moves towards organisation within journalism. Since the 1880s, a new, commercial journalism had come into existence through the activities of such entrepreneurs as Alfred Harmsworth, later the first Lord Northcliffe.
They had used new technology and improved communications to provide for a mass market — not just a slew of magazines and periodicals, but new newspapers such as the Daily Mail (established in 1896), the Daily Express (1900) and the Daily Mirror (1903).
Printers and other workers sought to improve their conditions. Around the country, journalists discussed forming their own trade union. The talk was of poor conditions and how journalists could combine to improve them.
Monster of the Fleet Street deep In 1919 Viscount Northcliffe said: "The main points of the union's programme – better pay, shorter hours and longer holidays — have my unreserved approval."
Northcliffe was a maverick, and his motivation for encouraging the union was complex. In 1922 he published a belligerent and rambling pamphlet, Newspapers and Their Millionaires, which attacked what he called the "monstersof the Fleet Street deep" —the "amateur millionaires who are seeking titles and social advancement".
Northcliffe reported that a rival owner had said to him: "The wages [of journalists] are preposterous. Some of these men have motorcycles and sidecars; more than one of them drives a motor car." He had replied: "And why shouldn't they? If we are to retain the best skilled labour we must pay it properly."
It was in 1891 that the idea of a journalists'
trade union seems first to have been raised. That was when William Newman Watts, who would become the NUJ's first general secretary, was chief reporter of the Darwen News in Lancashire.
At a meeting of the local branch of the Institute, he raised the matter of the journalists at the Preston Herald who had gone on strike for better conditions.
The branch chairman, who was also the proprietor of the Darwen News, ruled that the IoJ could not intervene. Watts immediately resolved to try to establish a union. He found little support within the IoJ.
However, he found a more sympathetic hearing among his colleagues now on the Manchester Evening News and its sister morning paper, theManchester Guardian. The Guardian's liberal traditions meant that the two papers were known not only for the good pay and conditions they offered but also for the progressive views of their journalists.
In July 1906 another paper — The Clarion, a popular and influential organ of the left — carried an article by an engineer turned writer, Frank Rose, headlined ‘A Trade Union for Journalists?' In a further article the next month he ridiculed those who excused journalists' low pay by maintaining it was a professional salary rather than an industrial wage.
A meeting was convened at the Manchester Press Club; another was held a week later. Out of these discussions came the resolution to call another, larger meeting, at the Albion Hotel (again in Manchester). Out of this came a decision and a declaration.
The decision was to call a national conference, in advance of which journalists were urged to hold local meetings and set up embryonic branches.
The declaration, sent out to newspaper offices, called for "a new organisation capable of safeguarding and furthering the interests of working journalists… We suggest as a title, the National Union of Journalists."