What makes an industrial journalist?

Reporter’s Guide in association with Unite the Union

No reporter should be afraid to ask ‘daft’questions. They are invariably the ones that should be asked. But it is also possible to take it too far and look really, really daft (without the quotation marks).

Many journalists who turn up to cover the annual conferences of the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party these days have a strictly limited idea of what unions are, what they do, why they do it and why they seem to have a such a close relationship with the party.

Well, the first thing they need to know – to prevent themselves looking daft without quotation marks – is that the Labour Party was established by trade unions in 1900.

And just in case it’s not obvious, it might be worth pointing out that unions were set up because a single employee is always weaker than his or her employer.

Thus the TUC, the umbrella body for unions, was set up on the basis that a single union is never as powerful as a group.

That assumption is being tested at the moment by the way, because of the creation of Unite from the merger of Amicus, the white collar and skilled workers’ union, with the Transport & General which represents the unskilled and the semi-skilled. The establishment of Unite with its two million members throughout industry and the service sector has led some commentators to question the need for the TUC.

Nevertheless, big unions are overwhelmingly members of that venerable organisation. One notable exception is the Royal College of Nursing, which, despite its name, acts as a trade union as well as a professional body.

Most of the bigger unions are also affiliated to the Labour party. The movement is the biggest single financial donor to the party and still commands 50 per cent of the vote at the party’s annual conference.

On more than one occasion the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, however, has had to point out to reporters that his organisation is not affiliated to Labour. Mr Barber’s outfit represents some unions which are affiliated to Labour and some which are not.

Journalists seeking a list of unions and the percentage of the vote they hold at Labour conferences will find party press officers less than helpful.

‘New Labour’likes to pretend that unions do not exist because they are unfashionable and might frighten the electoral horses. That does not stop ministers holding regular meetings with union leaders, even if many of the meetings consist of the dialogue of the deaf.

Union press officers will supply figures for voting percentages at the party conference, but the figures may add up to more than 100 per cent. Unions, like newspapers, invariably seek to inflate their own importance.

In recent years the big unions have all voted for each other’s motions at the party conference to ensure they are passed. That was not always the case.

If a motion is passed by a two-thirds majority it has to be incorporated into the Labour manifesto, according to the rule book. However, the Labour Government routinely ignores resolutions passed by the party conference. Gordon Brown is seeking ways of minimising the rows created by the maximum of eight ‘contemporary’motions allowed at conference.

Some trade unionists, notably Bob Crow, left-wing general secretary of the RMT transport union which has recently been flexing its muscle with Transport for London, believe there is no longer any point in affiliation to the party. The RMT transport union was ejected by Labour after its Scottish region backed Scottish Socialist Party candidates. The Fire Brigades Union has cut its links to the party in the wake of its major industrial dispute with the Government in 2002-2003.

Some of the medium-sized and smaller unions unions have no structural links with Labour. The teaching and civil service organisations are not affiliated for instance – and neither is the National Union of Journalists.

Some unions, like the PCS in the civil service, have political funds which are not linked with any party.

The number of reporters who understand all this stuff is in steep decline. There was a time when labour reporters were as important to newspapers as lobby correspondents – arguably more so. Nearly all national newspapers had three such specialists and the Financial Times had five. All electronic media would have at least one labour reporter.

These days only the FT has a full-time specialist.

The reason for the decline is quite simply that there are few strikes – and fewer union members. Less than a quarter of the working population belong to TUC-affiliated unions.

So what to do? Clearly the trick for reporters – especially the ones working for newspapers – is to get angles not covered by the wires.

The problem for those seeking ‘exclusives’in the world of trade unions is that the Press Association has a truly excellent industrial correspondent in Alan Jones. He knows what’s going on; he knows everybody; he knows a story when he sees one and he knows how to write them. In other words he is a complete pain in the backside.

The only chance of picking up information which has evaded the omniscient Alan Jones is by using the traditional reporter’s technique of low cunning.

It’s always worth assessing which issues are going to make the biggest stories ahead of the conferences and swearing the targeted union officials to secrecy. Basically, the best way of getting them to trust you is to go and get drunk with them. Sober meetings in offices are never as good.

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