It survived Wapping...it'll survive anything

Why does the NUJ still exist?

Journalists are not ideal trade union material. They lack the discipline required to blindly obey instructions from head office, they are on different pay scales and of varying political views and social backgrounds.

Many of this country's most prominent journalists and newspapers were among Margaret Thatcher's biggest cheerleaders and welcomed her "trade union reforms" — not least because of their experience at the hands of the allpowerful Fleet Street printers.

NUJ members — who can range from left-wingers such as Paul Foot to Tories such as Jonathan Aitken – sometimes seem as likely to sue their own union or start a rival organisation as fall into line with some centralised union policy.

Yet over each of the past four years, the NUJ can claim it has gained more members at a time when trade union membership in general is in steep decline.

When I first started covering the NUJ for Press Gazette 20 years ago, it was something of a basket case. The Annual Delegates Meeting (ADM) in 1986 had caused outrage by sending a "telegram of condolence" to Colonel Gaddafi over the US bombing strike on Libya.

This reinforced accusations that the union had been hijacked by the far left and caused a group of high-profile journalists, including Kelvin MacKenzie, to resign in protest.

The NUJ in the early 1990s was more than a £1m in debt and relied ona loan from the NGA print union to keep afloat. It attracted more than its share of factional in-fighting and various financial scandals.

The image of the NUJ as financially incompetent and in the grip of militants contributed to the defeat in the 1990 leadership election of general secretary Harry Conroy. He was beaten by Steve Turner, the Daily Mirror FoC, who tried to take on the union activists and opposed the NUJ's policy of seeking mergers with other media unions.

In another blow to the credibility of the union, Turner was quickly sacked by the NUJ's executive — a move the union later accepted was unlawful.

Turner was replaced by John Foster, a union official rather than a journalist. It was Foster who led the fight against union derecognition as newspaper groups across the country replaced union agreements with personal contracts.

Derecognition was a real threat to the union. Why pay subs to an organisation that doesn't negotiate your wages and conditions? Some believe, however, that it made the NUJ focus on workplace issues and avoid political embarrassments like the Gaddafi telegram.

Not all head office decisions were daft.

One of the most important was getting members to pay their subs by direct debit rather than run up huge arrears.

When the idea of a national press card was floated to replace the one issued by the Metropolitan Police, the union made sure it was involved. It became one of the "gatekeepers" for the new system, despite opposition frommanagements, and retained one of the main incentives for union membership — getting an NUJ press card.

Most importantly, the NUJ survived Wapping and kept a presence in the national press by resisting calls from ADM activists that disciplinary action should be taken against all journalists working at the new plant. It sorted its finances out and, under New Labour, won back the right to union recognition.

But it is not just about the centralised decision-making. Arguably the real strength of the NUJ is in the chapels and the workplace, rather than in the head office or at ADM.

This is where most journalists come into contact with the NUJ. On my first day on a newspaper, a feature writer took me down the pub and told me he was the NUJ Father of the Chapel. He kept an eye out for the new recruits, making sure the news editor didn't send them out on too many night jobs, and also instructed newcomers in the vital art of how to fill in their expenses.

But those days of indentured journalists joining from school are long gone.

Journalism now attracts mainly graduates.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear is typical of that generation. He joined the Essex Chronicle from the postgraduate journalism course at Cardiff, but lost his job after becoming embroiled in a year-long recognition dispute.

Graduates carry large debts from their student days and are resentful of the low pay for beginners in journalism, especially on regional newspapers. And journalists are badly paid compared with other professions.

It is workplace issues over pay, conditions and fear of job losses that sustain union membership. Of course, managements could counter this and make sure the NUJ doesn't exist in the future by paying journalists handsomely and guaranteeing their jobs for life.

Is that a pig flying past the window?

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