Overstretched and out of touch: Why we're striking

So I got my foot in the door then he slammed it in my face and next thing you know, I’m legging it down the street with his Rottweiler snapping at my heels…

Ah, those were the days. The most adrenaline-pumping moment for lots of regional journalists right now is whether the press office will come back with that vital quote before deadline.

Regional hacks are having their teeth pulled out, one by one, by publishers more interested in profit than a good story well told.

At the Milton Keynes Citizen, our semi-toothless crew has had enough. This week, we will hold a three-day strike, ostensibly in protest over a three per cent pay claim. Management’s offer is a pay cut when held against the retail price index, which is currently hovering around 4.2 per cent.

But, to be honest, there is more to this strike than that. We are driven not just by money but by frustration – muted rage really – over Johnston Press‘s apparent disregard for editorial quality.

Our team is stretched so thinly it is impossible to do the job properly. Staff leave and are not replaced. Seniors are replaced by juniors on cut-price salaries. The time lag involved in replacement is breathtaking. We are all on a hamster wheel, running like fury but not getting anywhere.

Our negotiations with management have been similarly bewildering. This is the first pay claim for our new chapel, which was recognised only last year, so we had no idea how things would play out. We presented our claim. Management agreed to a couple of items early on – swift replacement of staff being one – then presented its masterpiece: a three-year pay offer all muddled up with adjustments to our pay bands.

It looked bloody good on paper. Figures of 10 per cent made us dizzy. Held up to the light, it began to crumble. The higher percentage rises applied only to those at the very start of certain pay bands (usually new starters). The other 90 per cent of us would get 2.75 per cent.

The second and third years of the pay offer were linked to RPI, but in a very peculiar way. If RPI in the last three months of the year exceeded 3.5 per cent, the pay offer would conveniently (for Johnston Press) de-link with this universally accepted measure of the true cost of living and we would be back round the table with the absolute knowledge that the bottom line was already set in stone.

We were not happy and argued on. After endless meetings, arbitration service Acas was invited in. Acas’s Roger Wornham did a brilliant job of suggesting how things could move forward and management went away to ‘crunch the numbers’and ‘consider the options”. At the end of this meeting, I was absolutely certain that we would be able to reach an agreement. Weeks went by.

When the next meeting finally came round, I was told that there wasn’t going to be another offer. The chapel decided to ballot for strike action. Before the ballot was taken, management offered to meet. We put our cards on the table: if it couldn’t raise the percentage offer, for fear of being held to ransom by other chapels across Johnston Press, then what about staffing? A web editor? A reporter maybe? Or a one-off payment? Could we at least separate the confusing pay bandings from the pay claim?

‘Hmm,’said management and trundled off to ‘crunch the numbers’and ‘consider the options’again.

At our final meeting, we had the results of the ballot. Ten out of 11 members had returned their ballot papers and nine of those had voted to strike. Surely now we could settle this thing. We looked expectantly at the three managers and our jaws dropped in unison when they announced that no, there would be no further offer.

When I started at the Milton Keynes Citizen in 1997 as an eager trainee, we produced one award-winning weekly free paper. The newsroom buzzed. We did death knocks; we covered court; attended inquests; our carefully-nurtured contacts rang in. Now, we have two weekly papers plus a growing army of local pages, freesheets targeted to cover small communities where one man and his PC might dare to challenge Johnston Press with a little parish pump newsletter filled with ads for window cleaners and mobile hairdressers.

We produce a weekly entertainment title, a monthly lifestyle mag, a family mag, one for the kids and a raft of in-paper supplements and pullouts. The web swallows our copy and spits it out into cyberspace. There is simply too much to do. Trips out of the office are a rarity. Most of the team – currently four trainees, one part-time reporter, two full-time reporters, one news editor and nine subs (some of whom write and edit too) – are resigned to the fact that their job is to sit obediently and churn, churn, churn.

One of the most gut-wrenching things is that there’s no time to train the trainees, so they think this is what journalists do – sit at desks, sifting through press releases, making hurried phone calls, churning out, making do.

We are toothless and on our knees. Readers regularly ask: ‘What the hell has happened to the paper? It used to be so good, but I just put it straight in the bin now.’Through this industrial action, we hope to be able to let our readers get a foot in our door and share a small part of this story. 

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