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24 April 2008

The new strikers

The defeats of the Eighties mean nothing to today's young activists, who are not afraid to try strik

By Jeremy Dear

In 1989, 14 of us working for the Essex Chronicle walked out on strike. Striking was not in fashion. After the defeats of miners, dockers and printers, the popular refrain at union meetings was: “If the miners can’t win, what chance have we?”

But then our management, backed by anti-trade-union legislation and growing in confidence as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s assault on workplace rights, sat across the negotiating table from us and literally tore up our agreement. We were left with no choice. For months we picketed, lobbied and toured the country on our way to a glorious defeat. It was the period of glorious defeats – and the National Union of Journalists notched up its fair share.

For a generation, media employers had the whip hand, and the number of strikes plummeted. In many years, the NUJ recorded not one day of strike action; across the trade union movement as a whole, strike statistics fell year on year. We were derecognised, demoralised and managing decline.

Today, strike action is again on the agenda, and not just in the NUJ, but across the movement. There isn’t a TUC General Council meeting that does not include reports from the front line of battles in transport, public services or the private sector. Demoralisation is a thing of the past. Years of pains taking organising, winning back recognition and rediscovering confidence in collective action are translating into a willingness to take the ultimate step – to walk out.

But it is not the same old story, or even the same old voices. Some of those who went through the battles of the Thatcher years remain wedded to the increasingly hard-to-justify policy of social partnership. However, many recently elected general secretaries (and some who have learned through bitter experience) know that neither government nor employers have any intention of maintaining quality pensions or protecting jobs in the face of globalisation.

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Trade unions have become more professional, more dependent on carrying out high-quality research into tax avoidance, vulnerable workers, the impact of migration and much more. But the real battles are being waged by the workforce. Prison officers, civil servants, Tube and train staff, scientists, teachers and, yes, journalists and media workers are striking back.

New mood

More often than not, at the forefront of today’s militancy is a new generation. More of our union reps over the past three years have been under 35 and more than half are women, unburdened by the baggage of years of defeat and decline.

A favourite refrain of managers is that strikes are caused by individual troublemakers or agitators. It is not so. Our reps are articulating a new mood among members. They have helped media companies deliver large profits over the past decade and expect a share of the spoils. On the political front they were told things could only get better under a Labour government. They feel let down by both. Over the past two years they have been asked to pay for economic uncertainty with pay restraint and job losses while shareholders and owners continue to reap the benefits. The new generation is not prepared to sit back and accept this situation without a fight. In that time the NUJ has had thousands of its members striking: at local newspapers in Coventry, Doncaster and Milton Keynes, at the BBC, at the Herald and Evening Times in Glasgow and in the first 24-hour strike action in national newspapers in the UK for more than 15 years at the Express papers and Daily Star. At dozens of workplaces, in both old and new media, members have voted to strike, thus securing last-minute deals on pay, on working conditions, on redundancy, staffing and professional issues.

Strikes and strike ballots – carefully planned, well organised and with clear goals – do deliver, even in the face of intransigent and powerful managements.

At the BBC we stopped compulsory redundancies. At the Herald and Evening Times in Glasgow we stopped plans to cut jobs. In Coventry and Milton Keynes we secured commitments to ease workloads. At the Guardian we secured a new agreement covering hours, pay and conditions.

Among the new activists, there is a greater sense of confidence and of the power of the collective to get results. And there is less fear. Too many young journalists can’t afford a home, have debts they can’t afford to pay and can barely live on their wages. “What have we got to lose?” they say.

No one goes on strike because they want to or because they think it is easy. The gains can seem small and the obstacles posed by anti-union laws insuperable (and the campaign to repeal them sadly not a priority for the TUC). But when jobs and conditions are under attack, the strike remains the ultimate weapon in the armoury of trade unions. And when your back’s against the wall you use the weapons you have.

Jeremy Dear is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists and a member of the General Council of the TUC

tales from the picket line

  • Grunwick, 1977: Marek Kohn
  • In 1977, I was among thousands who crowded the streets of north-west London to support workers of the Grunwick film-processing plant in their unsuccessful struggle for recognition. One moment I was in an immobile mass, the next amid general chaos with open space behind me. I was grabbed by the hair, then spent the rest of the day in a Victorian cell. The police lied, claiming they told me personally to disperse. The beak was dissuaded from giving me three months at a detention centre and settled on a fine. It taught me a lesson about the police that has lasted a lifetime.
  • Wapping, 1986: Claire Tomalin
  • My chief memory of picketing at Wapping is of Nigella Lawson walking through the line of printers, so beautiful that they all stood slack-jawed and failed to shout at her. She was going in to make sure what had been my literary pages appeared. I was there because I could not stomach the way Murdoch and Neil dealt with the journalists, even though I knew something had to be done to curb the bad practices of the print unions. Maybe you had to be a brute to defeat them. But I walked out and never went back to journalism.
  • Orgreave, 1984: John Harris, photographer
  • Train drivers had refused to remove coke from the Orgreave works during the miners’ strike, so a huge operation to move thousands of tonnes by a lorry convoy had begun. The miners called for a mass picket against the thousands of police. I took the picture above after a final charge by horses had scattered pickets and left a number injured. One was lying behind a wall unconscious. A woman called for the police to get an ambulance. A policeman charged towards her, shouting: “I’ll have you, too, you fucking bitch.” A miner pulled her back by her belt and the swing just missed. I had a couple of frames and escaped through the bushes. The picture ran everywhere (including in the Telegraph, which tried to discredit it). After that it was made into badges. There were cartoons, posters and T-shirts, and it was painted on to a miners’ branch banner (still paraded at the Durham Gala). Much previous coverage had emphasised violent pickets. This showed the other side.
  • Hollywood, 2008: Peter Sears, writer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
  • The scriptwriters’ strike was a great success. When our contract expired, the seven corporations that control the hugely profitable entertainment business in America said to the writers: “How about a pay cut?” and we said: “No.” Their response was: “OK, go stand outside for three months without a pay cheque,” and we said: “Fine.” Their intent was to see if we caved. When we didn’t, they did. The most important thing was achieving union jurisdiction on the internet, where all TV programming is headed. We will never earn back the money we lost but it’s not about increasing the size of your own personal pile. That’s something the people who run the corporations will never understand.

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