In My Opinion: Tim Dawson: The enduring presence of the NUJ

THE sign above the door of the National Union of Journalists’ headquarters is being removed, letter by letter, from its prominent corner site near King’s Cross rail station in London.

Thick dust rises from builders’ ear-piercing tools inside the offices – and the desks, chairs and detritus of a busy administrative base have all gone. It is a fate that has befallen trades union central offices all over the city as proud collectives of workers have merged into vast super-unions – and, in many cases, apparently disappeared.

Not so the NUJ. Its headquarters might be a building site, but the union’s officials are in temporary accommodation only a block away. Renovation of its main offices is actually a bold statement of the NUJ’s confidence for its future as an independent union.

Once complete, the remodelling will provide a new meeting and venue space in the hitherto unused basement of the five-floor 1960s office block. A public cafe bar will open on the ground floor and the office space above will provide attractive workspace fit for the union’s second century.

Against a backdrop of ongoing jobs misery in the media and the election of an UK government that flaunts its hostility to trades unions, the rude health of the NUJ might seem paradoxical.

As delegates to the union’s biennial conference gather in Southport, it will be, for the most part, to applaud the shrewd leadership and tough decisions of the past five years.  It will also kick-start to process of electing a general-secretary for the next five years. To date, current incumbent, Michelle Stanistreet, is the only declared candidate.

When Stanistreet took over the reigns as general-secretary in 2011, a very different narrative was in play. Thousands of media job losses had triggered a precipitous fall in the union’s membership and, consequently, its income. The deficit in the staff pension fund looked likely to overwhelm the organisation’s finances.

Her first job was to steady nerves. As newsrooms emptied and papers closed, industry gloom was palpable. NUJ attention focussed on resisting job losses and retaining union recognition. There was a drop in headcount at the NUJ’s headquarters, too, and staff took the painful decision – by unanimous vote – to accept that their defined-benefit pension scheme would be closed to further contributions and a new scheme put in place. That, in a stroke, removed the threat that has forced scores of trades unions into protective mergers.

Redundancy threats in the media and freelance poverty has not disappeared, but there have been some recent notable successes, such as pay settlements at the BBC, Trinity Mirror and ITV that exceed inflation. NUJ membership has stabilised and possibly even started to rise. This, along with a rise in subscriptions agreed two years ago, means that the ongoing building works can be financed from rebuilt reserves rather than borrowing.

For union members north of the border – or, indeed, anywhere beyond the M25 – a dedicated NUJ watering hole in central London might seem a nebulous enhancement to the service for which they pay their subs. Viewing the re-development this way is to miss the real benefit of the new facility, however.

The NUJ has been fortunate that its headquarters is in an area of the capital that has become fashionable. The effect on property values has been dramatic. Once the construction work is complete, the value of Headland House will increase dramatically – and significantly in excess of the cost of the work. The enhanced rental yield from the office floors that are let to tenants will underwrite the NUJ’s industrial organisation and the bar and social facility should also help to fund the union’s core business.

Stable finances mean that Stanistreet will not seek a rise in subs at this delegate meeting – starting Thursday. The union’s national executive will return to its attempt to reform the way that union membership fees are calculated. At the moment, it is set by a rather antiquated notion of the ‘industry sector’ in which a member works. If the proposal on the current order paper is approved, it will start to reform the system so that members’ earnings determine the level of subs they pay.

There is no shortage of issues to tax the union’s leadership, of course. The NUJ is becoming increasingly freelance. The proportion of its membership that engages in its lay organisation – branches and chapels – continues to fall. And keeping up with the seemingly permanent revolution that engulfs the media is a continuing challenge. The closure of The Independent’s print titles underlines the hardship faced in much of the ‘heritage media’, and the issues that drove the Leveson Inquiry have not gone away. Threats to public service broadcasting are also as potent as ever.

But when, in the autumn, a new sign is affixed to the NUJ’s building on Gray’s Inn Road, it will announce the enduring presence of the world’s biggest journalists’ membership organisation.

Tim Dawson is the vice-president of the National Union of Journalists. A former editor of The Sunday Times’ Home Scotland section, he chaired the NUJ’s Freelance Industrial Council for over a decade and is a former vice-chair of the union’s Edinburgh Freelance branch. His book, Make eBooks Pay, is available from Amazon.

Picture: Lucy Adams.