In My Opinion: Tim Dawson: A bright future for the NUJ?

RUMMAGING in a junk shop the other day, I came upon a yellowing copy of The Daily Telegraph from 1979. Its cover price was 9p, it advertised cigarettes at 56p a packet and reported on a flat in Mayfair with a £22,000 asking price. Much more striking, though, was the quantity of ‘industrial’ stories – I counted 16 in a single issue. The same paper today can go a week without a single report on wage negotiations, strike ballots or picketing.

Within those stories something else jumped out. Of all the unions mentioned, only one still exists in the same format. The AEU, TGWU, Nalgo, Tass and the NGA have all gone. Only the National Union of Journalists endures – then and now, a medium-sized craft union. And as the NUJ gears up for its delegate meeting in Eastbourne, where priorities are set for the next two years, it is worth considering what the next third of a century might hold?

To be sure, the last five years has been challenging. After nearly a decade of growing membership, the economic downturn hit the established media hard. Local and national newspapers shed thousands of staff and the BBC sought wave after wave of redundancies. The NUJ’s recently-published annual report shows membership has dipped to around 30,000, from is 38,000 peak – with an inevitable impact on income. At the last Delegate Meeting, general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, sought approval for a ‘rescue package’ which saw the union shed significant numbers of staff (through voluntary redundancies).

It would be easy to imagine that the union’s current direction of travel has but one destination – but that does not take account of reforms that Stanistreet has pushed through in recent years.

Critically, she has persuaded the union’s staff to accept the closure of their ‘defined benefits’ (or superannuating) pension scheme. It might sound like rearranging the Titanic’s deckchairs, but deficits in such schemes have been the single biggest spur to British trades unions entering into forced amalgamations. Indeed, the willingness of the union’s staff to shoulder some of the burden of economic hard times was evident too when many of them took voluntary reductions in pay during the months when the union’s cash flow was at its tightest.

The NUJ has finally introduced online joining – an innovation that has doubled the monthly tally of journalists seeking membership. And despite the economic vicissitudes of recent years, the union has lost no ‘recognition’ agreements with employers. These might not have delivered the pay progression for which many members have hoped, but they do mean that the negotiating structure is intact once employment picks up again.

It remains to be seen when this will happen – but there is guarded cause for optimism. Encouraging economic indicators are released daily and recent figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that the number of people in the economy who say that they are working as journalists rose from 65,000 to 70,000 last year.

These factors might provide a shot-term fillip, as NUJ membership starts to rise again, but there is still much to be done to make the NUJ relevant in the decades to come. And vital as traditionally-organised chapels are, it will be on developing its role in the working lives of media professionals in increasingly atomised workplaces on which the NUJ’s future success depends.

The NUJ is fortunate in having always had a significant freelance membership, and having a strong track record in servicing that sector. This is this kind of work that will take up more and more of union’s time; recent figures showed that 41 per cent of applicants for membership are freelance.

Redefining the way that it addresses these, sometimes, isolated workers is critical if the NUJ is to continue to be important to them. Without traditional workplace structures, personal development and career advance become responsibilities of the individual. There are obvious ways in which a union can fill that gap.

These ‘atypical workers’ are also even more vulnerable to the whims of over-mighty corporations that think nothing of pushing down pay, forcing creators to surrender rights in their work and providing conditions that should shame a developed country. Only collective organisation and campaigning give individual journalists any chance to work on something approaching their own terms.

For the union’s activist core, there are challenges too. They are fortunate in their general secretary. Stanistreet combines the credibility of a national newspaper background with the guts and tenacity of someone who took a prolonged stand against the owner of the Daily Express, Richard Desmond (she was previously Mother of Chapel at Express newspapers). Having persuaded her staff to face some difficult challenges, she is now calling activists up to the plate.

The [national conference] Delegate Meeting, taking place next month, will consider: a bold new subscriptions model; jettisoning the elective role of deputy general secretary; and, for the first time, giving the National Executive very limited rights to vary subscriptions. All three proposals are as necessary as they are timely – but make no mistake, it will require every ounce of Stanistreet’s guile to get them approved.

It could be quite a tussle once the delegates get to the seaside. However, no matter how heated the debate, it is always worth remembering that the first objective for any union is promoting the interests of its members.

In the NUJ’s case, though, there is a much bigger issue in play. The health of our media – its plurality, dependability and freedom underpin our democracy. There will be some sizeable bumps in the road ahead, but on its current trajectory, I have no doubt that, 35 years hence, the journalists’ union will still be the most stalwart champion of those ideals.

Whether reports of that endeavour will still be appearing in newspapers that might yellow over the decades in the corners of junk shops, I am not quite so sure.

Tim Dawson is a member of the NUJ’s national executive and chairs its finance committee. He is a freelance journalist who, among other things, writes weekly for The Sunday Times. He also runs training courses on new ways to make journalism pay (and edits