Fairfax staff fight back

Solidarity speaks to Marcus Strom, a member of the Fairfax union house committee, about the ongoing dispute at Fairfax.

What do you think was behind Fairfax’s attempt to sack 550 staff, including 165 journalists?
Senior management and the board have themselves locked into a vicious, downward cycle of trying to satisfy the market and shareholders at a time when media stocks are struggling. This is being done at the expense of investment in quality journalism. This redundancy round is the fourth such round at the Herald in four years.

It turns out there may have been share-incentive schemes for senior management that ties performance to the share price. That gives them an incentive to attack costs: ie: workers’ pay and conditions.

With such short-sightedness, the important social role played by the media and the fourth estate is right out the window. Quality journalism doesn’t fit easily into such a model.

There haven’t been many strikes by workers outside of a protected bargaining period? Were any arguments made against striking for the four days?

Well we’ve taken unprotected action at the Herald three times in as many years. Taking action this time, there was some debate about this, of course. Our stop-work meetings in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and Wollongong hammered out the issue. But the argument was more about timing than rejecting industrial action per se. Some argued we should hold back and keep our powder dry for another time, perhaps when our action was protected. But it turns out we may have had more freedom to move in an unprotected strike than going through protected action. The vote for strike action was absolutely overwhelming.

What was the mood like on the picket line?

A strike always boosts morale. It brings people together in common action. It gives people purpose and unity. Working day-to-day can atomise people and morale has been low as journalists have lost faith in the executives to manage a company with 175 years of quality journalism behind it. The bean-counter mentality runs against the grain of ethics for journalists at the Herald, Age, Illawara Mercury, Newcastle Herald and Financial Review. Walking out together – and walking back together – has given us a real feeling of our collective strength.

But journalists are a contrary lot. While it was welcome that we got support on the picket line from the Firies, the CFMEU and from Mark Lennon of Unions NSW, many journos want to maintain its connections with the broader union movement at arm’s length.

If the dispute had dragged on, was it possible that solidarity action would have taken place at Fairfax’s printing operations in Chullora?

If the strike escalated, action at Chullora and Tullamarine was on the cards. What this was and how it would have played out is open to speculation. I’m sure the company was aware of this and it may have been partly why they moved so quickly on some of our EBA demands and why they back-tracked on threats to lock us out.

What kind of solidarity did you receive from other workers?

Our union got messages of support from around the country and around the world. The house committee at the Herald-Sun in Melbourne – our traditional rivals at News Limited – sent us a solidarity message. Having the FBEU on the picket and John Sutton from the CFMEU was great. We also had visits from the LHMU and officials from other unions, such as the NTEU.

Printers in the AMWU said they would not cross our picket lines. However, given that a couple of score printers will be affected by the redundancies, I’m still not sure why they didn’t take action in their own interests.

Would you consider the outcome a victory?

In industrial disputes it is very rare to have an all-out victory or an all-out defeat. We haven’t yet voted on the enterprise agreement – that will happen in a couple of weeks – and not everyone is happy with the outcome. We aren’t over the line yet.

Through our industrial action we pricked the swaggering egos of management. They were talking about a two-week lock-out and they found they couldn’t achieve that. The papers looked absolute rubbish during the dispute: large photos, AAP copy, thin books. The swell of public opinion was too much in our favour. Sacking Mike Carlton was the mother of all own goals.

So, we have had a partial victory. But the campaign is not over yet. The Workplace Ombudsman is investigating the sacking of Mike Carlton and many feel that in coming back to work we should stick by the labour movement’s maxim “One back, all back”.

We haven’t been able to stop the redundancy program, but I think it now unlikely they will go to compulsory redundancies. If they do, we would simply cause them too much pain in return.

What are the next steps in your “Fair go, Fairfax” enterprise bargaining campaign?

The “Fair Go, Fairfax” campaign is bigger than an EBA campaign. It is about the future of mainstream journalism in Australia. The EBA campaign is about our wages and conditions – our ability to produce quality journalism. Fair Go, Fairfax goes to the heart of quality journalism. While some would argue that the mainstream media is compromised by definition, it has been drifting further from its stated goals of independence and ethical probity. The interests of big business have been getting in the way of working journalists to uncover the rot in government, in corporations and broader society.

Ironically, it is Rupert Murdoch who has been investing in journalism of late. Though no one would argue News Limited is the paragon of virtue, Murdoch seems to realise that as advertising revenue and news distribution heads to the internet, positioning yourself as the source of quality news is important. This is why he bought the Wall Street Journal and has been investing in The Australian.

The other success stories have been The Guardian and Washington Post. The Guardian is a run by a trust, not a limited company. The Guardian has positioned itself with what is arguably the best online presence of a major news gathering outfit. At Fairfax, the union has been arguing for full integration of the web and print, but the bosses continue to keep Fairfax Digital as a separete business silo, in the hope of preventing it becoming as unionised at the newspapers.

At the Washington Post the newspaper only accounts for about 10 per cent of revenues for the broader the company. In some respects, its run at a break-even model. But they have spun off very successful businesses in education and other services with a quality masthead at the centre.

We will be putting pressure on Fairfax Media to invest in journalism so that our members’ interests are protected but, more importantly, so that our members are freed up to pursue the stories that the public expects them to deliver. You cannot do this on a low-cost model.

Keep up-to-date at www.fairgofairfax.com.au. We are lobbying politicians, business, investors and broader civil society to push home our campaign. There is even some discussion of standing a union candidate for the board.

The bottom line is that news is a social good and it runs up against the narrow interests of corporations. That is why we have a charter of editorial independence at Fairfax. We refer to it as separation of church and state. The latest moves by the company are threatening that independence. The spirit of journalists at Fairfax is to keep up the fight in the interests of independent quality journalism.


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