Updated: May 10, 2020
In the past few days, alarming reports of the financial situation in my union, the NUJ, have emerged. Discussing the internal business of a union in public is often frowned upon by other members. But it’s difficult to identify a space in which to have the discussion that’s needed. The forum on the union’s own website is, let’s say, still in need of some work, and the union’s presence on social media is a little on the clunky side. The bottom line is, on this blog, I’m the proprietor, and if I decide something’s worth writing – it goes in. So here are some initial thoughts about an organisation I’ve been a member of all my working life, and which I care about. Inevitably it will be of more interest to media people than others, but I’ve never liked unions to be set apart from everyday life, and I think open discussion should be welcomed.
A few days ago, all members of the union received an email from the General Secretary and the President informing us that a set of decisions had been taken “to tackle the serious financial problems facing the union”. That email itself made alarming reading, but not in the manner that was perhaps intended.
It sought to convince members that ‘there is no alternative’ to an “NUJ Recovery Plan” that has apparently been agreed. Instead, it raised serious concerns about what sort of union will be left if that plan goes through, and about the manner in which the crisis has been confronted. All in all, it posed more questions than it answered.
A crisis this serious does not emerge in days. Rather, it builds up over time. And yet the NEC was presented with a set of proposals just 36 hours before it met. At the NEC meeting it was ruled that this set of proposals had to be voted on as a single package, rather than as the set of separate proposals put forward by the union’s Finance Committee. Voting on each proposal separately is normal practice, and the move was opposed by several members of the NEC. Yet the single vote was pushed through.
Two questions emerge immediately. First, is it really possible for such a serious situation to have developed, been identified, and solutions carefully thought through in a matter of just days? And second, is it right to take such far-reaching decisions so quickly and with such apparent lack of transparency?
There are many, many more questions that need to be asked and answered properly. In the last few days many members have been discussing the recent events with alarm. There is a feeling that we do not have the full picture, that a strategy has been decided upon and pushed through before the membership has had a chance to properly consider it and decide if it is what we want.
One of the things that particularly concerns me is what will happen to the union’s professional training programme. It’s one of the NUJ’s success stories, and it is a key recruitment tool – its activities making the connection between practical application and development of skill and the role of a trade union. The message from the Gen Sec and President talks of “finding different ways of carrying out some areas of work”, with training identified as one of them. From what I can gather, and details are necessarily going to be sketchy until the Recovery Plan is shared more fully with members, this means “outsourcing” professional training.
One of the benefits of the way the union has run professional training is that it has been based on a peer-to-peer approach. Will outsourcing retain this? Who is there out there who can deliver a similar set of courses? What’s being proposed is the effective closure of professional training. Ever since the NUJ started doing it, there has been a feeling in certain areas of the union that training is not something we should be doing. It’s the employers’ job, apparently. I’ve always regarded that view as complete nonsense. One of the many things it ignores is the excellent work the Training Dept has done with student journalists, and in identifying and establishing potential new lines of recruitment. Losing the Training Dept means one less reason to join, one less benefit for members, one less opportunity to put an area of work on a commercial footing.
The “crisis” is blamed on ‘media bosses cutting jobs and reducing our membership’. It’s true that in the union’s traditional areas of strength – national newspapers and broadcasting – there have been job cuts. It’s true too that local newspapers have been badly hit. But there are still over 100,000 people working in jobs who could be eligible for NUJ membership but who aren’t members. The problem for any union is that its first priority has to be its existing members. What this has meant for the NUJ is that it has had to dig in in areas where jobs are being reduced, while not devoting sufficient resource or attention to new areas. That’s not to say there hasn’t been expansion into new ground, just that there has not been enough. There are some understandable reasons for that, and some less understandable ones. But to blame the current financial crisis solely on ‘bosses cutting jobs’ is simplistic. And again, this process has not happened overnight.
It may be argued that most ordinary members are in no position to decide on such complex issues. But this does not wash. It is the responsibility of union leaderships to explain and persuade, and in doing so to take the membership with them. If the case for adopting all the measures in the Recovery Plan is so overwhelmingly convincing, it should not be difficult to convince us.
Alarm has also been expressed at the manner in which the union’s leadership has pre-empted discussions with staff unions by telling members direct that redundancies are “inevitable”. If an employer had acted in this manner we would, rightly, protest. And we have protested about this high-handedness regularly. This is not the way we should be conducting ourselves.
I know that already a number of branches have called for the implementation of the plan to be frozen. I wouldn’t be surprised if more follow.
The message from the GS and President said “Doing nothing is not an option”. This may be the case, but the thing we do has to be right. Currently, it is far from clear that the union is doing the right thing, and that does none of us any good. I hope those currently running the NUJ, who I have a lot of respect for, have the good sense to realise that we need to pause and rethink.