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A circle of nuts

January 9, 2023

Spotted something in the grocery store yesterday that I don’t remember ever seeing before: a jar of Planter’s dry roasted peanuts. Regular peanuts, yes, see those all the time. But dry roasted? No. Of course I had to buy the jar, because we’ve got history.

Back in the day (the journalism day), whilst most of my colleagues tended towards a packet of crisps to absorb some of the ale, I always went for a packet of dry roasted.

I don’t know how everyone else eats a packet of nuts, but I generally emptied a few in my hand and tossed them all in my mouth. Well, that was before.

Before what, you ask? Let me tell you.

I don’t know if I’ve ever written before about how annual pay negotiations usually went back in the early 1980s, but here it is in a nutshell (as it were): the NUJ would go in with a ridiculously large demand, the management would counter with a ridiculously low offer. Negotiations would drag on for months and eventually the membership would agree to something in the middle and we’d all get a large paycheque that included the back dated increase.

Not this particular year. The gap between the average wage for a magazine journalist like myself and that of a newspaper journalist had become increasingly and frustratingly large. Now I understood that any journo working on a daily paper had a more stressful workload than I had, but that certainly wasn’t the case for a journo working on a Sunday paper. We both had weekly deadlines. I typed my last word of copy at 9pm on a Tuesday evening and on Thursday morning the magazine was on the newsstands. Why should I – or anyone else on a weekly magazine – be paid an average of 25% less than someone on a weekly paper? It was annoying.

So, when the NUJ said that year that it was time to close the gap, we were largely behind the union. The first demand was for a 25% pay rise. The counter was 2%. We dug our heels in.

The union called for a one day walk out on a Friday. As it happened I was working out of the country at the time. Even though a colleague did track me down in my hotel in Oslo to tell me about the stoppage (which I certainly would have joined had I been in London), I decided to go ahead with the interviews I had lined up on the Friday. Management countered and said they would sack anyone who took part.

I flew back to London on the weekend and went to work Monday morning to discover I, along with all the other journos, had been sacked. The bizarre thing was that they didn’t lock us out. The entrance doors were unlocked, as were the individual office doors. Nobody knew quite what to do. The first thing they stopped was our newspapers – a useful source of stories and information. But they didn’t stop the post. As I mentioned the other day, at that time press releases arrived by post. So we had access to information on that front, knew when a press conference was planned, still received copy from our foreign freelancers. We went to the press conferences, came back, wrote up the stories. I proofed the freelance material. Everything was added to the pile of material for the next magazine. 

Except there was no next magazine. Eventually they stopped delivering the post. Instead, contacts who were aware of the situation would ring with press conference information or, in the case of freelancers, with actual copy. In other words, we continued doing our jobs as best we could and without being paid.

People talked to their banks about increasing their overdraft. For those whose banks were close to where they lived or even still in the town from whence they’d hailed, this worked out quite well. For mugs like me whose bank was the one closest to the office, the overdraft offers weren’t that generous. Friends and family members made kind donations.

Of course I could have spared myself all this by going to the management and pointing out that I had actually been working – albeit in Oslo – on the day in question, but I was hardly going to do that. It wasn’t as if they were suddenly going to allow me to put out my magazine singlehanded. And besides, you know, scab.

One thing that remained the same was going to the pub every lunchtime. But, instead of having two or three pints, we had one. The weather that spring was lovely and we often took our pints outside and sat on the grass. On one such day I’d decided to treat myself to a packet of dry roasted peanuts. (Finally, you say, wondering what the hell happened to the peanuts.) I generously decided to share, but specified that only one peanut could be taken at a time. That packet of nuts went round the circle several times. And those individual nuts were far more satisfying than tossing a handful in my mouth. 

I bought that jar of dry roasted yesterday and did consume quite a few last night. But one at a time. Always after that day on the grass outside the pub, always one at a time.

What about the negotiations that year?

I want to say it went on for months. It certainly felt like it. I think it was actually eight weeks, maybe nine.

If the management had at any point decided to lock us out, it might have moved things along in their favour, but for some reason they didn’t which kept the camaraderie and solidarity alive.

Eventually they offered us an 18% pay rise which we were happy to accept. I say “we”, but that didn’t necessarily apply to the union reps. At a large meeting called at the Friends hall near Euston, before allowing a vote on the pay offer, they waxed lyrical about having management on the run and this being the time to nail the bastards for other concessions. I got up and went to the mic to say something along the lines of “I think I speak for a lot of people here when I say that 18% seems a fair offer and I’d like to just get to a vote on that and get back to work.” I got a huge round of applause. We voted to accept. We went back to work.

And every time I eat a dry roasted nut it reminds me of that time.

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