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January 10, 2023

In 2006 every single penny I’d ever paid in dues to the National Union of Journalists became worth it when a union rep accompanied me to a totally bogus disciplinary hearing. The general idea was, I’m sure, for me to bow and scrape and apologise profusely for my supposed misdemeanour. “What do you want out of this meeting?” he asked me before we went in. That was easy. I’d already decided I did not want to work anywhere where this could happen. “I want,” I said, “to walk out of here with my head held high and a substantial amount of money paid to me to go away.” And that, my friends, is exactly what happened. They didn’t know what hit them.

That said, back in the 1980s I didn’t always see the NUJ in such a favourable light.

At my very first meeting with an NUJ rep on my very first day as a professional journalist, the only thing I remember him telling me, in no uncertain terms, was that I should never spend a penny of my own on job-related expenses. Always, he said, make sure you’ve taken out the maximum advance – at that time £50. 

Most of the journos with whom I worked rather wished the union didn’t have to be quite so adversarial when it came to contract negotiations. It was such a ridiculous dance. Union demanding outlandish sum as their starting point, management countering with an insulting sum. 

The year I wrote about yesterday, the year of the “not really a strike”, the year when we wanted to close the gap between newspaper journalists and magazine journalists, the union started off asking for 25%. What we actually wanted was 20%. What we got was 18%, which was pretty bloody good.

We were all dreading the negotiations the following year. Word was (and there was no difficulty believing it) that the management team were still steaming and wanted to screw us good and proper. We expected the negotiations to be prolonged and extremely acrimonious. But a funny thing happened.

In the intervening year a senior manager, who’d been working in the New York office for some time, returned to London and actually volunteered to be on the negotiating team. 

Like now, those were inflationary times. So, even though we’d had a substantial pay rise the previous year, in order for it to continue to mean anything, with the rate of inflation hovering around 10%, we needed a rise that wouldn’t see us losing ground. The NUJ made an opening demand of 12%. We fully expected management to counter with 2% (or less). That didn’t happen. 

Instead, this bloke somehow managed to persuade the rest of the management team that he had a better idea, one he thought the journos would accept and one which would end in a two-year agreement, rather than having to go through this rancorous dance every year. His suggestion was 8% that year and 8% the following year. It was a very reasonable counter offer and it was made.

The NUJ, of course, didn’t like it. Didn’t like it at all. We should, they told us in a chapel meeting to discuss the offer, stick to our guns. And we certainly shouldn’t be negotiating multi-year settlements. Eventually someone (not me this time) asked if we could please just have a vote.

This was before Thatcher legislated secret ballots, when voting was done by a show of hands. Almost every hand in the room shot up, much to the annoyance of the NUJ reps. They’d been blindsided by one man persuading others to show a bit of common sense.

Oh, and by the way, by the following year inflation was down to around 6%, so it turned out to be a very good offer indeed.

None of which should in any way suggest that I do not 100% endorse unions. The combativeness of the 1970s and 1980s may have annoyed me at times and it cannot be denied that there was more than a touch of the megalomaniac in trade union leaders (yes, Scargill, I’m looking at you, you wanker), but unions are undeniably a force for good. If they weren’t, why would Jeff Bezos hate them so much? When you’re in a corner at work, the only sod standing there with you is your union rep.

Which is why, even though it’s dozen years since I left the UK, I still carry my NUJ card in my wallet.

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