Newsquest upped the stakes in the row over redundancies at the Northern Echo today by announcing it would dock the pay of journalists who staged a half-day walkout yesterday.
Journalists held a mandatory chapel meeting spanning an entire afternoon as part of three days of industrial action at the Darlington centre.
More than 50 National Union of Journalists members from The Northern Echo, Darlington and Stockton Times and the Durham Times and the Advertiser series left their desks at noon to convene in a local cafe and did not return to work.
But in a memo to staff today – described as “aggressive and threatening” by the union – Newsquest North-East managing director David Coates announced the company would be making a deduction from the salaries of all those who took part in the action.
He said: “Staff must remember that their contracts require them to work reasonably and flexibly and to obey reasonable requests in connection with the needs of the business.
“Where a ‘mandatory chapel meeting’ involves a refusal to meet normal contractual requirements, the company is not obliged to accept or pay for part-performance of a working day and will be entitled to require those employees to stay away from work without pay so that alternative arrangements can be made.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the company will make a deduction from the salaries of those taking part in this form of action leading to an absence from work on part of 5 January 2009 due to the mandatory chapel meeting which commenced at noon and continued for the rest of the day.
“Any subsequent absences will also lead to deductions from salaries. Staff concerned will be notified in due course of any deduction to be made from January 2009 salary payments.”
Following the memo, journalists at Newsquest North East agreed to return to work this afternoon rather than hold a similar meeting today – but gave management notice of more industrial action next week.
NUJ Northern Regional Organiser Chris Morley said: “The chapel have decided to go back to work as a gesture of good will despite an inflammatory memo sent to them this morning by managing director David Coates.
“NUJ members viewed the memo as aggressive and threatening.
“They are seeking talks with the company – but have given notice of further action to make it clear that they are determined to defend the future viability of their papers as a quality service for the people of the North East of England.”
The ongoing row concerns cuts to 17 editorial positions, three of which have been through compulsory redundancies – a reporter, production role and a database management position.
A further eight staff have left through voluntary redundancies while some vacant positions have stay unfilled and freelance commissions have also been reduced.
Northern Echo editor Peter Barron, who spent over an hour at yesterday’s meeting answering questions, called yesterday’s action “unjustified”.
He told HoldtheFrontPage: “What I tried to do was reassure staff as honestly as I could and to tell them that I felt any action which affected production of the titles would be unjustified.
“I tried my best to answer their questions. We have worked very hard here to minimise the impact of the recession on journalists.
“Progress was made in getting the number of compulsory redundancies down to three.
“We have been engaged in a consultation process – we listened to suggestions from staff and amended our plans as a result of suggestions that came through.
“I am very saddened that the NUJ decided to take the action that it took.”
Mr Barron added that he asked staff to return to work at the meeting and, although it was a challenge, the Northern Echo was sent to the presses on time last night.
Lister (06/01/2009 14:29:37)
Congratulations to Newsquest North East for producing such an entertaining paper this morning. The entire page dedicated to the demise of morris dancing was truly inspirational. With cutting-edge and dynamic journalism like this, who needs journalists?
metman (06/01/2009 16:48:34)
I would urge anyone working on a local paper to seek alternative employment if they are not doing so already.
Why stay in an industry that can only offer worsening pay and conditions? Walk away and enjoy your sanity.
Lister (06/01/2009 17:00:43)
You’re right Metman. Time to get out. According to the Northern Echo there are lots of vacancies for morris dancers – but I don’t know what the pay is like. Not worth shaking a stick at, I would think.
Former journo (07/01/2009 13:15:55)
When I was doing my NCTJ journo training in 2002/03 I would search HTFP every day for jobs. There were constantly about 20/30 reporting jobs listed – not to mention features, specialist jobs, etc. How many jobs are on here today? Five. What are all these journos going to do who lose their jobs? PR will suddenly be getting a lot more competative! I just feel sorry for all the students doing their NCTJs now. It’s all very well learning these new whizz-bang video and web skills, but where are they going to get jobs? By the way, have you seen that new plastic newspaper reader, like the e-reader, that’s being developed? If that took off, could it save all the journos?
That journalist (07/01/2009 14:35:17)
Seriously if you think the new palstic logic e-paper will save my job you are seriously being naive.
Just like every other business the market is saturated with journalists, but while iothers may pick up newsprint is dying a slow death. There is a very interesting piece by Peter Wilby in The Guardian.
Lister (07/01/2009 14:43:06)
Wrong. The radio was supposed to kill off newspapers, then television, then the internet. Newsprint is not dying a slow death, it’s being killed off by a load of moneymen who brand you disloyal if you question their actions.
Miss Cynical (07/01/2009 17:32:22)
Whether newspapers are dying due to natural causes or murder is irrelevant – the end result is the same! Get out while you can!
And from someone who has already ‘been a traitor’ and gone into PR – trust me, it’s already competitive to get in! Think of the number of young people who did PR degrees!