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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Why we're protesting

"Why are you lot complaining? You've still got a job!"

It's a perfectly fair question. And the first part of the answer is that soon, some of us won't. There are a few reasons why we've got to the stage where we're willing to go on strike - so let's take a look at how we got to this point.

The Northern Echo, the Darlington & Stockton Times, Advertiser series, Durham Times and all the local products we love creating and which we hope you love reading are all owned by a company called Newsquest. Newsquest owns a host of newspapers up and down the country. It, in turn, is owned by a bigger American fish called Gannett.

Newsquest makes a lot of money. That's not us saying that. That's the chief financial officer of Gannett, Gracia Martore, speaking back in October. She said (and here's the link to the story on the Guardian website
"Let me once and for all dispel the myth that Newsquest doesn't make money. Newsquest makes a lot of money.
In fact, their margin, as I have said a couple of times, is consistent with the margin that our local US community publishing operations generate.
So their margins are in the high teens to low 20s. And they have consistently made money throughout the years, even in a year like last year when revenues were under as much pressure as they were."

Sounds like a rosy glow of health to you? It probably does too to the chief executive of Newsquest, Paul Davidson, who pocketed a 21.5% pay increase last year as the company recorded profits nationally of £89m.

Sadly, that rosy glow has not surrounded your local staff for a long time now. The last time staff received any kind of pay rise was a humdrum offering in 2007. Since then, staff have had a pay freeze imposed. Nothing. Not even a keep-up-with-inflation rise. Not even a token rise as inflation sailed off into the distance. Not even a bonus. In 2009, staff were also asked to take a week off without pay to help the company get by.

In 2010, staff at Darlington and its regional offices have had a long-standing holiday day removed - a birthday day, that was always a pleasant perk, removed without consultation. Some thank you for taking the week off without pay when times were hard. In addition, our final salary pension scheme has been ended following a consultation in which it appears not one single concession has been made despite a huge number of suggestions and feedback from staff.

But what's brought us to the point of striking is pay and, more importantly, jobs.

With Christmas in sight, Newsquest began its festive round of putting people on the dole queue. Put at risk of redundancy were three assistant editors, a production editor, three reporters, an internet upload assistant, the newspaper librarian, two graphic artists and all but four of the sub-editing roles. The sub-editors are to be merged in this change, so no longer would the journalist designing your Northern Echo front page or your Darlington and Stockton Times community news be able to focus their attention on their area of expertise - and two of those jobs would go in the process. We are fighting to ensure there are no compulsory redundancies. We want to keep the skills and talent that is within the company working on your newspapers. And if the company insists that they can't afford to and Newsquest isn't making enough money? To quote Gracia: "Newsquest makes a lot of money."

On pay, after three years of pay freeze, we submitted a pay claim back in August, based on settling pay claims across four years of nothing, of 8%. Seems a lot looking at it in one number there, but that's just 2% per year. It's not our fault that Newsquest is building up a pay time bomb, that's their own doing.

We were told at the time that there was no likelihood of a pay rise for 2011. And then journalists at centres up and down the country, at Newsquest centres here, there and everywhere, started showing they had had enough. Strikes have already been held at our sister centres in Brighton and Southampton - and industrial action of one kind or another has been held or is about to be held at Newsquest centres up and down the land.

And suddenly a 2% pay offer has appeared on the table. Never mind the fact that's about half the rate of inflation. No movement on jobs. A refusal to our offer to even reduce the final amount of whatever pay settlement we do agree on in order to keep jobs.

We've said no to that pay offer. We don't feel that a company that "makes a lot of money" can get away with treating its staff this way for so long and still be pushing staff members out of the door who have worked for the company for many years.

So. A long story. But that's how we got to this point. We don't want to strike. We have to.

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