The anti-union laws

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Journalists at the Johnston Press provincial newspaper group in England have joined a growing list of angry workers who have been denied the right to strike by High Court judges.

I should have been on a picket line with my fellow NUJ members in Sheffield for the first one-day strike in 30 years that involved national action in regional newspapers. Instead I found myself on BBC Radio Sheffield, debating whether court decisions blocking action meant trade unions had lost the right to strike.

I am sure that the judges who took the decision a few days later to uphold the Unite union's appeal against British Airways staff taking action realised that many more people had drawn the same conclusion.

In our strike the company hired expensive lawyers who created a 600-page document to prove that they don't employ any journalists!

Apparently the company could argue that we all work for subsidiaries, despite the fact that our pay slips feature a Johnston Press logo, company policy is controlled from the head office, our pension scheme (under threat) is company-wide and all that local managements do is exactly what they are told.

Three barristers confirmed that the union could not win a legal challenge, so after two phone conferences of local reps we reluctantly agreed not to go ahead. However, the court still demanded that the NUJ paid £30,000 costs for an injunction it hadn't opposed!

Rather than spend all this time, money and energy on stopping NUJ members taking action, the company should look at sorting out a whole list of problems. They include the problematic computer system that was brought in at breakneck speed, the effect that's had on already overworked staff, the pressure for the majority of pages to be produced by writing staff instead of production journalists and moves to centralise production journalists in "hubs" that have led to staff leaving in droves.

All of this has had a huge effect on our ability to produce quality journalism, something that was already under massive strain.

The firm went on a big spending spree during the economic boom, buying up newspaper groups at sometimes inflated prices and racking up debts that now stand at £419 million. The banks aren't happy. As usual, the staff are expected to pay the price for this by coping with huge cuts, a long-term pay freeze and seeing endless announcements of job losses in all departments. Yet top bosses still earn massive wages and bonuses.

Now we are arguing for chapels (workplace branches) to agree to coordinated local ballots instead. This is likely to involve NUJ members in the group in Scotland as well, making any resulting action much harder hitting.

It's worth remembering that the point of Margaret Thatcher's anti trade union laws was not to stop strike action, but to tightly control it instead, making workers think twice before going through a legal minefield just to call a ballot.

She hated the fact that workers took part in real democracy by holding mass meetings where they could have an immediate open vote by a show of hands and feel their strength and unity. Instead she wanted workers to take the decision by postal vote on an individual basis in their own home where all sorts of doubts could set in.

In order to hold a ballot, union officials and local reps have to check and double-check membership lists, write to management giving them a week's notice of the start of a ballot, list exactly how many staff will be balloted and break that down into how many members in each job description in each centre will be voting, ask whether people are willing to go on strike or take action short of strike, inform management of the exact result, then write giving another week's notice of any action and make sure every member is informed individually... All this for 12 weeks legal immunity from being picked off for going on strike.

But when rules are too tight to follow, workers will eventually think it's not worth bothering with a legal ballot at all. They might as well just walk out on unofficial strike anyway, thus making it far harder for union leaders to keep control of any action.

The example of the Lindsey oil refinery dispute (despite the horrendous "British jobs for British workers" demand) shows that strong unofficial action can remain unchallenged by the bosses and can win.

Julia Armstrong is mother of the chapel (union convenor) for Sheffield Newspapers NUJ (personal capacity).