Journalists strike over conditons and job cuts

September 6, 2008

Fairfax journalists, photographers, artists and graphic designers returned to work on September 1 after a four-day strike. The strike affected the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Financial Review, the Age, the Illawarra Mercury and the Newcastle Herald.

On August 26, Fairfax announced a 5% cut to its work force in order to save $50 million. In response to the 550 job losses, as well as stalled pay negotiations, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) members walked off the job in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and Wollongong on August 28.

The first casualty of the job cuts was Age editor Andrew Jaspan, followed by the SMH's in-house legal team and journalist Mike Carlton, who was sacked for refusing to submit his SMH column during the strike.

The Age reported on September 4 that Fairfax will also cut 45–55 editorial staff from the Age and Sunday Age within the next two months. On August 28, the AFR closed its London office and Fairfax withdrew $15,000 of sponsorship for the MEAA-initiated Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

MEAA spokesperson Mike Dobbie told Green Left Weekly that negotiations with Fairfax in May for a new enterprise agreement were stalled by the company's refusal to offer a pay rise above inflation and its plan to create three "classes" of journalists.

According to Age columnist Kenneth Davidson, Fairfax management did not negotiate with the MEAA in good faith. He told GLW: "They attempted to exploit the Work Choices legislation, which the Rudd government inherited from the Howard government, bypass the union and impose a wage and redundancy package on journalists individually. This gamble failed. They have discovered that the union is not a paper tiger."

Staff are also extremely concerned about the broader implications of the job cuts. Dobbie said that many frontline journalists will be sacked, resulting in lower quality journalism.

With the SMH legal team gone, journalists will think twice about writing investigative articles. "Sometimes when journalists write stories, they need legal advice to make sure they are not breaking the laws. To have a legal unit means journalists can write with confidence", Dobbie explained.

Davidson believes that the diminishing surplus generated by papers such as the Age and the SMH, which rely on classified advertising for the bulk of their revenue, is dictating the company's agenda.

"Classified advertising is shifting to the internet and newspapers haven't found a way to stem this transfer ... In the past, the 'rivers of gold' from the Age and the SMH's classified section contributed about 75% to Fairfax group profits. Now it is about 25%", he said.

Dobbie argued that the transition that newsprint media is undergoing doesn't equate to a drop in desire for news and information by the community. "It's just the technology that is changing to digital output ... You still are going to need people on the ground to write; people are just going to read it online now.

"When you take away the journalists, the journalism can't be done. People are going to end up with second-rate newspapers and low quality journalism and we are going to fight that."

Dobbie explained that the union wants "an understanding from Fairfax that employees should be covered for inflation rather than being treated badly. We also want to get decent redundancies for staff who are forced to go."

Dobbie told GLW that the MEAA expects to be able to call workplace meetings within a fortnight for members to vote on a new agreement, and that the company has withdrawn its threat to sue the union and individual members for damages caused by the strike.

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