Last bastion of Fleet Street militancy primed for industrial action

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The Independent Online
DAVID LISTER

Today at 5pm journalists on the Guardian will take industrial action in a dispute over pay and conditions that could lead to a strike.

Even critics and reporters at the Edinburgh Festival will practise self- denial and avoid going to the theatre for at least an hour.

The chairman of the National Union of Journalists' branch at the title, Brian Williams, said the action was "what the Government terms discontinuous action, though as a sub-editor that word pains me rather".

Disruptive industrial action at the Guardian has a resonance that can no longer be found in other parts of the media, nor indeed in many other parts of industry in general.

The Guardian, alone among national newspapers, has a 100 per cent union closed shop. It it has a four-day week for production staff and a minimum journalistic wage of pounds 24,000. And, of course, the organ of the liberal intelligentsia preaches daily a recipe of consensus, trade union rights and progressive management.

In the past, negotiations between liberal workforce and gentlemanly management have had a surreal, sedate quality.

At one meeting, Mr Williams confronted the managing director, Jim Markwick, and asked him if he had ever suffered from RSI, the disabling keyboard-related syndrome that can cut short journalists' careers.

"No," responded Mr Markwick, adding helpfully: "But I have had tennis elbow."

Today's disruptive meeting by the 250 staff on the paper is prompted by management's wish to accompany a 3.6 per cent pay offer with a change in working practices - scrapping a "no redundancies" clause and changing the production staff rota to a nine-day fortnight.

One journalist there said yesterday: "The 'no redundancies' clause is an unshakeable point of principle for Guardian employees.

"It's symbolic and emblematic. It means, to put it crudely, that we can can tell the bosses to 'F-off'. It creates a more liberal atmosphere and stops us sinking into the pit of fear that surrounds most newspapers these days."

Guardian journalists have voted by a majority of 4 to 1 to take strike action if necessary to keep the clause.

Mr Williams said there had never been a compulsory redundancy, but he added that it was nonsense to suggest the clause meant a job for life.

"If it is accepted by both sides that you are not performing your job properly then you can be required to leave."

The management at the Guardian has recently become tougher, according to those at negotiating meetings.

Executives refer to the "no redundancies" clause sarcastically as "the Old Testament".

The surreal quality is maintained by the fact that one of the key management negotiators is Brian Whittaker, former editor of the short-lived left- wing title News On Sunday and a one-time "refusenik" who would not cross the picket line in the Wapping dispute of 1984.

The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, has, according to union negotiators, kept a low profile in the dispute.

He succeeded the long-serving Peter Preston - now editor-in-chief of both the Guardian and the Observer - at the beginning of the year. His appointment was endorsed by a vote of the staff.

Mr Markwick will next year become chief executive of the Guardian media group which controls several regional papers as well as the profitable Auto Trader titles. He was unavailable for comment last night.

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