Despite my search for real socialism and my fascination with the story of the labour movement, as opposed to the Labour Party, I did not find myself involved in any serious union activity until I moved down South.
As I have said I joined the National Union of Journalists while working in North Wales. Other than paying my subs on a monthly basis, the branch treasurer was the sports editor (he might have been called assistant editor but mainly I remember him doing sport) Bill Prandle and he always made sure we were up to date.
I don’t think I remember even attending any meetings and we certainly didn’t take any action as far as I can remember.
When I did move South my membership was transferred to the Southend branch, which covered Basildon. The branch included people from other news media as well as freelancers but the journalists on the Standard Recorder, not including the editor, Tony Blandford, and the journalists at the Evening Echo, also part of Westminster Press, were in another level of the union called a chapel.
From the time the NUJ was formed, 1907, the union meetings or groups used the same references as the print workers for their workplace groups which were traditionally referred to as chapels. The main officials of the chapel were the FoC (chairman), deputy FoC (deputy chairman) and the Clerk of the Chapel (secretary and often treasurer as well).
Before I get accused of sexism I would point out that at this time there were fewer women in journalism and the printing works in general as compared to men and most chapels would have an FoC, but when a woman was elected they did become known as Mother of the Chapel or MoC.
Our chapel was rather quiet in my early days in Basildon, or it might be I didn’t always get the notices of meeting as they would be held at the head office and works which was out on one of the industrial sites.
Late in 1973, however, as the NUJ got stuck into pay and conditions talks with the newspaper owners, in the form of the Newspaper Society, chapel meetings were called to keep us up to date with negotiations.
By the autumn negotiations were not going well and eventually we were informed that there would be a 24-hour stoppage to remind the NS of our major weapon in such fights, the right to withdraw our labour.
Work would stop mid-morning, which would mainly disrupt work on the Evening Echo, and return exactly 24 hours later, which would still cause disruption on the evening paper.
The stoppage began as planned and when we left the weekly office it was on friendly relations with the editor. We met up at a local social club where a room had been made available. Pickets were dispatched to the head office and other offices with official placards from the NUJ. Other teams were set up to relieve them every two hours and once pickets were relieved they could go home. All picketing ended at 5pm and everyone would gather at the meeting room at 8am, in preparation for a return to work at the end of the 24 hours.
Just after 8am a courier arrived from head office with an envelope addressed to the FoC. The message was from the board of directors and, although couched in business-like language what it amounted to was:
“You have made your point but we see no reason for you to continue the stoppage and we expect to see everyone back at their desks by 9am.”
There was a 10-minute debate on what should be done and, despite two or three who thought management had a point, it was agreed stoppage would continue for the full 24 hours and the return to work would be at 11am as agreed. A member of head office editorial, who had a motorbike, volunteered to take the reply.
He had only been back 10 minutes when the head office courier arrived with a further message. This one simply stated that all editorial staff should be at their desks by 9am and after that the doors would be locked to prevent anyone else entering the building.
A short debate ended with the same decision: a return to work at the end of the 24 hours. The courier had been asked to wait to take our reply.
We then all set off at staggered times to ensure each group arrived at the appropriate office to return to work at 11am.
When we arrived at the Recorder office we went to the front entrance as that was where we had departed for our 24-hour stoppage. Tony was at the door and told us he had been instructed not to allow us in if we arrived after 9am.
We returned to the meeting room at the social club and before long we were all together again.
The trouble with most provincial journalists at that time was that they were more at ease with reporting on other people on strike (even though we were not on strike we had been locked out) than actually participating.
It took some time to come up with a plan of action on the basis we did not know if this would last a few hours, a few days or even longer. The first item on the action list was to inform NUJ head office and ask for advice on what to do next.
The second item was to set up a roster for pickets. At that time of the year nobody wanted to be out in the cold for too long.
I was scheduled for a late shift.
While we waited to hear back from the NUJ head office those of us not on picket duty were at a bit of a loose end.
The big change came mid-afternoon when one of the pickets came back early and announced: “We’ve got company.”
NEXT TIME: Settling in for the long haul and saying sorry to a princess.