INTERVIEW: Fairfax journos turn resignation into anger

When management at Fairfax Media told journalists to brace for yet another wave of sackings, staff in newsrooms across the country voted to strike for a week. Last year, when similar cuts were made, staff walked out for a day. Red Flag spoke to a Fairfax reporter and union member about what happened in the lead-up to the latest strike and how the argument for such a decisive escalation was carried.

Did people know about the chief executive’s $2.5 million bonus when the redundancies were announced?

I’ve only just read that in the Australian, and that his pay packet is linked explicitly to the cost cutting program, which we’ve always known that it was; there is something in the annual report that says it’s linked to cost cutting not to revenue raising … which explains exactly why they just cut jobs … Leave in two or three years with an enormous pay packet, leaving a shell of a workforce. We’ve had cuts every year for at least the last four or five years.

Was this discussed in meetings of staff?

We often make the argument in union meetings to the boss who has to front the staff about the cuts, “Why can’t we cut your pay? If you took a 25 percent pay cut, we could save three jobs”. More and more that argument is actually really convincing people from the floor. I think at first it was seen as “too union” to talk like that, or that it was a bit of shit-stirring. 

But now people are saying, “Exactly. We have now had five years of cuts, the biggest cut that Fairfax has ever done, proportionately to the number of journalists … and their salaries are just enormous.” Now we actually know what they are, it’s disgusting.

Tell me about the meeting that voted to strike for a week. Was there much debate?

That was awesome! There was a huge amount of debate. I actually thought it was not going to go well. We always try to coordinate with the other newsrooms, particularly Melbourne and the Canberra press gallery. From the start, Canberra had wanted to go, they said, “We want to walk right now”, and Melbourne has also been pretty angry, “Our people are ready to go”, but Sydney has been really despondent. 

I think part of it is that we’ve borne the brunt of the last couple of cuts. The younger journos are often really angry but the older journos are really sick of it and don’t want to do anything. The younger ones think there’s no leadership, there’s no fight left in anyone so we should probably just keep our heads down. To me, we have to turn people’s depression into anger by actually doing something … we have to tell them what the mood is elsewhere, and I think if you suggest that we can do something and not just sit there and take it, they will feel more like they want to do something. We need to lead and tap into a different sentiment.

The meeting started out with people from the sections that were being the hardest hit saying they didn’t want to go on strike, which is the most depressing thing. For the first 20 minutes there was discussion of “cleverer” things we could do instead of going on strike.

But then one woman stood up from one of those areas hard hit and said, “I can’t even count the number of times I have been out on strike for someone else’s job, and now you’re telling me you won’t come out for me and my job? Everyone here in this room is looking at someone else and thinking I hope it’s you. Well, this time it’s me. And I expect you to come with me. I’m not saying you should go, I expect you to stand with me”. 

She was so angry and so fiery. Everyone was just stunned, there was silence across the room, then everyone just started applauding. And the entire room changed and every speaker after that was saying “We’ve got to go”, “We should target the federal budget”, “We’ve got to go out for a week”. It was a really powerful meeting.

Did the question of the strike being illegal  come up?

Yes, all the time, it was one of the first questions … and we know that there are fines and so on. I always argue that striking started as illegal and if you’re scared because it’s illegal, how would we have got anywhere if everyone thought that in history. I’m surprised that Fair Work hasn’t tried to order us back to work. But we’ve got a lot of public support. I think the fact that we’re striking helps. People aren’t going to get behind a bloody social media campaign, or a petition, when you can’t even be bothered walking out. You’ve got to put something of yourself on the line to show that you’re serious. 

And we know 100 percent what will happen if we do nothing. They’ll walk all over you. That’s what they do at News Limited; they essentially take people out the back and shoot them. You have to make it as hard as possible for them to do anything. Otherwise they’ll just come back for more.