“Voluntary redundancies to be sought on a case-by-case basis.” It is an unusual concept. Presumably it means that the boss comes up and tells you that she would like you to volunteer to depart.

The concept is contained in a letter from Fairfax management to editorial staff earlier this week laying out the company’s position for the forthcoming negotiations over the Fairfax Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

The document alleges that asking for voluntary redundancies merely causes stress to those who are not involved, and suggests it would be much better if management could simply go and give a little push to those they don’t want. What sort of a position would these people be in if they declined to “volunteer”? Read the whole document here and here.

All this has a context, and the overall picture is that at a time when Fairfax’s share price is in the doldrums, management is set for the mother of all battles with the journalists’ union.

Some months ago Crikey heard rumbles from inside meetings of middle and senior management at Fairfax indicating that the company was limbering up for union busting. Our sources say that deputy CEO and newspaper chief Brian McCarthy told managers he saw no place for unions, and that anyone who was any good did not need a union to safeguard their interests.

The same rumours obviously made their way to the union, because shortly afterwards the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance put out this document joining the dots and putting the hard word on members to contribute to a fighting fund in preparation for a stoush.

Now the union has responded with calculated outrage to Fairfax’s ambit claim. On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary Mark Ryan sent a letter to the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, alleging that the company is exploiting confusion over the implementation of the new government’s industrial relations policy to take journalists earning over $100,000 out of the reach of the award.

Gillard’s office said today that they had only just received the letter and that while it has not yet been considered, the Minister is most unlikely to get involved in the nitty-gritty of any enterprise bargaining negotiations.

The Fairfax letter to staff does include some positives for staff, including a commitment to improve paid maternity leave provisions, which has already been done at News Ltd. Meanwhile the Alliance has described the pay rates as a basis for beginning negotiations.

One of the bones of contention, though, is likely to be the extent to which Fairfax online journalists are included under the same conditions — and ethical principles — as their hard copy colleagues. Fairfax persists with a strange management structure in which the newspaper’s digital presence is under different management to the hardcopy newspapers, even while the newsrooms converge.

All this against a background of an already p-ssed off staff in both Sydney and Melbourne following the controversies over monitoring of staff e-mails and the impact of sponsorship and commercial arrangements on editorial independence at The Age.

Meanwhile Fairfax CEO David Kirk acknowledged the impact of “wallowing” share prices on internal morale in a Matthew Ricketson piece this week.

In a brave piece of spin, Kirk attempted to paint the agony over editorial independence issues as a positive – because it showed the staff cared.

It will be interesting to assess the nature of their caring by the time the negotiations over the enterprise bargaining agreement are over.

One way or another things at Fairfax are changing irrevocably.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off