Paranoia and posturing are everywhere at Fairfax at the moment, as management and the journalists’ union face off over negotiations on the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

It seems that everyone is expecting things to get nasty. Some sources are saying that this battle will be the media story of the year. But can an organisation with a share price already in trouble afford to buy into a major war with an articulate and well-connected staff?

There is talk among the journalists that management is preparing for a lock-out of staff, but at the same time there is suspicion on the newsroom floors that this rumour is being deliberately put about with a view to softening up and intimidation.

Meanwhile, my understanding is that after thinking that staff would not take industrial action, management now believes that they will, after attitudes hardened in negotiations this week.

Here’s the latest, from the union point of view. Stop work meetings this week rejected a company offer that would divide and rule the staff by taking senior reporters outside the ambit of the negotiations. Management has also refused demands such as bringing Fairfax digital journalists into the same agreement as the hard copy editorial staff.

Management has also signalled its intention to make individual offers to staff once the present EBA expires.

Meanwhile a modified union log of claims was presented to management yesterday. No response has been received at the time of writing, but nobody is expecting a softening in attitude.

Staff at The Age have noted that senior editors, including Andrew Jaspan, Mark Baker and Paul Ramadge, are on leave this week, which has led to speculation that they are resting up in the expectation of having to get out the paper during industrial action in the weeks ahead. But management sources say this is jumping at shadows. There is no planning behind the absences, although it is possible that some people are deliberately putting themselves out of trouble’s way.

This has been building for a while. As we have reported previously, Deputy CEO Brian McCarthy was late last year talking to middle managers about his desire for union-busting around the workplace.

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.

According to an item in the Australian today, management have also been approaching individual staff asking if they would work through industrial action — but I have not been able to confirm this. Management believes this was a bit of union propaganda cleverly planted, and it may be so.

The background to all this is serious bad feeling between management and staff over journalistic principle, as well as raw industrial matters. In Sydney staff are still furious about the Gerard Noonan affair, and in Melbourne it is only recently that the entire staff passed an effective motion of no confidence in the editor — although as we reported on Monday, many of their concerns have now been addressed, at least on paper.

Things could get nasty very soon now.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW