Fairfax Media is bracing for a wave of industrial action down the eastern seaboard, with a pay-parity dispute threatening to pull mastheads from letterboxes and engulf The Age and the Australian Financial Review.

The Fairfax Community Network’s 100-strong editorial staff in Victoria last week voted to down keyboards on Wednesday afternoon and converge on Fairfax’s multimillion dollar Media House to complain about management’s intransigence over below CPI pay rises. A barbecue in full view of the adjacent Southern Cross station is expected to attract solidarity from browbeaten colleagues at The Age and the AFR.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance says sub-editors and editorial designers and photographers have been “outraged” by 2.25%, 2.5% and 2.75% pay rises respectively for the next three years, while NSW-based Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy has received a 52% pay increase, boosting his salary by more than a million dollars to $3.163 million. The union has previously called for 4% in the first year and then 3% in the two years thereafter, but that could jack up as this week’s action looms.

Paid maternity leave is also an issue, with Fairfax offering just eight weeks for women, two weeks fewer than FCN’s sister company in NSW, News Limited’s suburban and Australia-wide papers, and Fairfax’s metro titles.

War stories are beginning to emerge across the state. In one instance, staff at Fairfax’s Mornington office were reportedly shocked after a forced move to the Dandenong office revealed that their new comrades were on substantially higher pay rates. The week’s community titles, including the Western Port Weekly and the Dandenong Weekly, which are put to bed tonight, will be mostly unaffected, but Fairfax might struggle to get them onto the streets next week with a “work to rule” order and overtime bans in place for Thursday and Friday.

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s Leader group of rival community newspapers is believed to be poaching staff, with pay offers exceeding Fairfax by up to 10%, sparking fears of a mass exodus.

The latest action could add to turmoil inside Fairfax following a report in this morning’s Australian quoting a former Canberra Times employee who claimed 28 people had left the paper over the past 18 months as rates dipped below the Sydney Morning Herald and The Illawarra Mercury, whose employees are on a different agreement.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Victorian secretary Louise Connor said productivity increases were yet to show up in take-home pay packets: “They have bargained in good faith and have provided management with three years of spectacular productivity increases, which didn’t include the current rebranding process.

“We are asking for a wage rise that takes into consideration the hard work and skills of our members, not a net pay decrease. FCN management are misconceived in thinking that this increase to maternity leave will be a big expense — the two extra weeks will cost them a few dollars but that money will make a big difference to women who have just had a child.”

The union will have the run of Media House on Wednesday. Just hours after the strike action, journalists, including several from Crikey, will converge on the gleaming edifice for the 2010 Walkley Awards finalists announcement.

Fairfax Media did not respond to Crikey‘s requests for comment this morning.

Peter Fray

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