Stressed staff at wire service AAP are in uproar over two bizarre emails sent by chief executive Tony Gillies to kick off the company’s current enterprise bargaining round, reminding them of “benefits” of working for the firm and the pressing need to “modernise” their operations.

In a feisty missive dispatched last week featuring the memorable headline “not a bad place to be”, Gillies says that AAP provides a number of standard entitlements like maternity leave, and then goes on to list other perks including “flu shots”, “complementary fruit” and “subsidised jackets and work shirts”. The indefatigableCEO also points out that on “certain shifts”, car parking on the company premises is free.

The wire service, once feted for its “one big family” approach, has been squeezed by the downturn in the media sector and reduced revenue from clients, which include the major capital city newspapers and numerous online outlets. But the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and staff activists say that since the last deal was struck, widespread efficiencies had already been enacted.

The Alliance wants pay rises of 4.5% per annum in line with other agreements at News Limited and the ABC but AAP has stood firm with an opening gambit of 2.75%, 3% and 2.5% over three years. Staff claim the company wants to dump overtime penalties up to 8:30pm and to outsource overnight shifts.

Fourteen new management positions — shaved of some benefits — are apparently on the drawing board, inflating the white collar ranks to 25 instead of the current 11.

But rather than cut into current benefits, Gillies says he is trying to “modernise” the current agreement because it “no longer reflects the requirements of the modern journalist or its employer”. Changing “life patterns” had apparently rendered the previous agreement defunct, he said.

MEAA NSW secretary Suzanne Culph confirmed to Crikey that there was a festering tension within staff over the changes: “We’re happy Tony’s focused on the EBA negotiations, and his thoughts will figure in the feedback we’re getting from members around the country.”

“We’re aware that staff have been putting their views pretty strongly back to management and we’ll be airing those views next week…we know that the emails have not gone over well with staff and we’ll be talking to Tony about that.”

But in a follow-up sortie sent yesterday afternoon, Gillies rails against the union saying that it is “…disappointing that you have not been given completely accurate information during a week when you’re expected to state a position.”

He then goes on to individually rebut the union’s claims in a point-by-point takedown, contrasting them with the real situation on the ground.

“Not once during discussions did we cast a mean-spirited undertone to our proposals as implied [by the union], nor did we say you ‘deserve’ this or that. The fact is we countered the MEAA’s opening base salary position with an offer reflecting projected inflation figures and in consideration of numerous difficult challenges facing our industry, our customers and AAP.”

At a staff meeting two weeks’ ago, Gillies urged staff to “consider the grim reality that besets our industry”. The recent acquisition of Fairfax’s major metropolitan subbing operation by AAP-subsidiary Pagemasters has apparently failing to stem the flow of red ink. Ironically, major clients News Limited and Fairfax own the vast majority of AAP with an ownership stake of over 90% between them.

One senior staff member wasn’t impressed by the back and forth, saying that management were “all stick and no carrot”. The email campaign was bemusing, they said: “The thing that amused me about the latest one is that the Alliance can only email its members … Tony can email all staff so it looked like the pay claims had come from him.”

“It’s definitely raised some hackles … there’s a grim mood because we worked hard after the last agreement and now they’re coming to us for more efficiencies which doesn’t seem fair.”

“His moves are cynical in the extreme — his modus operandi is to encourage mid to high level journalists to join management as a cost-saving exercise,” adding that overnight shifts “were likely to be outsourced overseas in another cost saving strategy to save on penalties and early-morning taxis.”

Another staffer said that when high level journos leave, management is secretly pleased:  “A lowly paid rookie can be brought in, beneficial to the company in terms of cost savings but also a malleable young mind that is unlikely to rock the boat. The workload and content increases and the content must invariably decline. How do you have less people, who are less experienced doing more work and yet produce better results? The answer is you can’t.”

Staff said that there were now fears rippling through the Rhodes HQ that the AAP subs desk would eventually be subsumed by Pagemasters, following Fairfax’s controversial decision to outsource its operation.

The new agreement needs to be in place by June 30.

Meanwhile, it seems quality at AAP may already be dropping if this extraordinary email exchange is any indication:

It concerns a headline sent by AAP to Fairfax that misspelled the word Fairfax. The gaffe was quickly corrected, however Google cache still contains the error:

Fellow AAP clients Ninemsn haven’t bothered to fix their copy…

Deputy Age online editor Craig Dixon describes the snafu as a “gobsmacking effort” (read the full email here).

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%