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May 8, 2014

‘This is what’s left’: Fairfax journos down tools amid threats and fear

More than 600 Fairfax staff across the country are on strike, after the company announced dozens of redundancies.

Myriam Robin — Media Reporter

Myriam Robin

Media Reporter

There’s the usual number of Fairfax newspapers today, but not the usual number of bylines. More than 600 Fairfax staff across the country are on strike, after the company announced it was sacking most of its photographers and half of its remaining subeditors, along with 15 lifestyle journalists. Not turning up to work this morning are journalists from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, The Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury.

Between 100 and 150 staff were milling on the lawn outside Media House, where Fairfax’s major Melbourne bureaux are located and the home of The Age, just after the walkout was announced. I asked a senior Age journalist, “is that everyone?” He shrugged his shoulders. “There were 500 people working here a few years ago,” he said, surveying the gathering. “This is what’s left.”

But it wasn’t everyone. While the “vast bulk” of staff from The Age and SMH walked out en masse, from the top to the new cadets just two weeks into the job, only the unionised half of The Australian Financial Review joined them. The Fin will share the cuts in photography — MEAA delegate and SMH journalist Stuart Washington said “surprising levels” of staff at the more conservative paper are also not at their desks today.

In a public statement, Fairfax expressed disappointment with those who had gone on strike:

“The company had commenced a meaningful consultation process about the proposed changes and has planned further briefings with affected employees and their representatives.”

The internal email sent to staff was more forceful. Allen Williams, the managing director of publishing media at Fairfax, reminded staff that industrial action during the period of an industrial agreement was not protected, and given the “unnecessary disruption” to the business caused by the strikers, “we want to make the company’s position very clear”. The position is that, in addition to docking the legally required minimum of four hours’ pay for the action:

“… the company will also consider taking disciplinary action against those employees who participate in any unlawful action, which may include the termination your employment. There is no difference between participating in an unlawful strike and simply not attending for work without a proper reason. We consider both examples to be an unauthorised absence, damaging to your mastheads and a breach of your legal duties to the company.”

Furthermore, Williams continued, “employees should not feel intimidated or pressured into taking industrial action”.

As executives hurled off emails, the staff gathered on the Media House lawn were quiet, and sad. One journalist asked when the cuts would stop. “It’ll be Epicure next,” she said. “Where’s the line?”

There’s not much to be said. In 2012, Crikey described the rallies to protest against Fairfax redundancies as boisterous. That wasn’t our experience yesterday. Most of the journalists assembled were on their phones, standing wordlessly in small huddles, scanning the condolences and messages of solidarity pouring in. Or they were dialed in, presumably to journalists at other news outlets keen for comment. I asked a few whether they’d filed for the day. Most hadn’t. “There’ll be a paper tomorrow, but it won’t be as good,” one said, grinning wryly.

Up the front, the photographers were talking to the media. There were several TV crews assembled filming the 10 or so snappers gathered — once the redundancies are done, there could be that number for the whole of Fairfax.

Joe Armao, an award-winning photographer at The Age, is one of those in the firing line. Asked why he’s gone on strike, he said it’s because of the way Fairfax’s management has handled the process. “We were told 15 minutes before the end of editorial,” he said. “A week … it isn’t enough time for a group to organise.” A week is how long Fairfax’s photographers have to discuss things before the voluntary redundancies start, he said.

Effectively, Washington says, the cuts are forced, because it’s unlikely Fairfax would get the voluntary numbers wanting to leave. “We are straight away talking about compulsories … not because they’ve tapped people on the shoulder … [but] because 40 into 10 [photographers] doesn’t go, 35 into 25 [Life Media journalists] doesn’t go,” he told Crikey today.

This isn’t what anybody expected. Many expressed shock and bewilderment. “We had no warning — no idea this was coming,” said a young reporter. It’s not like two years ago, when Fairfax’s share price was in the doldrums and Gina Rinehart loomed on the horizon. In June 2012, Fairfax announced it would cut 1900 jobs, shrinking the newsrooms by 30%. But now things are looking up. The company has hired trainees. Its reporting is afflicting the powerful. Digital subscriptions are doing well. And underlying profit was up 12%.

Armao was hopeful that in the light of day “cooler heads” will prevail. Journalists at Pyrmont and Spencer Street are milling around this morning, having meetings about what to do next. There’s a sausage sizzle in Sydney, where 20 striking journos spent the morning handling out leaflets about the cuts to staff. Last night, a longer strike was on the cards. Crikey understands some editorial staff want the strike to stretch to Tuesday, to wreck havoc with the federal budget coverage, but there are doubts about the feasibility of this. Washington said any decision to extend the strike is up to members, but “my expectation is if they [management] haven’t heard us in 24 hours, they’re unlikely to hear us in 36 hours”.

By 5pm, the crowd at Media House thinned out as groups headed to the pub. As I bid Armao good luck, he added one more thing. “I just want to say, this is one of the really great photographic departments. Jason South has won three Walkleys. At least five of us have one. This is a really highly awarded group of photographers. If that’s not enough …” He trails off.

It might not be.

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One thought on “‘This is what’s left’: Fairfax journos down tools amid threats and fear

  1. Yclept

    Management haven’t heard them because they aren’t listening. Same old “executive class” bullies as at every other corporation. None of them are worth the exorbitant salaries they drag in because they aren’t capable of fresh thinking or actually running their businesses efficiently. I won’t be buying any of their publications now and I stopped buying News Crap long ago.

    Fairfax may as well just make them all redundant and pack up shop because the print media is no longer relevant.