MEAA CEO Paul Murphy addressing the Sydney strike

A marathon session of the Senate as it debates changes to voting laws, the Grand Prix, and anything else that happens between now and Monday will not be covered by Fairfax’s union journalists, after the vast majority of the company’s Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra journalists walked off the job yesterday afternoon, vowing not to return till Monday.

In fiery meetings in Melbourne and Sydney, the company’s union journalists voted overwhelmingly for a wildcat strike, after the company surprised them by sending an email at 11am on Thursday saying about 120 full-time journos in news and business — or their equivalent in other cost cuts — was being sought from the The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review. Some staff out the Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald, the Illawarra Mercury, Brisbane Times and WAToday have also gone on 24-hour strikes in solidarity, as have almost all the editorial staff at real estate portal Domain.

Management has responded to the strike by telling workers it will dock their pay (as it is legally obliged to). In an email sent out yesterday afternoon, editorial director Sean Aylmer said he was very disappointed that strikes had occurred so early in the consultation process:

“This strike action is unlawful. When employees take unlawful industrial action we have no choice but to dock their pay.

“No one should feel pressured to take industrial action at any time. And it’s wrong for anyone to pressure someone else to take unlawful industrial action.”

Publicly, the company said in a statement that despite the strike it would “continue to publish across print and digital as usual”. This should prove easier with the Financial Review than with the Age and SMH, as far fewer of the Fin‘s staff are unionised, particularly in Sydney (non-union members are not protected in a strike).

In the statement, CEO Greg Hywood said: “We are operating in an ever-changing highly competitive media environment which involves rapid evolution of our publishing model. The initiatives we have proposed today are part of that adaptation and are necessary to sustain high-quality journalism.”

Many staff felt betrayed by yesterday morning’s missile from Aylmer — they felt they’d been assured only a month ago a significant editorial restructure of the papers would not be accompanied by staff cuts. Many noted staff had been assured that those currently in positions that were disappearing would be able to go back to writing jobs. But it’s hard to see Fairfax finding places for people whose jobs no longer exist now. “It’s absolute chaos with the restructure and now this,” an Age staffer said.

At about 3pm today, Fairfax Media’s Sydney staff met on the front lawn outside company headquarters in Pyrmont. The meeting was fronted by house committee representatives Anne Davies and Marcus Strom, both senior journalists, and also Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance CEO Paul Murphy.

Davies, gesturing at the group of journalists, photographers and artists, said that there were about 120 people behind her. “This is the number of people who will be losing their jobs if this plan is implemented. “

Murphy from the MEAA said that “the staff here have led the charge and produced quality journalism … while the company has continued to take the easy option [with job cuts]. How do people keep on doing their jobs when the cuts are so severe?”

All speakers emphasised the complete lack of consultation by the company. The email announcing the cuts dropped into staff inboxes only an hour before Alymer addressed the staff in Sydney at noon (he told them the Fairfax metro network would be aiming to publish fewer pieces — from 9000 a day to 6000 — with fewer journalists, doing less with less).

Asked about the mood of the meeting, one senior staff member described it as “pent-up fury”. Aylmer told them that the money would be found by cutting contributors (there aren’t many), followed by voluntary redundancies and then forced redundancies.

The last time Fairfax’s Melbourne journalists went on strike, in 2014 to protest against the axing of many photography positions, they filled the lawn at Media House. Yesterday, the strikers included staff from the Financial Review, who are also on strike. But even with this, they could all fit on the steps.


Age senior journalist Gina McColl addressing Fairfax staff at Melbourne’s Media House

As in Sydney, journalists were fuming about the announcement, which they feel has been sprung on them at a time when they were being asked to contribute and buy into a new editorial vision. Unlike their Sydney colleagues, Melbourne staff didn’t get a briefing from management beyond the email.

Addressing her colleagues, Age senior journalist Gina McColl said they had decided to walk because “we got an email at 11am this morning saying there’d be 120 redundancies.”

“In previous rounds, the company agreed that this is not a good way to get redundancies, and that a better way is to sit down with staff and talk to us, consult with us, see where efficiencies could be made without impacting on quality and without people losing their jobs. We’ve walked today to send a message to the company that not consulting with us doesn’t work.”

In Brisbane, where staff are also on strike, Brisbane Times political editor Amy Remeikis tweeted that “cuts to media, and in the numbers we are talking here … do nothing expect weaken the public discourse and mean those in power have less of a spotlight on them … For these reasons, and because I believe in the power of the collective and taking a stand for what I believe in … I stand with my colleagues to say Fair Go Fairfax.”

After all the activity yesterday, staff retired to drown their frustrations at the pub (The Savoy and Saint and Rogue in Melbourne, the Quarryman’s Hotel in Sydney).

They kicked up the protests again at 11am today. In Melbourne, plans were made to wear Fair Go Fairfax t-shirts to the Quill Awards tonight. The union ran out of the campaign shirts, and told interested staff it had more in the office. In Sydney, Strom told those gathered that popular columnists Annabel Crabb and Peter FitzSimmons weren’t filing their columns.

It was only a month ago that Fairfax reported a solid half-yearly result. On February 19 Hywood announced that group revenue was up 2.8% to $958 million:

“Our continued focus on cost reduction and efficiency in our publishing businesses drove Group publishing costs down by 6% — that’s $38 million.

“I say this at every results announcement and once again its true — our audiences have never been larger, more diverse, or hungrier for quality independent journalism, digital content and services, as well as real-life experiences.”

When Hywood, a former journalist, was appointed CEO in February 2011, the share price of the company was $1.33 — it closed this afternoon at 79.5c. According to the company’s 2015 annual report, the CEO’s total remuneration in the 2014-15 financial year was valued at $2,491,465. This figure included a base salary of $1.575 million, with the remaining $1 million-odd comprised of superannuation, long service leave, shares and other options.

A month ago, he told the market that “our strategy is to grow, transform and invest to drive long-term performance”. It’s not so obvious where the growth and investment is happening, but he was right about one thing. Fairfax Media is certainly being transformed.