The 'Crusader' logo of the Daily Express newspaper.
Fighting for fair pay at Express Newspapers
On the face of it, a shop steward negotiating with Richard Desmond is about as superfluous a role as Donald Trump’s equality and diversity advisor.
The media mogul, labelled Britain’s greediest billionaire by my colleagues in the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), has not given his workforce at the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday and associated websites a pay rise in eight years.
When I became father of the NUJ chapel at Express Newspapers in October 2014 while the company was seeking to make 30% redundancies, it seemed the term poisoned chalice might have been invented for the job.
So what, some of you might ask. Why should we be sympathetic towards fat cat journalists on right-wing national newspapers?
The first thing to say is that journalists on all titles do not always share the political beliefs of their newspapers. Like jobcentre staff or others forced to carry out the government’s will, they don’t necessarily agree with everything they have to do. What matters is that they behave ethically and what they write is factually accurate.
As a union, we work to ensure that our members adhere to our code of practice. Like lawyers presenting the best possible case for a client, they may sometimes find themselves in a position in which they are not presenting every side of the story. The same is true on every newspaper.
And fat cats? I’ll come to that in a minute.
I should say, however, that my role is not as hopeless as I might have suggested, in spite of our failure so far to win that elusive pay rise.
There have been victories to celebrate: dozens of jobs saved; improved redundancy terms for many wanting to leave; and a chance to tell the company what its appalled employees really think, even if many of them are too frightened to say it themselves to management.
We may have to resort to strike action to win that first pay rise but at the moment we are contacting faith leaders, politicians, business leaders, advertisers, and others in an effort to put pressure on Richard Desmond to offer us an increase.
It is our belief that no employer in Britain in the 21st century, let alone a billionaire whose company makes vast profits, should be refusing to give a cost-of-living rise to his employees for eight years.
Despite the fat cats reputation, many of us are struggling. We may not be on the breadline but we are very much part of the squeezed middle.
In the eight years since we last received a modest pay rise, the cost of living has increased by 23.7%. In 2008 many of us made commitments believing that our salaries would just about keep pace with the cost of living. There are bills to be paid, families to be supported.
In a confidential survey of the workforce just before Christmas we found that 29% of respondents had been forced to move home or remortgage because of falling real incomes. Faced with financial difficulties, 71% had put less into savings or pensions and 58% of journalists said they now shopped in discount stores out of necessity.
Last year I wrote to management explaining that in my role as royal correspondent of the Daily Express I had spent months attending engagements with the Queen and other members of the Royal Family wearing a coat with ripped lining poking out of a sleeve and shoes with a hole in the back. Happily, I have been able to replace both now but in a job that requires me to dress smartly, I am left with two wearable suits after more than 30 years working in this industry. A woman colleague with years of experience in the industry told me last week she is down to her last pair of shoes.
Richard Desmond has repeatedly claimed he cannot afford to give pay rises while amassing a fortune. In the year ending December 2014, the last for which financial results are available, he took £90 million in personal payments out of Northern & Shell. His company, which also owns the ‘adult’ TV channels Television X and Red Hot TV as well as OK! Magazine, made almost a tenfold increase in pre-tax profits year-on-year to £333.7 million. The five company directors shared payments of almost £20 million.
Last year company managers actually made provision for a pay rise in their budgets but Desmond seized the money back. The company told us a 4% pay rise for editorial staff would have cost £800,000. After telling us he could not afford it, he gave a corporate donation of £1.3 million to UKIP.
We know there are many people in Britain in a much worse position than us but we do not believe it is acceptable for any business owner to behave in this way.
If your union or your employer can do anything to support us, we would really appreciate it. Richard Desmond is the unacceptable face of British business in the 21st century.