My union, the National Union of Journalists, will soon be electing a new deputy General Secretary following the retirement of John Fray. Two candidates have so far declared themselves, the union’s Freelance organiser John Toner and Michelle Stanistreet, the union’s 2007/08 president.
I’m proud to say that I support Michelle and am actively engaged in working for her election. There are those who are arguing that Michelle, having not previously worked as a union Organiser, doesn’t have the experience for such a senior job in the union. More controversially, there are those who say that Michelle is only being supported because she’s a woman and a lefty and that the election is a popularity contest rather than a serious election.
This is hogwash and deeply insulting to Michelle and her supporters. Michelle is the rank and file candidate in this election, the chapel rep who’s fought tirelessly against one of the most notoriously obnoxious bosses in the media. A boss like Richard Desmond can make things go one of two ways for a union. They’ll either beat people into submission or will energise the resistance. Michelle has been at the forefront of ensuring the latter was the case at the Express and Star newspapers.
Elected chapel rep pretty much immediately after Desmond took over, the successful battle for recognition at the newspapers was only the start. Tales of the battles at the Express and Star have inspired many – this is the NUJ Chapel that reported their own newspaper to the Press Complaints Commission not once, but twice.
Unwilling to sit quietly by as their names were associated with some of the nastiest anti-immigration and anti-gypsy campaigns in the media, the Chapel stood up and Michelle was in the frontline. In fact, it was at a fringe meeting about immigration and asylum issues that I first saw Michelle speak, at ADM 2004 in Liverpool. Her tale of the Chapel’s stand impressed me so much, I included it in a feature I wrote for Amnesty International’s website on Press Freedom Day.
A couple of years later, it was the staff revolt at the Daily Star that was the talk of ADM. In October 2006, the staff said enough is enough and forced the paper to pull their “Daily Fatwa” “satire” page. And, to top it all off, the chapel’s latest dispute with management – officially about pay, but coming just after the McCann apology highlighting the quality issues at the newspaper Michelle and her colleagues have been talking about for years – led to the first strike action at a national newspaper in the UK in 18 years.
It’s her workplace experience that makes her the best candidate, particularly because she’s remained a full-time working journalist while acting as Vice President and President of the union over the past two years. These have been years of massive change in the media – staff numbers cut to the bone, newspapers stumbling into the web and journalists having to come to terms with massive technical change in their jobs without proper training or remuneration. Michelle understands this; she’s worked through it and in it.
The next few years are going to be vitally important for the future of the union. It’s not just the finances that are a worry; the review of the union’s structures is halfway through its work and will be bringing its final recommendations to ADM next year. The union has to change, the sectoral structure that’s served the union well for more than two decades is looking more and more out-of-date as the months progress and the dividing lines between print, broadcasting and new media become meaningless.
No offence to John Toner, but we need new blood in the higher echelons of NUJ officialdom. We need someone not rooted in the politics of the sectors and not wedded to the structures of the past. We need someone with fresh ideas, someone fresh from the workplace frontline to help the union through this difficult transition period.
I’ve worked with Michelle; I’ve been to meetings she’s chaired since I was first elected to the NEC three years ago (Policy Committee first, then NEC) and I’m confident Michelle is the woman for the job.
The campaign website is coming soon, but, in the meantime, those of you on Facebook can join the support group.