‘Tiso Blackstar is just the beginning’

In an imperilled newspaper industry, one trade union is positioning itself as a defender of the rights of journalists in the workplace.

The Information Communications and Technology Union (ICTU), a small union that has previously drawn its membership from the telecoms sector, has taken on print media giant Tiso Blackstar over salary freezes and retrenchment plans at the group.

Workers, mostly journalists from the Sowetan, at the media group, which also owns the Sunday Times, Business Day, Financial Mail and Daily Dispatch, picketed outside its Johannesburg headquarters in May over salary discrepancies and bonus disputes.

Last week, ICTU said in its statement that the union is “committed to go at length” to challenge retrenchments resulting from the latest round of restructuring of the Tiso Blackstar group. Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) hearings into the retrenchments of more than 150 workers from various Tiso Blackstar newspapers are under way.

ICTU, which is affiliated to the South African Federation of Trade Unions, has about 5 000 members, 200 of whom work at Tiso Blackstar.

The union has previously boasted that it has shown Tiso Blackstar that “journalists are workers”.

Thabang Mothelo, ICTU’s chief negotiator in the Tiso Blackstar matter, this week said the union views the industrial action at the group as the first step in the its plan to expand its journalist membership.

“We are currently in the learning stage and we believe that, before we run, we must first crawl … because the dynamics in media are quite different,” he said.

The Tiso Blackstar restructuring comes amid declining newspaper circulation figures in the sector. According to data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa, total newspaper circulation in the country declined by 4.4% between 2017 and 2018.

The 2018 State of the Newsroom report, released this week, found that the journalist workforce in South Africa had been slashed by half over a decade, from 10 000 in 2008.

According to Tiso Blackstar’s 2018 annual report, 179 jobs were lost in 2017 and 2018 because of retrenchments. The group’s total staff complement dropped from 525 to 442 between the two years. But, despite growing fears that low circulation will translate into large-scale job losses, Mothelo said the “spirit of trade unionism” is not as strong among journalists as it is in other sectors.

“There are only a few unions working with journalists. So journalists fear that, if they join a union, they will be victimised and dismissed,” Mothelo said, explaining that the small number of media houses compounds the trepidation among journalists when it comes to collective bargaining.

He said: “These are the challenges that the union is going to confront.”

But ICTU has a plan: educate journalists about their labour rights.

“We are crafting a strategy on how to educate journalists, telling them that they ought to belong to a union. So they know that, once they are being mistreated, the remedy is in the CCMA and labour court,” Mothelo said. He said journalists have in recent years leaned on the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) instead of trade unions. “For a very long time journalists have believed that Sanef would play an active role in protecting them.”

Sanef executive director Kate Skinner said the absence of strong trade unions in print media has left “a huge gap”.

“I think what has been really problematic in print media is that there really haven’t been strong unions. Because what it has meant is that there have been waves of retrenchments which have been handled very badly … and workers have not had much power to fight back,” she said.

According to the State of Newsroom report, 72% of 158 survey respondents said they had no union support during their retrenchments.

“Journalists said off the record that unions were intimidated from premises by management, and that they were told they were not allowed to belong to unions because it was ‘against company policy’,” the report states. Sanef has been asked why it hasn’t stepped in to defend the labour rights of journalists, Skinner said. “But, in fact, our mandate is specifically not around labour issues, which has meant that there has been a huge gap in this regard.

“It has come up over and over again that there is a need for strong unions across the media sector that can ensure that working conditions are improved.”

Mothelo said he understands that winning journalists over is “an enormous challenge”, adding that the union is “quite confident” it will eventually get there.

He said in “two to three years” ICTU will be “a force to reckon with” in the print media industry.

Mothelo brushed off the suggestion that the union’s foray into print media means they are vying for members in a shrinking industry.

“Our key interest is that we need to find the voices that are diminishing, to protect those who are writing the stories of communities … We will not hold back. We will fight with all the might that we have. Until we only have one last member, we will fight for that one member.”

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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