We're a subversive democracy

THE OCTOBER LFB meeting invited Journalist editor Tim Gopsill to describe how the union's democracy works.

JOURNALISTS recognise that they have to defend their profession and that it is a keystone of democracy. The NUJ itself is, Tim says, very democratic. A lot of the anti-trade-union measures of the Tory government were ostensibly enforcing union democracy. Not one of them affected the NUJ, he said: it was already doing everything they required.

In the NUJ the content of motions on policy, and the procedural stuff that governs their debate, is completely uncontrolled by any central organ of the union. Some unions operate more like the party conferences which make no pretence to democracy - no-one can push a proposals through against the wishes of the central machine.

The NUJ, by contrast, has organisational machinery to prevent such obstruction. Standing Orders Committee (SOC), which governs the process of the Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) is elected by that meeting. Members of the National Executive (NEC) and union officials are not allowed to stand on SOC. It often tells the NEC to rethink.

All the decision-making bodies of the NUJ are composed of "lay" members - again, this contrasts with some unions whose national executives include full-timers. It means volunteer, elected officers giving up their time to work for the union.

The union has another "tier" of elected representatives - the so-called "Industrial Councils" for each industry sector. These include Broadcasting, Magazines and Books, National Newspapers and Agencies - and, because freelances have specific concerns and may work in several sectors, Freelance Industrial Council. FIC is responsible for the union's activities for freelances in England and Wales. Councils can tell union officials how to conduct their work for their sector.

This union also directly elects its top two full-time officials, the General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary. And, uniquely, the editor (Tim) is elected by the membership.

Union democracy starts, though, in Branch meetings. Tim noted London Freelance Branch successes in making union policy. The union now has lots of activity on copyright and that, he said, is entirely due to efforts by LFB. Members of FIC in particular may demur - but as a full-time official talking to the largest Branch in the union "I know which side my bread is buttered". Another motion proposed at the meeting called for action to reinforce the working of the Press Card. The fact that the NUJ has a press card at all is due to the actions of LFB a decade and more ago.

He concludes that all this democracy makes the activity of the NUJ subversive, in a positive sense. We are a real nuisance at the Trades Union Congress. There, he said, the NUJ is always the union which is making trouble, refusing to compromise or to be steamrollered into "compositing" its motions into bland compromises and instead putting in sharp motions telling it like it is.

About the only thing which unites people at ADM, he observed, is refusing to affiliate to the Labour Party - something else which annoys the majority in the TUC. The NUJ's political position is in permanent opposition to whichever government happens to be in power.

"Underneath our differences," Tim believes, "is a great notion of the collective interest of journalists and the importance that has for democracy in the wider society."

Nov 2000
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Last modified: 22 October 2000
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