Sing a song of solidarity

LONDON FREELANCE Branch member Tim Dawson took up the position of President of the National Union of Journalists at the Delegate Meeting in Southport. The Freelance is pleased to offer him this quasi-monthly platform.

Shortly before the Southport Delegate Meeting, an ancient piece of sheet music came to light as Headland House was cleared for renovation. The Song Of The NUJ, published in 1932, was scored by a successful composer with words by the General Secretary of the day, Henry Richardson. Unknown by the even the oldest NUJ activists and unplayed since the 1930s, hearing the ditty was irresistible, so the words and piano part were dispatched to musician Jeremy Bradford, whose recording won the surprise approval of delegates.

The Song Of The NUJ (YouTube)

Notwithstanding Richardson's qualities as an organiser, it is as well that he did not professionally trouble Tin Pan Alley. His anthem's second verse, though, is as stirring as it is thought provoking. Amidst general praise for the union and convoluted posey come the words: "It's good for freelances, their value enhances".

It underlines, were this needed, that freelances have been significant factor in British journalism and the NUJ since their inception. Perhaps uniquely among white-collar, industrially-organised workers, the NUJ has been delivering collective responses to to freelances' wilfully individual issues for over a century. And while history alone puts no food on our plates, it does provide pointers to the means by which we might all improve our standards of living.

At a DM at which few controversial decisions were taken, was a motion was that called for an ambitious campaign on behalf of freelances. It committed the union to building an alliance across the trades union movement to demand a new statutory framework that would allow collective bargaining on behalf of freelances, as well as working to persuade the International Labour Organisation to adopt a Convention on "atypical workers".

Such goals will not be easily achieved, but when the are, they will allow the NUJ to push up rates across our sector in a way that has not been possible since the mid-1990s. Even journalists whose work may never be covered by collective agreements will benefit from a general rise in rates. It won't happen overnight - but the NUJ knows all about maintaining pressure over time.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

It took the NUJ nearly 48 years to persuade the Newspaper Society (representing provincial newspapers) to reach a national agreement on minimum freelance rates. It required the intervention of the statutory Conciliation Committee to finally persuade employers, but this they did, signing a deal in 1955. More recently, John Foster - NUJ General Secretary during the 1990s - spent over a decade persuading labour movement colleagues and eventually Parliament that workers deserved a legal right to trades union representation. Our union won that too - against apparently insuperable odds. The lesson of both is that frustrating as the long game can be, it is our capacity to keep a campaign going that distinguishes the NUJ from whingers, petitioners and spur-of-the moment protestors.

If freelances in the union pick up the mantle that DM has placed at our feet, backed by the NEC, then it will surely only be a matter of time before we achieve the same protections afforded to other workers? The means by which we do that should be the subject of discussion at London Freelance Branch meetings in the months to come.

On the evidence of the last attempt, perhaps a new "Song Of The NUJ" is best avoided? Apart from anything else, steadfastness is an overused lyrical trope. If rhyme and melody help you maintain focus, however, Rachel Platten's 2015 Fight Song is a good starting point. "Like how a single word/Can make a heart open/I might only have one match/But I can make an explosion".

If we all manage just a little of that, then delegates three days debating motions will have been well spent.