Last Friday’s NEC meeting (14 May) was dominated by the action of Johnson Press in their use of the anti-union laws to stop our members taking industrial action, following a successful ballot. On arrival we were given two letters one from the group human resources director of Johnson Press, Malcolm Vickers.

The second from solicitors Boyes Turner, which claimed that the union was in contravention of the 1992 Trade Union Act and told us to stop the action or face further legal action. Both letters made the claim that Johnson Press did not employ any journalists and that the union should in fact have notified the various subsidiary companies set up as multiple employers, as our dispute was really with them not Johnson Press itself! Consequently any industrial action taken would be unlawful and in contravention of the Act.

Now this is a real scam. Later I went to Johnson’s web site at: http://www.johnstonpress.co.uk/jpplc/aboutus/corporateprofile/ which reads: ‘The company employs over 2,500 locally based journalists whose work is supplemented by numerous local contributors’. In addition the NEC was informed by our officials that staff pay slips carry the JP stamp and the JP company handbook issued to staff contain the company’s grievance, disciplinary and health and safety policies. But it’s not enough and our legal advice was clear that we faced the threat of injunctions, no legal protection against unfair dismissal for our members if they decided to take strike action on Wednesday 19 May, plus punitive damages against the union.

In reluctantly deciding not to proceed with the action, it was also agreed that we should join other unions who are building a case to the European Court of Human Rights (which will take a few years I’m afraid) but more importantly our members will be re-balloted this time as over some fifty individual but identical disputes. A full report can be found on the NUJ web site and some interesting and supportive comments from Roy Greenslade on his blog on 18 May; ‘Yes, the NUJ is right – the law is an ass for stopping its strike against Johnston Press’ at: www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/may/18/johnston-press-nationalunionofjournalists

I have to say that sitting through the discussion I knew that we were being pushed around by company lawyers and were witnessing our members’ wishes to stand up and oppose attacks on their pay and working conditions being trampled over.  It makes you feel sick and angry. Attempts by our movement to get the last Labour government to move on the Act came to nothing and we can expect little sympathy from the new coalition government. But we fight on and fight to win and there are lessons to be learnt from this entire experience with Johnson Press.

There was a very good debate on the request from the TUC to distribute material in support of the boycott of produce from illegal settlements in the Israeli occupied settlements in the Palestinian Territories (already union policy from the 2009 delegate conference and see previous bog ‘Boycott jitters’ dated 22 March 2010) by a comfortable majority it was agreed to distribute the material to branches. It’s up to branches then to raise the matter with their MPs.

I also moved a motion condemning the recent decision by the Israeli authorities to send the whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu to prison for three months from 23 May for speaking to foreigners (including journalists). The full story is on my previous blog ‘Mordechai Vanunu to go to prison again’ dated 13 May. Last week a letter condemning the action of the Israeli authorities signed by Jeremy Dear, Tony Benn and others was published in the Guardian. Writing in the Independent on 18 May, Terence Blacker asked the question ‘When will Vanunu’s torture come to an end? He went on: ‘There is a cruel irony to the news that Mordechai Vanunu is being returned to prison at the very the very moment when a nuclear non-proliferation pact is back on the global agenda.’ He concluded: ‘It is surely time for the international community to stop looking the other way and demand that Israel abandons its 24 year persecution of a man who dared to tell the truth.’

Finally farewell to south west NEC member Tim Lezard who is taking time off to travel. Tim is a freelance journalist specialising in social affairs, trade unions and politics. His work has appeared in the New Statesman, the Mail on Sunday, Searchlight, Press Gazette and our own the Journalist. He has worked as media officer for the South West TUC, Equality South West and former MP David Drew, as well as carrying out media training for asylum seekers and refugees, and assessing work for the Writers in Prison Network. A former president of the union, Tim has for many years campaigned for socially-responsible journalism, arguing for the introduction of a conscience clause to protect journalists forced to write stories which contradict our Code of Conduct. He has also represented the NUJ on a number of organisations (too many to include here)! The NEC thanked Tim for his great contribution and wished him well in his travels. I am sure it’s not the last we will see of him.