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Fury as NUJ "sells out" Drogheda photographers for 'closed shop' agreement

25 July 2007 - EPUK

Irish NUJ members are furious over a proposed house agreement with the Drogheda Independent group in which the union has agreed that newspaper photographs should in future be taken by reporters using cameraphones.

The proposed agreement, which has been recommended by both the NUJ’s Irish Organiser Des Fagan and Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley, offers a ‘closed shop’ agreement, where staff journalists must be members of the NUJ, in exchange for a key concession demanded by Drogheda Independent management of making news photography part of a reporter’s job description.

If the deal goes through, it seems likely that the current photographers used by the title will be dropped, or their hours cut back. Currently, the titles depend primarily on a NUJ freelance photographer working on a 5 day contract.

Other NUJ photographers spoken to by EPUK have expressed outrage that the organisation which they reply upon to defend their rights is endorsing a deal which would threaten their working practices.

“The NUJ have sold out their photographers, pure and simple” said one freelance union member.

“Everybody supports the Drogheda Independent Chapel in their negotiations but the agreement, as it is written, will undermine journalists and should not be endorsed by a Union that purports to represent freelancers” said Dublin-based freelance photographer and NUJ member Alan Murphy. “And therein lies a big question: does the NUJ really want to continue to represent the freelance photographer ?”

“The general consensus among all the freelance photographers at the meeting last week was: What’s the point in paying your subs to an organisation that doesn’t look after you ?”, said Fran Caffrey, chairman of the Irish Eastern branch.

No-confidence vote in Irish secretary

EPUK understands that there were attempts to bring a vote of no-confidence in Irish NUJ Secretary Seamus Dooley’s handling of the controversy at one emergency branch meeting last week. The vote could not go ahead for procedural reasons. Dooley is the most senior NUJ official in Ireland, and the third most senior in the overall NUJ hierarchy.

While the negotiations have been ongoing for over six months, details of the controversial clause have only been known in the last few weeks. All the freelances spoken to found out the news via the Irish Photographers website rather than from the NUJ’s Dublin office.

“It was only at the twelveth hour that we got wind of it”, one freelancer told EPUK. “I think it was kept secret, to see if it could be put through quietly so that no-one could object to it.”

In that time, at least five NUJ branches and chapels have called extraordinary meetings to discuss the matter in what seasoned NUJ members have described as an “overwhelming” and “unprecedented” level of grassroots opposition.

“Cameraphones are comparable to professional cameras”

In a statement, the newspaper group said reporters would use their own cameraphones instead of company-supplied digital cameras.

Declan Carlyle, Human Resources Director at the Drogeda Independent group told the NUJ: “It is not proposed to simply hand out digital cameras to all staff. One simply has to consider the advancement of digital cameras on mobile phones, where the current technology is comparable to professional equipment only a few short years ago.”

Also on this story…

Sqweegee: “The NUJ’s justification for this particular piece of treachery is as slimy as can be. They describe it as a ‘quid pro quo for major benefits’. The question is: what are the benefits and to whom do they accrue?” Read it here

While this is far from uncommon on many smaller regional newspapers and freesheets, it is believed to be the first time that the NUJ – which states its first objective is “the defence and promotion of the professional and financial interests and the welfare of its members” – has considered endorsing it as best practice.

Last month, photographers at the Baltimore Sun held a four day strike over almost identical proposals to combine the jobs descriptions of reporters and photographers.

In a statement, NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley said: “The agreement contains provisions allowing selected, trained reporters to use digital photographic equipment. Implementation of this clause will be monitored by a joint union/management Working Party.”

“The agreement is recommended by the Chapel, by the Irish Organiser and the Irish Secretary because they feel it is the best available…. Non-implementation of the agreement will put at risk the benefits won through the negotiations but will not prevent the introduction of new work practices outside the negotiated framework proposed by the NUJ.”

“Quid pro quo”

The NUJ has described the proposal to let staff reporters provide photographs as a “quid pro quo for major benefits.”. These benefits include the closed shop agreement, as well as a pay rise of up to €6,000 for staff reporters.

However, such a deal would have been against the NUJ’s own rules up until a few months ago. The union’s own rulebook had stated: “A member who is a staff reporter shall not normally take photographs…Freelance reporters shall not take photographs… if by so doing they deprive another freelance of income.”

But a motion which was carried the NUJ’s Annual Delegates Meeting in April deleted this and other clauses in favour of a new wording which no longer insists on demarcation between the two professions.

The controversial clause in the NUJ-negotiated house agreement which would allow photographs to be taken in future by reporters with cameraphones.

“We’re all in favour of the [Drogeda Independent] chapel getting what it wants”, one photographer told EPUK. “Just not over the bodies of freelances.”

Irish Executive Council to decide

The NUJ’s Irish Executive Council (IEC) is due to decide on 27th July as to whether to accept the agreement, having previous deferred a decision twice following objections.

Despite being a profitable title, the Drogeda Independent has struggled in recent years to find freelance photographers who will work for it due to its low commission rates. The proposed house agreement means the newspaper can ensure a steady supply of images without having to raise its freelance rates or having to employ a staff photographer.

“My personal view is that the paper is a viable paper which could well afford to have more than one photographer rather than having to rely on giving journalists cameras and getting them to cover the events” said Fran Caffrey, a former contract photographer at the titles.

However, the newspaper has used its past frugality as a reason why the new agreement should go forward. In a statement it said: “As we don’t employ a single photographer in any of our regional sites this action does not affect anyone’s employment”.

But it is clear that this house agreement will affect the income of freelance photographers who currently supply the newspaper group, as well as providing a formal endorsement for other newspapers to get reporters to take news photographs.

“I don’t think the Irish office gave the clause due care and attention in respect of the other NUJ members who would be affected”, says Caffrey. “Once this agreement is reached in one paper, it’ll run through the rest of the regional papers, then hit the nationals”.

The newspaper currently uses one contract photographer on a five day contract, supplemented by several freelances who are paid €133 (£89) for a shift which is frequently in excess of eight hours inclusive of all expenses, and which is already significantly below the NUJ’s own recommended minimum rates.

But EPUK understands that there are many other experienced freelance photographers who would be willing to work for the title if it raised its job rates, which start at €20 (£13) inclusive of expenses.

Parent group Independent News & Media plc owns 165 newspapers including The Independent and Independent on Sunday in the UK, and the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday World and Irish Daily Star in the Republic of Ireland. The group has a worldwide turnover in excess of €1bn.

Friday update: The NUJ’s Irish Executive Council (IEC) has voted to refer the decision to the union’s National Executive Committee (NEC) with a recommendation that it should be rejected Read more here

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