12 APRIL 1975, Page 24


Towards sanity

Bill Grundy

A dog, I have it on the •Highest Authority, returneth to his vomit. think I need therefore make am apology for having another go at the only Fleet Street subject worth talking about this week. 1 refer, of course, to the idiotic state of affairs prevailing at that huge, red cliff of a building in Holborn, the [home of the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Sunday People, Reveille, and the Sporting Life. Walking through the building the other iday was rather like exploring one of those ghost towns in the Wild West. Solitary figures tapped disconsolately at typewriters in the forlorn hope that what they were writing would somehow appear in print. Offices usually full of folk indulging in all the manic activities that seem inseparable from producing a paper were now as silent as the grave. The metaphor is appropriate, for we may be about-to attend a funeral.

The reason for the dispute:is:that well-known Fleet Street sword, 'overmanning.' The Mirror ;management reckon there is 40 per cent overmanning in their building. The Mirror wage bill is £30 million .a year. Remove the overmanning:and you could save up to £12 million a year. A paper which is losing money — not a great deal, but still losing — would be in the black at one bound. Nearly twelve million•in the black, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The fact of overmanning is 'eonceded by everybody, even by :the Sogat members who are in dispute with the management. It has come about over many years as a restitt of cowardliness and ineptitude con the part of successive 'managements of just about every national newspaper in Fleet Street. At the very suggestion that a chapeil meeting might be held around first edition time, managements would keel over and concede whatever It was the unions wanted. Despite the existence of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, unity of thought, word and deed was Just about the last thing the membersof the Association ever indulged in.

A classic example occurred about eighteen months ago with the Sun.

Spectator April 12,1975

They'd been having machine-room Arlifficulties, with the result that they lost about a million copies a day for five days. In despair, the Sun turned to the NPA. Would the NPA support them by closing Fleet Street down? A meeting was held in the morning. It was agreed that for once the NPA would act as a united body and do as the Sun asked. A tidying-up meeting was held in the .afternoon to sort out details of the (closure. But at the end of the meeting Sir Max Aitken was seen on the steps of the NPA, announcing to television cameras that if anybody thought he was going to close the Express down for the sake of the Sun, they had another think %coming. The close-down was cancelled, the Sun gave in, the union won, and got everthing it wanted. Unity is strength. Disunity is mad. But that's the NPA all over.

It was because of incidents like that that the Mirror group left the NPA. Better to fight on your own, and on your own terms, than try to work with such a pusillanimous lot. They had a showdown with the National Graphical Association just before Christmas, and won. They had a showdown with Natsopa just after Christmas, and won, although I'm not sure Richard Briginshaw, the union general secretary, would admit it. And now they've had showdown number three with Sogat, and they've won that too.

Oh yes, they have. The formula agreed is a splendid face-saver for the union, but! can only interpret it as a Mirror victory. But putting aside the question of whether anybody won or not, the point is that common-sense has prevailed. The lunatic fact is that the Mirror employs eleven men over the age of eighty — one of them, I am credibly informed, is taken there in a wheelchair to receive his wage packet, and is then taken home again. There are 300 people over the age of sixty-five in the building. Most of these geriatric gentlemen are only part-timers, but they continue to work because Sogat, unlike other unions, doesn't withdraw a man's union card when he reaches retiring age, so they can go on working all the way to the graveyard. The Mirror would like them to enjoy a comfortable retirement, which alone would mean a saving of £100,000 a year. But Sogat insisted they must be automatically replaced if they die, retire, or (most improbably) get fired.

Well, the dispute, which cost the Mirror at least a million quid, is over. Management and union have agreed that there shall be no further recruiting until agreed staffing levels have been reached. In other words, one fine day the Mirror will have got rid of most of its 40 per cent overmanning. But not just yet. Percy Roberts, the deputy chairman of the Mirror group, estimates that it will be seven years before they reach that highly desirable situation. Nevertheless, a start has been made. It could be that we are about to experience that very rare Fleet Street phenomenon, an outbreak of commonsense.