A strike by hundreds of journalists at Reach has been postponed after managers at the newspaper publisher made an eleventh hour offer to resolve the dispute through a third-party arbitrator.
Editorial staff at the company, which owns the Daily Express and Daily Mirror as well as some of the UK’s largest regional titles, had planned to stage a walkout on Friday as longstanding tensions over pay and workload boil over.
The planned strike at Reach, previously known as Trinity Mirror and with assets including the Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Mail and Liverpool Echo, was set to be the first big industrial action at a large UK media group during the cost of living crisis.
However, just hours before the industrial action was due to begin, the company said on Thursday it had invited leaders at the National Union of Journalists to negotiate via the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).
While the strike on Friday will no longer go ahead, union officials warned that industrial action would proceed next Wednesday unless there was a breakthrough in the talks.
The dispute comes at a difficult time for Reach managers, who are also trying to navigate a sharp increase in newsprint costs and a slowdown in advertising revenue.
The breakdown in labour relations points to a change in fortunes for the company, which had set out plans last year to hire hundreds of journalists in response to reader interest in local news.
Shares in Reach hit their highest level since 2007 last August, driven by hopes the company had found a formula to make a successful transition to the digital era with a burgeoning line-up of free-to-read brands and strategy for consumer data collection.
Since then its prospects have soured. Shares in Reach have lost 72 per cent this year. Executives warned last month that the company was facing all-time high newsprint costs, which jumped 65 per cent in the first half of the year, as well as reduced advertiser demand.
The NUJ, which has more than 1,100 members across Reach titles, had called last December for an 8.5 per cent pay rise. Management countered with a 3 per cent offer, which was rejected by the union and led to a strike ballot. The union said its members voted overwhelmingly for industrial action.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ, said on Thursday the union welcomed the invitation to talks. Both sides would negotiate in “good faith and with a sense of urgency”, she said.
In a memo to staff, human resources director Julia Warren said: “This is a positive step and will allow us the time to spend with the NUJ in order to, hopefully, reach agreement.”
The dispute is the culmination of long-running concerns over pay in the industry and at Reach in particular. One journalist at the Daily Express said there had been “several years of anger and frustration” among staff that had “come to a head” in recent months as inflation had risen.
While the company has had some high-profile editorial successes — notably the Mirror’s scoops on the Downing Street “partygate” episode — the journalist added there was widespread concern at a reliance on “clickbait” and a lack of resources for original reporting.
A £4mn pay deal last year for chief executive Jim Mullen, who previously ran Ladbrokes Coral, has contributed to staff dissatisfaction, although people close to the company highlighted that much of the award was in deferred shares and the value of the package cited in its most recent annual report had since deteriorated substantially.
The Daily Mirror would not be as badly affected by a strike as other Reach titles. Journalists there are represented by another union, the British Association of Journalists, which voted to accept the company’s pay offer.
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