Le Blog d'Olivier Da Lage

Effective coalitions require unity, not unification

Posted in Journalisme by odalage on 3 février 2010

La Fédération internationale des journalistes (FIJ) tiendra son prochain congrès en mai à Cadix (Espagne). Un débat stratégique capital pour l’avenir du journalisme et du syndicalisme est en cours. Certains syndicats, face à la crise, envisagent de fondre les syndicats de journalistes dans un ensemble plus vaste englobant tous les salariés des médias et de l’industrie du divertissement. Je suis d’un avis exactement contraire. Voici ma contribution à la préparation de ce congrès, que l’on peut aussi trouver sur le blog de la FIJ.

The severe crisis medias worldwide are currently going through is hitting journalists hard and we are yet to take the measure of its full extent.

This crisis is all the more severe that it is not just an economic or a financial crisis. It is also and foremost a confidence crisis whereby the public at large does no longer feel represented by the media. As a result, journalists who used to consider themselves as the vanguard of the citizens now have to win day after day the public’s trust and hence their legitimacy.

A crisis is not necessarily all that bad for unions and unionists. A small degree of crisis can provide the unions for an increased mobilisation of workers and strengthen support by workers who rally behind unionists to pressure employers into giving in to their demands.

However, when a crisis is as deep as the one we are experiencing theses days, it is altogether a very different game. While newspapers are closing, or at the very least, downsizing their staff, journalists and non-journalists alike are left with one single priority: save their individual job. To persuade them that the best way to achieve this aim is to join the union is by no means an easy sell. Not surprisingly, many amongst our unions are losing members and therefore financial resources, which puts their very existence at risk.

As I said earlier, there is no discrimination in this crisis: all media workers are feeling the blow, whether they are journalists or not. To confront this twin crisis (media and unions), the response appears to be obvious: let’s put aside our specificity as journalists and unite with other media workers in one single media and entertainment union in order to gain strength. Some of the IFJ members have already taken this path and others are in the process of following suit, as it seems the most sensible and logical solution.

Or is it?

I beg to differ.

There is no doubt that journalists need to confront this crisis shoulder to shoulder with other media workers. There is no room there for petty quarrels between unions. But to merge the journalists’ unions into a wider media union is not necessarily the answer. There is a very serious risk of diluting our specific demands, especially with regard to ethics. While being fully aware that my position is going to come as controversial and shocking to many, let me make my point, based on the experience of my union, SNJ (Syndicat national des journalistes) founded in 1918 as a journalists only union, and which is affiliated to no confederation. Moreover, SNJ does not employ one single union activist: all members, from the rank and file to the general secretary, are full time working journalists (or, sadly for some, temporarily jobless journalists). It does raise organisational problems. But the truth is that it brought about an efficiency that we would not attain otherwise: short of time, short of money, our members and leadership are left with no alternative: every effort has to pay off.

Thus, efficiency is not an aim: it is a necessity. Our leaders know the cost of being a unionist while working for an employer. Some have been sacked; many have been sidelined and marginalised by their editors and publishers. None has ever experience the gap that tends to exist after a while between the ordinary member and the leaders, because they share a common experience, with just additional trust. And last, but not least, it is a tremendous bonus in term of credibility, both vis-à-vis the employers and the government while negotiating with them, since our delegates know what they are talking about, not because they have been told by colleagues, not from past experience, but because they live it. And ethics and accountability towards the public is at the core of our preoccupations ever since SNJ published its ethical code in 1918, which is still the reference for French professional journalists.

As mentioned above, SNJ is a journalists only union, which does not belong to a confederation. But we value the need for coalition with other workers, NGO and consumers associations. We are very active in these coalitions and respected for what we are: fully legitimate in representing journalists, we respect them for what each of these organisations represent. The condition for a working coalition is that several organisations unite with a common aim that has been agreed upon. It is not the merger of all these organisations, which can and must, each of them, pursue separate goals on other issues.

The alternative to a working coalition is not just merger, it is dilution.

Olivier Da Lage
Member of the IFJ Executive Committee

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