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The Role of Unions in a Changing Journalistic Work Environment

The post-lunch session at ANZCA 2017 starts with a paper by Penny O'Donnell, on the continuing transformation of journalism. She suggests that journalism unions still play an important role in promoting occupational cohesion and jurisdictional control over what is journalism, even in spite of the substantial changes to journalistic practices.

Penny's study builds on the New Beats study, which examined newly redundant Australian journalists. Some 3,000 journalism jobs, or a third of the total workforce, have been lost within five years; often this has been facilitated through voluntary redundancies, partly as a result of negotiations between employers and the key journalism union Media, Entertainment, and Arts Alliance (MEAA). This is even in spite of significantly declining union membership levels over the past three decades.

What is the role of unions in the rapidly restructuring workplace of journalism, then? Canadian studies have found that unionised journalists had higher incomes, better employment benefits, and better work/life balance; in Australia the differences may be less stark because through enterprise bargaining processes even non-unionised workers still benefit from the working conditions negotiated by journalism unions.

Further, a less tangible outcome of unionisation may be the definition and maintenance of professional identities, even at a time of rapid change; union structures and activities introduce a level of inertia through everyday their engagement with questions such as "who is a journalist?" and "what is journalism?"

This is a form of boundary management, and as a result unions also have a vested interest in maintaining an industry structure that supports the large and stratified workplaces where such boundary management practices are necessary and prominent. By contrast, in smaller and especially in born-digital workplaces there is considerably less unionisation – and unions have traditionally done relatively little to reach out to the younger staff with less conventional training and work histories that are common to such workplaces; this, however, may be changing.

Journalist unions have a long history (going back to 1910 in the Australian case), but their membership is declining; in the MEAA, which covers a range of media professions, journalists now no longer constitute the largest group of members. At the same time, the workforce and remuneration of journalistic workers still remains greater than that in Internet publishing, for instance.

The transformation of journalism has also been driven largely by market forces rather than by normative ideals of what journalism is or should be, and in spite of considerable occupational consensus within unions about how their members define journalism, this is not necessarily reflected in the corporate choices made by media organisations. Australia is now at considerable risk of losing a further substantial chunk of its remaining public interest journalism workforce and outlets, against a very limited amount of public opposition or outcry – and unions like the MEAA represent one of the last remaining forces working against that loss.