What SPH should learn from The Last Great Strike of the Straits Times Staff

41 years ago in 1971, 900 journalists and printers from the Straits Times went on strike.

Straits Times strike

And it is all captured in a book, The Last Great Strike, which covers eight days from Dec 23 to Dec 30 1971.

Members of the Singapore Printing Employees Union and Singapore National Union of Journalists refused to work until they were guaranteed a bigger bonus and better working conditions.

Journalist Clement Mesenas, who wrote the book, was branch union chairman of the journalists’ union at the time, and manned the 1971 picket lines with other union leaders.

Picket lines at Straits Times Strike 1971

He was 25, working the crime beat and only earned $400 a month, to support a wife and newborn daughter. Once he even had to make a conscious choice whether to should have roti prata telur or just prata kosong, just to save money.

He says, “We were so broke, we couldn’t even dress properly. We’d wear a pair of jeans for one whole week because it was the only pair we had.”

Mesenas reminisces, “Who cares about the strike now? It was just a group of idealistic and naive young journalists who thought they could do something to get their bonus.”

Due to the strike, The Straits Times was not printed for seven days. Another English-language newspaper, the now-defunct New Nation (not the satirical website), had to suspend publication a day earlier.

The strikers’ demands included:

– a three-month bonus, instead of the usual 13/4-month payment

– mutual respect between management, workers and union

– demands for dialogue between management and staff

“Relations between management and the unions were very sour,” says Mr Cheong Yip Seng, a former SPH editor-in-chief.

Mr Gerry De Silva, a crime reporter who joined the strike, said staff felt they were “exploited” and that “management didn’t take us seriously and didn’t care much for our welfare and career advancement”.

Strikers preparing for Straits Times strike

On the eighth day of the strike, management agreed to:

– pay workers a 2 1/2-month bonus

– to not dock pay for all the days of the strike

– hold an annual dinner for staff to show their appreciation.

Mr Peter Yeo Toon Joo, who was secretary-general of the journalists’ union in 1971, said that “The management was more prepared to listen to the union. One important thing that people could learn from this book is the value and benefit of an independent, intelligent, respected trade union movement.”

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In January 2015, the Singapore Press Holdings Employees’ Union (SPHEU) and Singapore National Union of Journalists (SNUJ) merged to form the Creative Media and Publishing Union (CMPU).

CMPU currently has a collective agreement with SPH which expires in 2018.

However, it seems like SPH has forgotten the lessons of Last Great Strike and taken the trade union for granted.

SPH job cuts 2016 retrenchment

In a statement released to the media today after SPH held its townhall to inform employees of layoffs and the merger of MyPaper and TNP, CMPU said it was “deeply concerned that union was informed about the impending retrenchments and rightsizing only half an hour before the townhall meeting”.

Does this mean the SPH management didn’t want to consider alternative ways to what they thought was the best solution: cutting jobs to save costs?

The union also shared it “will be working closely with the management to work out fair retrenchment package for our members and ensure that SPH practices responsible retrenchment by giving suitable notice period to affected workers.”

Tripartite guidelines for responsible retrenchment

But retrenchment isn’t what the union wants, because it also ‘chided’ SPH by highlighting that “responsible managements should consider and explore all alternative ways of managing their manpower where possible before cutting existing manpower.”

Guidelines for responsible retrenchment

The union is open to working with the management to explore other ways to reduce costs to save jobs, or explore redeployment of affected staff to other areas of work.

The union will also help all affected members in:

– job placement
– career coaching
– training to take on new jobs
– coping with possible financial difficulties

If SPH really cared about its staff, it shouldn’t have given the union such little time to prepare to help workers, and pretend that rumours of retrenchment were just “speculation” over the last few days.

How can we trust a media organisation that can’t even get its communications right on such an important issue such as jobs in this economic downturn?

About the author

Jules Of Singapore

I’m Jules, from Singapore. I live and work here, and although it’s a great place to be, I feel there are many issues swept under the carpet. I’m also hoping to meet other women (and men) who actively want to discuss and further the interests of women who make up half our population, but whose voices are not amplified enough.

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