Saturday 8 December 2012

The day ST presses stopped

Journalist Clement Mesenas covers the 1971 walkout by journalists in The Last Great Strike
By Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2012

The Straits Times presses never stop, except for one week 41 years ago, when 900 journalists and printers went on strike here for more pay and better working conditions.

Journalist Clement Mesenas, one of the union leaders manning the 1971 picket lines, has written an account of the walkout in The Last Great Strike, launched today by Marshall Cavendish Editions at The Arts House. "Several thousand copies" have been printed, says the publisher.

The 66-year-old tells Life! that the book took him four decades to write because he used to be "apprehensive about putting words down on paper about a subject that some might find offensive".

He left Singapore in 1979 for 20 years in newsrooms in the Middle East. In the 1990s, while he was deputy editor of Gulf News in Dubai, he turned down an invitation from the late historian Mary Turnbull to write about the strike for her 1995 history of The Straits Times, Dateline Singapore. Last year, however, when he retired from MediaCorp Publishing after 11 years there as an editor, he wrote a first draft of The Last Great Strike in two months.

"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," he says.

He adds that he had no idea that the book would come out just as a group of SMRT bus drivers are facing charges for instigating an illegal strike. Last week, 171 SMRT bus drivers from China refused to go to work over a pay dispute.

The Last Great Strike covers eight days in 1971, from Dec 23 to Dec 30, when 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. Mesenas was branch union chairman of the journalists' union at the time.

The book has photographs of the strikers outside Times House, ST's former headquarters in Kim Seng Road, and input from 17 former colleagues Mesenas asked for help. They include Mr Cheong Yip Seng, former editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division, and retired PR consultant Peter Yeo Toon Joo, who was secretary-general of the journalists' union in 1971.

As a result of the strike, The Straits Times was not printed for seven days, while another English-language newspaper, the now-defunct New Nation, had to suspend publication a day earlier.

According to the commemorative Strike Magazine published by the journalists' union, the strikers' demands included a three-month bonus, instead of the usual 13/4-month payment, and a call for "mutual respect" between management, workers and union.

Mesenas recalls in the book "lean and hungry years where a conscious choice had to be made whether one should have roti prata with egg or prata without egg" just to save money. Then 25, he was on The Straits Times' crime desk and earned $400 a month to support a wife and newborn daughter.

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."

Also high on the strikers' agenda were demands for "dialogue between management and staff".

"Relations between management and the unions were very sour," says Mr Cheong, now 69, in an e-mail interview with Life!. Mr Cheong, who retired in 2006, held a senior position at the newsdesk in 1971 and was not a union member during the time of the strike.

Staff felt they were "exploited" and that "management didn't take us seriously and didn't care much for our welfare and career advancement", Mr Gerry De Silva, 63, told Life!. He is the head of corporate affairs at Hong Leong Group, and was a crime reporter on the picket lines in 1971.

On Dec 23 that year, he and other journalists, led by Mr Yeo, walked out of Times House. Though strikers called out slogans and occasionally hurled abuse at senior management, strike leaders were careful to manage tempers so that no violence or destruction of property occurred.

On Dec 30, management agreed to pay workers a 21/2-month bonus, to not dock pay for all the days of the strike and hold an annual dinner for staff to show their appreciation. "Monetarily, we did make some improvement," says Mesenas. "We also laid a framework for the company to negotiate with us."

Mr Yeo agrees. "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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