Guild by Association
Why is organized labour such a pain? A noted editor attacks newspaper unions
WILL GREED KILL NEWSPAPERS? asked the 24-point headline on the ad in last spring’s Ryerson Review. It begged the answer that the ad, sponsored by the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, wanted, and then answered itself. According to the guild, the blame for the so-called dwindling credibility of newspapers must be placed on the desk of “profit-blinded publishers” who “are cutting staff and resources.”
I suppose that the guild, ever mindful of the mandate of all self-serving organizations-keeping itself in business believes that publishers and newspaper managers are gleefully reorganizing resources and firing staff. Indeed, the tone of such comments suggests that newspaper management goes about its daily task with a joyous song on its collective lips. But like hierarchical and power-based management, the day of the union is past. One would assume, given that the membership of the guild includes some of the country’s most prestigious and accomplished reporters, that one of them would have notified the union that it either gets on the side of inclusive and vision-oriented management or it dies along with the notion of lifetime sinecure.
Those “profit-blinded” publishers, for the most part, are doing nothing more nefarious than trying to save a business. It shouldn’t be necessary to give unions a lesson in Economics 101: Make a profit or be shut down; show the shareholders in your company that their money is in good hands and their trust is not misplaced or close the doors. It is that simple. Newspapers, magazines, and the electronic media are not run as some social service. We ask ordinary Canadians, with their pension funds and cold cash, to trust us with their investment. They have a right to ask for a return on that investment. Or do unions still hold the attitude that they’d sooner kill the business than make allowances? Like thousands of other employees of Southam, I have trusted the senior management of the company to look after my stake in the company. It is money that I have personally invested and that other managers-much more senior and much more saddled with responsibility-are charged with protecting.
It is necessary to know that I work as a manager at a non-guild newspaper in a province that, to put it charitably, is not exactly union heaven. It is also necessary to know that personally I am opposed to unions, while acknowledging their historic contribution to the labour movement and to the better quality of working life in general. But I believe they are an anachronism for most businesses, an anachronism that perpetuates the myth that all management is, by its very nature, out to screw the worker. Why is it, I wonder, that union-supporters never see unions as themselves out to screw business, forcing unreasonable demands at the threat of a strike? Furthermore, Unions should be anathema for journalists. They tarnish us and our reputation. They make us beholden ~ to a point of view, to one side of any discussion. If we want or need an organization to speak for the workers in our newsrooms, then let us organize ourselves the way that doctors and lawyers do-professionals police themselves. Professionals establish their own standards and practise codified ethical behaviour. We do not do the same work as truckers and mailers, we do not, except to the extent that we stand or fall together as a business, share concerns of the circulation department or business services. Under no circumstances should we belong to the same union as these departments.
Traditional adversarial thinking, the sort that unions thrive on, has no place in the newsroom of tomorrow. There is only room for cooperation, for consultation, and for a common commitment to do more with less. Because so many unions have, at least on the surface, refused to change, they have become blockers. Obstacles to get around. At the very least, like plastic silverware, military intelligence, or tight slacks, “journalists’ union” is an oxymoron.
More than anything else, now that we have moved into the realm of snooping into the past lives of people we write about, we must be above reproach. If not clean, then at least truthful with the audience. If not above reproach, then honest in association. At least set the tare weight, so that our readers and listeners and viewers know the influences on our life, rather than merely the influences on our subjects’ lives. Why should our own union membership be considered sacrosanct? Should we expect to be assumed unbiased when we carry the card of a labour movement that has a political agenda all its own? Oh, I am supposed to believe in your fairness because you tell me you can be objective. This when we ask other people to prove their objectivity? Who, exactly, do we believe we are?
If there was a need to solidify my antiunion beliefs, such an opportunity was presented to all who attended the Centre for Investigative Journalism convention in Vancouver in the spring of 1986. Glenn Babb, at that time the South African ambassador to Canada, was a member of a panel on press censorship and apartheid; the discussion was about free speech in South Africa. The B.C. Federation of Labour urged unionized journalists to boycott the convention, and in response some Vancouver members picketed the CIJ meeting. They would muzzle Babb because his country and its government and policies were repugnant to them. None saw the irony in their attempts to silence a panel on press censorship.
I find no dichotomy in respecting the individual-friends who are guild members, many of whom have no choice about union membership-while having contempt for the union. No organization that would condone a press demonstration against freedom of speech is worth the powder to blow it to hell.
Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ