Julie Alnwick
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State of the Union

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Billion-dollar mergers are changing the nature of labour relations. In the face of nationwide media empires, can journalists rely on unions to address their concerns?

The day national columnist Catherine Ford returned to work after the Calgary Herald strike ended last summer, it was as though she’d stepped into a completely different office. Ford, who has worked at the Herald since 1981, hadn’t seen the inside of the brick building on Calgary’s 16th Street S.E. since November 8, 1999. A member of the editorial board, she had written her thrice-weekly column from her basement for eight and a half months with only her husband and her laptop for company. Now she could finally head to the office without crossing a picket line. But instead of a homecoming, her first day back turned out to be more of a “getting-to-know-you” affair: she barely recognized a soul. That’s not surprising-according to the most conservative estimates, of the approximately 160 people who first walked out, fewer than half returned.

Other elements of the post-strike Herald were different as well. For one thing, the desking system had changed-instead of individual editors of content and copy in each department, a smaller pool of editors would work on the copy en masse. Certain beats had been eliminated altogether: the religion department, the books section and television criticism now fell under the domain of general-assignment reporting. And staff had been cut in other editorial departments, such as sports (although management refused to confirm numbers and declined to comment for this article).

Employees at the Calgary Herald sought a union late in 1998 because they felt senior management was modifying editorial content of news to suit corporate interests. They were also concerned about the use of freelance workers and about job security for more experienced journalists. When the fledgling local 115A of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP) failed to negotiate a first contract with management at Southam Inc., it called a strike. On June 30 last year, after a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful fight, 89 of the 93 members of the union voted on whether to accept an offer that would force them to disband. More than two-thirds voted yes.

The picket lines outside the Herald office disappeared. But in the newsroom, it was hardly business as usual. The strike had led to the replacement of most of the staff of the paper. Many ended up leaving with handsome buyout packages, some for other newspapers such as The Globe and Mail, others to freelance. Several write for Business Edge, a Calgary-based business newspaper founded by three former Herald employees. Some, like David Climenhaga, the former night city editor and the vice-president of the union, have taken a hiatus from journalism-Climenhaga is now the director of corporate communications for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. All have one thing in common: they got a bitter lesson in Labour Relations 101.

Over the past 10 years, there have been strikes at at least eight daily newspwapers and radio and television stations across the country. The most recent of these was the notorious Herald strike. But there was also the Toronto Star strike in 1992, where 12 employees in the delivery and circulation departments were temporarily fired for incidents of picket-line violence; The Oshawa Times strike in 1994, which convinced Thomson Corp. to end the paper’s 123-year run and put its journalists out of work; and the technicians’ strike at the CBC in early 1999, which resulted in frequent technical difficulties and abbreviated newscasts because of the lack of camera operators, editors, sound technicians and lighting personnel, but had little effect, save for dividing the loyalties of staff members.

The strikes strained relationships between employees and management and tested the bonds of brotherhood between fellow workers. In the end, most did not end up winning many of their journalists’ demands, compelling some to question the effectiveness of unions in today’s newsrooms. In the age of convergence, media workplaces have changed-in the same way that workplaces everywhere have changed. And unions haven’t necessarily kept pace. “I don’t think that journalists have done generally as good a job, say, as nurses or teachers in protecting their craft,” says Peter Murdoch, the national vice-president of media at CEP. The lavish marriages of CanWest Global to Hollinger and BCE to Thomson are creating wealthy, powerful negotiators who seem disinclined to accommodate traditional labour organizations and their demands, and have the resources to keep unions out as well as to weather bitter strikes. Most newsroom unions, on the other hand, were put in place decades ago and continue to rely primarily on conventional structures and strategies. “Media workers have to change the way they deal with these companies in order to maintain our clout at the bargaining table and improve working conditions,” says Gail Lem, a national representative with the CEP and the former vice-president of media. The question is, will the unions make that transition?

Gail Lem was one of the union’s media spokespeople during the Calgary Herald strike and the CBC technicians’ strike. She was also the president of the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild (SONG) when The Toronto Star went on strike in 1992, and recalls that staffers there were making the usual demands for wage increases and job security, but also fighting the layoffs of 92 delivery drivers after the Star’s management had decided it would be more financially expeditious to contract out their work. The two parties resolved those issues within two weeks-only to have workers stay out three weeks longer when Torstar Corp. threatened to fire a dozen people who had participated in picket-line vandalism. (The Star accused them of smashing truck headlights with a crowbar, throwing rocks and a bottle at a security guard, forcing Star vehicles off the road, and threatening drivers with physical violence. Charges were laid in at least one case.)

Peter Cheney, then a feature writer for the Star, who worked on the strike paper, The Merry Picket, remembers the enthusiasm and camaraderie among workers in the early days of the strike. Randy Starkman, a sportswriter for the Star, showed up one morning in his four-wheel-drive truck with a waffle-maker in the back to serve breakfast to the pickets. As the strike dragged on, however, their spirited resolve gave way. “The strike really polarized these two cultures of people, the ownership of the paper and the union,” says Cheney, who now works as an investigative reporter and feature writer for The Globe and Mail. He felt the picket lines marked where he stood at the newspaper. Although he had always been treated well by management, the strike served to teach him his “place”: “All of a sudden, I felt like some peasant laying siege to a castle and having boiling oil poured down the walls on me.”

When the strike was over, journalists on both sides of the picket line were still angry. Sid Adilman, an entertainment columnist who isn’t a member of the local, had faced down rowdy picketers every day on his way to work. At night, a union colleague sporadically phoned his house and hurled racial slurs at his wife, who is Asian. On another occasion, someone threw an egg at him. As Adilman stood there, yolk splattered all over his clothes, a colleague whom he considered a friend chortled with glee at seeing a “scab” humiliated so publicly. Since the strike, Adilman has rarely spoken to some union staffers. “What a strike does, it tears the fabric of working relationships,” says Adilman in a measured tone. Cheney would agree. “I found it difficult to have the same relationship to the newspaper after it was over, because I felt that I had been made to feel like the enemy. I had never felt that way before,” he says, although his relationship with management did eventually improve.

The Star’s union was not blameless in its approach. In 1991, the year before the strike, the paper was making a great deal of money, and the problems that spurred the strike the next year were just as evident. Nevertheless, the union stayed put-only to walk out in the midst of a province-wide recession in 1992, a difficult time for staffers to cope and for union heads to negotiate. “The union wasn’t in a position to carry a strike because of the economy, and because it simply wasn’t prepared to take on a company like Torstar,” says Dan Smith, the books editor at the Star.

The company, for its part, came out of the strike largely unhurt. Although management didn’t hire replacement workers, the paper continued to publish with editors and nonunionized staffers filling in for those on strike. Only on June 27, when strikers blocked pressroom workers from entering the building, was the paper unable to publish a news section. On July 9, 1992, the Star and SONG agreed on a contract that reinstated all 12 employees who had been fired, although each was suspended for one month. The union secured improved layoff packages for the delivery drivers but had to compromise on the issue of contracting out. The strike lasted 31 days, earning employees what Smith terms a “$6,000 T-shirt.” He figures the action cost him at least that much in pay.

That summer, picketing workers at The Sault Star in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, paid an equally high price for their strike. In their case, management was more adept in its attempts to bust the strike. During the 11-week walkout by virtually the entire staff, the Star’s owner, Southam, flew in managers from all over the country in order to publish the paper, much as it would seven years later during the Calgary Herald strike. In return, scabs were ferried around in a fleet of white Buicks rented by the company, given individual suites at the Holiday Inn and flown to see their families on the weekends. Workers were incensed at this free-flowing spending when they couldn’t get dribs and drabs to put together a buyout package for their composing room. And they were really shocked when the paper convinced several students who were on co-op placements at the paper to scab over the summer, giving them full-time jobs as reporters. “We thought it was unconscionable that they would use kids to fight their battle against the workers,” says Linda Richardson, who has been president of the Star’s guild for about 15 years. As a result, the union didn’t allow any students in the newsroom until last November, when it accepted its first co-op student in over eight years.

In the end, the union did achieve some of its objectives: staff in the newsroom, photography and other departments got a seven percent pay increase over three years, as well as a cost-of-living allowance and job guarantees up to age 62. Linda Richardson considered it a victory: “We walked in with our heads held high,” she says. “Our motto throughout the strike had been ‘Standing tall, wall-to-wall,’ and we felt we’d done that when we went back in there.” Still, tensions ran high when they returned to work and the union was unsuccessful in maintaining its gains in the long-term: according to some staffers, working conditions at the paper have deteriorated considerably. Despite the job guarantees, the staff size has decreased by about a third since the strike occurred. The photography equipment is so old that when the processor broke down last October, no one could find another compatible with their cameras. Instead, photographers were dropping their pictures off at a one-hour photo shop. And local news coverage has suffered-the paper frequently doesn’t have the staff to fully cover spot news events.

Workers at The Oshawa Times faced an even harsher reality when they hit the picket lines two years later in 1994. Three unions represented different areas of the paper. Although SONG represented the majority, it was fighting for a wage increase it would never get. (The previous contract had given workers raises of six percent each year for three years, and Thomson Corp., facing financial hardship, refused to pay more.) The paper was on strike for three weeks when Thomson shocked workers by closing the 123-year-old paper for good. When publisher Mac Dundas announced the shutdown, many workers were in a daze. They returned to their cars to find that local parking officials had ticketed everyone for illegal parking-an appropriate end to a day on which about 80 people were put out of work. “I felt like my knees had been chopped off,” recalls Brian Legree, who was the Times’s sports editor, then expecting his first child. The union asked him to co-edit the Oshawa Independent, the strike paper they hoped would eventually replace the Times. He only lasted three months. “There was no security,” says Legree. “There was hope, there was optimism, but I had a one-month-old child at home.” Instead, he headed to Oshawa This Week, a newspaper that serves Oshawa and Whitby that’s published four times a week. Nine months after its inception, the Independent folded, having failed to get the support of local investors, and Oshawa, a city with more than 142,000 people, hasn’t had a daily since.

At many other papers, corporations have been able to consolidate resources and negotiate more toughly. Copy sharing at chains such as Southam, for example, means that The Edmonton Journal, say, can pick up movie reviews, hard news or weekly columns from the Ottawa Citizen or The Vancouver Sun, making do with fewer reporters of its own. As the CEP’s Gail Lem points out, there are fewer eyes and ears reporting on things, which deeply affects news coverage, but readers-who only see the reporter’s byline-often aren’t any the wiser. Unions, in contrast, have not been successful in pooling their strengths. In fact, the wide range of talent needed to put together a paper or a broadcast is often represented by diverse unions, and management plays that to its advantage. “I hate to sound cynical,” says Lem, “but companies will use anything they can, and dividing and conquering is a company strategy.” Lem was one of the spokespeople during the CBC technicians’ strike in 1999, a case in which the CBC drove a wedge between two of its unions.

When their contract with the CBC expired in 1996, the technicians, who are represented by the CEP, chose to bargain jointly with the Canadian Media Guild, the union that represents the writers, editors and reporters. (In newsrooms such as the Trinity- and Sterling-owned papers in British Columbia, members of the CEP, the province-wide media union, have often bargained jointly with the Graphic Communications International Union, achieving considerable success.) At the CBC, the two unions agreed that cross-unit work would be allowed for the first time in CBC’s newsroom. Now a reporter could do her own editing, just as a camera operator could report on a story. The CEP realized, too late, that the technicians would bear the brunt of the job losses. “There have been layoffs of technicians every year since 1984,” says Mike Sullivan, a CEP national representative who served as the union’s chief negotiator during the strike. “The CBC had apparently made a decision prior to that strike of attacking the technical ranks more vigorously than the production ranks.”

Naturally, technicians felt cheated; the guild had gotten the better part of the deal, eroding the power of CEP during those negotiations. “We really stuck our necks out by agreeing to cross-unit work,” says Steve Athey, a CBC technician and the president of CEP Local 71M. “The fear was that if we were to bargain jointly again, the union would be watered down that much more.” On February 17, 1999, 2,000 technicians walked out for six weeks, leaving the guild to negotiate its own contract on behalf of its 3,300 journalists.

During the technicians’ strike, the guild was extremely supportive of the CEP’s efforts, providing financial backing in the six-figure range as well as offering symbolic gestures, such as barbecues where Peter Mansbridge and other CBC notables served as the chefs. In the first few days of the strike, over 1,000 guild workers also refused to enter the CBC building in Toronto, returning to work only after being threatened with a court injunction. But this solidarity proved to be more showy than serviceable; while CEP members were enjoying the brisk spring air outside the CBC building, the company took the opportunity to negotiate a contract that provided guild members with a nine percent wage increase over three years, as well as concessions on both job security and freelancing. The day the CBC settled with the guild, the company returned to the table with Mike Sullivan and offered him less than the guild had received without even going on strike. The message was clear: they could get by without technicians, but not without on-air talent. “There are a lot of people who felt very betrayed by the guild, and not for the first time,” says Ori Siegel, who has been a television technician at the CBC for almost 20 years. Some took the view that guild members had prospered by stepping over their technical peers and using the CEP strike as leverage for their own bargaining purposes.

Many union leaders believe the traditional approaches need to change if labour is going to be more effective. When the Calgary Herald strike ended last summer, the new union’s head, Andy Marshall, came out of it saying that “just going out on strike and obeying the law is a mug’s game,” because conglomerates with deep pockets are pretty skilled at union-busting. When Marshall and others such as David Climenhaga started at the Calgary Herald, they found it a good place to work. Their co-workers were respectful, and the newsroom was committed to quality journalism. Somewhere over the years, however, things started to sour. Reporters grew frustrated that editors were rewriting their stories. Some, including Marshall, felt that management was looking to push senior reporters out of the newsroom in favour of cheaper, inexperienced writers; he remembers senior editor Crosbie Cotton frequently walking around the office telling reporters, “We can get two crackerjacks for one of you people.” So when the CEP came a-calling, it wasn’t surprising that Climenhaga was the first to sign a union card, or that Marshall eventually became president. They endured the bitter months on the picket line together. When the local shut down, Marshall took a time-out from journalism; Climenhaga also left, with a real distaste for the Herald’s bargaining tactics (he charges that the company had never intended to bargain in good faith).

But Climenhaga also has complaints with how the union conducted the strike. “I think the CEP miscalculated gravely,” he says. “The situation had become so bad at the Herald that it was like a ripe plum that fell into their hands, and they just couldn’t resist taking a bite right away.” Naomi Lakritz, an editorial writer who was heavily involved in the strike, staying out until the very end, has also expressed her frustrations with the process. She refused to comment for this story (she felt it would be unethical, given that she’d returned to work at the Herald), but in a letter to The Globe and Mail last July, she accused senior Herald employees on the bargaining committee of passing up a decent first contract because they would stand to gain financially from lucrative buyout packages. She alleged that the Herald union’s entire bargaining committee threatened to quit if other union members voted to accept the contract. “There is nothing honourable in what they did,” she fumed. “They betrayed their fellow union members and undermined the principles of solidarity that they had been piously preaching up to that day.”

Other observers faulted the CEP for trying to unionize the Herald at all, given Alberta’s rigid labour laws and the precedent of strikes at other Southam papers, such as The Sault Star, and argued that the administrative decisions that led to “drive-by editing” practices had already been dealt with. “The primary reasons, as I see them, for the union starting here in the first place had to do with some disputes over management policies,” says Larry Wood, who was a member of the Herald’s union from the beginning, but was later promoted to a management position as the sports editor. “Those managers have long since been gonzoed. In fact, they were gone before the union even threatened to go on strike.” Journalists at other media outlets have also voiced dissatisfaction with the labour organizations that work on their behalf. “I think the union has done some good things, but in the last 15 years or so, it’s become increasingly alienated from the real lives of working journalists,” argues Peter Cheney of The Globe and Mail. But that disconnect may, in part, be a result of a lack of involvement in unions by media workers themselves. David Climenhaga places part of the blame for deteriorating working conditions in newsrooms on the failure of journalists to act in unison. “Media people are hard to organize and keep organized, because they operate from the foolish delusion that they can do better on their own,” says Climenhaga. “They know in their hearts that if they demonstrated some solidarity and some common sense, they’d be better off, but when it gets down to the crunch, they don’t.” Of course, there are some journalists who, finding themselves dissatisfied with the way their unions have operated, have taken the lead. Dan Smith, The Toronto Star’s books editor, is one-following the 1992 strike, he became the union’s secretary to try to figure out a better way to run a labour organization.

Perhaps the biggest problem that faces traditional unions is structural. Associations like the guild and the CEP are nationally based with thousands of members, but these members tend to operate in cells on a localized level, each media outlet negotiating individually with companies, with no access to the kind of resources that corporations have-like seeking replacement workers. Conflicts also arise because of dissimilar regional interests. “We’re a very regionalized union,” says Ori Siegel of the CBC. “The problem is that a person working in Halifax or Saskatoon making theoretically what I’m making in Toronto has a much easier time to live on that income.”

Some union leaders have recognized the difficulties of negotiating this way, and Gail Lem and Peter Murdoch believe that building strong national structures is the only way unions can battle big media. (The CEP itself is a product of a 1992 merger of the major unions that existed in the pulp and paper industry, the chemical and energy industry and the telecommunications industry.) Murdoch was elected the vice-president of media at the CEP shortly after the collapse of the Herald strike, and he believes changes are necessary. “We are going to have to turn our minds to protecting the craft of journalism in the face of convergence mania,” he says firmly. He believes that by bargaining on a more national level and harmonizing the labour interests of diverse areas, unions will become powerful again, prepared to cope with the mergers of Global/Hollinger, BCE/Thomson and their kind. Gail Lem, his predecessor, agrees. “What I’ve been saying for years, and what there is growing support for, is sitting down across the country, rather than local by local with the same company,” remarks Lem, who says that the CEP is already working toward this brand of national bargaining with companies such as CTV and CanWest Global. “Why would we continue to act as if we’re bargaining with BCTV,” she explains, “when we’re really bargaining with CanWest?”

Of course, the success of any new approach also depends on the willingness of those convergence-minded companies to cooperate. Smith says that recently, in exchange for allowing up to 15 or 16 nonunionized students into the Star newsroom in the place of full-time staff, the union negotiated a freelance clause in its contract that stated that any routine reporting inside the Greater Toronto Area had to be done by union staff. Smith says the company broke the clause almost immediately. “There we were, dangling interns in front of them with the expectation that they’d pony up on the freelance side of things,” says Smith, “and they never made more than a token effort to live up to their freelance commitments.” As the union’s unit secretary, Smith tried taking a velvet-glove approach to union relations, dispensing with formalities like grievances and injunctions in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. According to Smith, his open- door strategy, in which the union acts as a mediator between management and staff, saved both the paper and the union a fortune in legal fees since the strike. The idea was to have some give-and-take in order to keep both sides happy. But since then, Smith has returned to a more traditional union stance, filing more grievances in two weeks in November than he had in the past 10 years. And he says he is just about ready to abandon his easygoing style of labour relations in favour of the old, flawed, inflexible routine. The Star’s contract with the union expires this year, as does the CBC’s collective agreement. “If they give us no choice, and they reject the alternative that we’ve tried very hard to build in the wake of the examples, to hell with them,” challenges Smith. “Come on down.”

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