Strolling to the Rescue
The journalists at Metroland's 17 papers believed that their future lay with unionization. What they didn't figure, however, was just how long it would take for the future to arrive.
The door at the back of the boardroom opens and three more people enter. They walk briskly, shedding their coats as they head for the tables directly across from Baxter and Rogers. This trio comprises the union team, representing the Toronto based guild. One of them, Michael Mitchell, is the labor lawyer. Another, Gail Lem, is a guild organizer.
The door at the opposite end of the room opens and three more people enter. They take their seats at the front of the room. In the middle sits Susan Tacon, a vice-chairman of the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).
It has taken more than six months for Metroland, the guild and the OLRB to meet in this room, and it has been close to a year since the first Metroland employees first approached the union. And this session, in October of 1985, is just the first preliminary step, a certification hearing that will eventually set rules for the actual bargaining itself, which is still nothing more than a goal. As the Ryerson Review went to press, even those rules had not been laid down by the OLRB. And meanwhile, at the 17 newspapers in the chain, tension and disillusionment were growing among the journalists. The series of delays was taking its toll.
Mitchell speaks first and gets directly to the issue at hand, the certification of the guild at Metroland. In order to get certification, the guild must show support of at least 55 per cent of the employees by presenting signed union cards. On a chain wide basis-but perhaps not at each individual paper-the guild does have that 55 per cent support. Mitchell is arguing, therefore, that the employees should be certified as a single bargaining unit; he cites the “commonalities” shared by reporters and photographers across the chain of community newspapers-a chain that stretches from Burlington in the west to Oshawa in the east-and the simple fact that all are owned and controlled by Metroland. The guild’s position is obvious. If the OLRB evaluates the number of union cards signed on a paper-by-paper basis, then there may not be the necessary majority of employees interested in the guild at every paper. If the OLRB evaluates the papers collectively, then the total support at one newspaper could compensate for weak support at another. A larger bargaining unit would give the guild more strength and, as important as anything else, it would only have to bargain once for a contract covering all the papers.
Rogers argues, when his turn comes, that each paper is a distinct and separate entity, an individual “profit centre” for which each publisher is personally responsible. Both lawyers are persuasive, and because there are no precedents for newspaper chain bargaining in Ontario, the OLRB’s final decision will not be quickly and easily reached. The process will be further slowed while the OLRB deals with charges brought by the guild against the company.
Eventually the guild and Metroland will either reach an agreement on behalf of the editorial employees, or the guild will be beaten off. Metroland is a powerful company, a division of Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., the romance novel publishers, which in turn is owned by Torstar, controller of The Toronto Star. In 1984 Metroland was still a part of the newspaper division of Torstar, and the combined 1984 profits for The Toronto Star and Metroland were $47 million. No one at Metroland or Torstar was willing to divulge Metroland’s contribution to those profits. By comparison, the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild is a small and not-very-powerful union, but it does represent more than 2,000 editorial, maintenance, delivery, advertising, circulation and business office employees at The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The Hamilton Spectator, The Oshawa Times, The Expositor in Brantford and the Racing Form. It has represented newspaper workers in Canada since the first contract was signed between Metroland’s sister company, The Toronto Star, and the guild in 1948.
The guild and Metroland have met before, as long ago as 1981, during first attempts to establish the union at Oshawa This Week (now Oshawa/Whitby This Week) and The Post in Burlington. The attempt fizzled before contracts were ever signed. The reasons for this failure are arguable, but part of it seems to relate to the guild’s lack of resources. Which also accounts, in no small way, for the union’s less than spectacular performance in the months prior to the certification last October. The employees had begun to organize themselves in November of 1984, and were ready to go for six months before they got the union’s full attention. That gave Metroland, once it got wind of union activity, the time and opportunity to bring in changes and counter-measures. It’s impossible to estimate how much the company was able to diminish support, but it was still at least 55 per cent when certification proceedings began. The guild refuses to divulge the actual numbers. So does the company, if indeed it knows them.
If anyone at Metroland knows the figures, it’s John Baxter, the 50-year-old company president, and the man accountable to Torstar for the success or failure of the newspaper chain. Sitting in a meeting room at Metroland’s Mississauga offices, Baxter is in his element. A tall thin man, he is dressed in light-grey flannel trousers, a brilliant white shirt rolled to just three inches up the forearm, and a conservative grey striped tie. Baxter’s manner and voice are controlled and firm, and as he talks, Baxter forms a teepee with his hands and touches his fingers to his chin. When asked if Metroland has plans to stop the union, he says no such plans exist. “We feel we’re always fair to our employees.” (Salaries range from $185 to $425 a week with most earning between $250 and $350.)
The first Baxter learned about the union was a couple of weeks before the guild’s application for certification arrived in October 1985. Someone at The Toronto Star had heard that the guild was organizing and they passed the news along. “We knew if we were hearing about the union from downtown either they had us and they were applying shortly or they were close,” Baxter says. At that point the guild had its organizing done. “I wasn’t surprised at all when I heard that the union was coming in. Our sister paper, The Toronto Star, is certified.”
Most editorial employees at Metroland papers are young. Many are just out of journalism school and others are people without journalism experience who are hoping one day to break into daily newspapers. “I think, for the young people, belonging to a union is a status symbol,” Baxter says. “They want to go to the daily papers and they see some brotherhood existing, because the dailies are organized by the guild.”
Baxter’s acceptance of the guild-or his apparent non-opposition-may be based on his previous experience. In 1981 the union applied for, and received, certification for The Po:,’! in Burlington and Oshawa This Week which are now a part of the Metroland chain. And Baxter was there. In early 1981 both papers belonged to Inland Publishing. John Baxter started in the newspaper business with the Bassett family, who owned Inland, beginning in 1967 at the Toronto Telegram, where he was an assistant controller. Baxter moved to Inland as the controller in 1969, and remained there until 1980 when he went to Metrospan, a competing chain of community newspapers in and around Metropolitan Toronto, which was owned by Torstar. On Feb. 27, 1981, Torstar bought Inland from the Bassetts and merged Inland and Metrospan into Metroland. First contract negotiations between the guild and Inland had begun before Torstar took over, but they weren’t really going anywhere by both accounts.
Negotiations didn’t go much better with John Baxter as the new president of Metroland. The guild turned to the OLRB for conciliation and after no agreement was reached, a strike vote was called in Oshawa. The employees voted against a strike. No contracts were ever signed. Baxter blames the guild for the negotiation breakdown. The rush to conciliation meant “we didn’t have a chance to sit across the table from each other and get to know each other without a conciliator present,” Baxter says. He also blames the guild for refusing to accept Metroland’s final offer when it was made. “We didn’t hear anything from the union for a long time after our last offer,” Baxter says. “We read in The Toronto Sun in October 1981 that the Oshawa people had voted against a strike. Then on March 28, 1982, we got a letter from the guild saying they were willing to agree to our last offer. I said the offer was only good until midnight of the day it was offered and that it was no longer on the table. We didn’t hear from them again until the current situation.”
John Bryant was the guild organizer who negotiated on behalf of the Metroland employees in 1981, and he’s still a guild negotiator. Bryant denies that he contacted Metroland’s lawyer, almost six months after their last meeting, to accept the company’s final offer. “During our talks Metroland came up with a document they said was their final offer. We felt there was nothing in the document to enhance our position so, rather than accept it as a contract, we just let it sit.” Bryant refuses to comment on the existence of the letter of March 28 because he says he can’t remember sending it.
Between 1982, when the first guild attempt fizzled, and 1985, there was a kind of hiatus. Neither the guild nor Metroland employees took any initiative toward further unionization. “We needed a feeling from the people that they wanted to negotiate again,” Bryant says. “We have to act on the collective wishes of the employees.”
But when two employees from one Metroland paper approached the guild again in November, 1984, Bryant was hesitant to get involved. The employees, however, assured him that there was a majority at their paper interested in joining the union. The question of going after certification for the whole chain came up and Bryant said he’d have to discuss the matter with the rest of the guild’s board of directors. One of the people he spoke to was Gail Lem.
In January of 1985 Lem took on the responsibility of organizing Metroland even though she was still working full-time at the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business. Lem is a real contrast to John Baxter, a young-looking woman of average height with chin-length dark hair and a plain round face. As she launches into a speech on the plight of “the workers,” her hand moves to push her hair behind her ear in a gesture of nervousness. “I believe people need unions because the conditions under which people have to work without unions are outrageous,” she says, very simply. A grant from The Newspaper Guild, the international parent union which is affiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress, provided funds to the guild to pay part of the salary for a full-time organizer for one year. Lem got the job although she had no previous experience as a union organizer beyond her involvement on the guild’s organizing committee. She is paid within $2 of her Report on Business salary.
“We knew from the beginning that it would be a long and complex drive,” Lem said. “The 1981 experience showed us that standing alone at individual papers, as small as they were, gave us little bargaining power.” It wasn’t just a matter of two weeks work, getting the employees out, signing them up and going to the OLRB. In fact, the application for certification wasn’t filed until Oct. 4, 1985. Between January and September those first two employees to approach the guild did a lot of talking and leg work. They each approached their coworkers and workers at other papers.
In January of 1985, shortly after that first contact was made by the employees, Lem and Bryant abandoned them temporarily to organize TV Guide. “We told the Metroland people that we had this 50 person unit to get organized and then we’d be able to devote our time to Metroland,” Lem said. The guild and TV Guide, organized in March, were still discussing certification with OLRB officers last December. The guild did get back to Metroland in March, but then there was another delay: the Globe and Mail’:,’ advertising department had asked to be organized. So, Lem says, “We asked the Metroland people again if they would let us hold off until we wrapped up The Globe and Mail.”
On May 30, 1985, the guild finally started organizing Metroland employees, half-a-year after it was first approached for help. The guild took a long time to respond, Lem says, because it wanted to organize the whole chain and knew it would need a large block of time to do so. When things did get going, there was another problem to be faced: the papers were spread over great distances, forcing organizers to travel from Burlington to Newmarket to Oshawa to meet employees. But the support, as it turned out, was still there. “When we really got going,” Lem says “we found exactly what we suspected. People were totally ready to be organized.”
By mid-September, Lem had attended dozens of meetings, most of them in pizza parlors. She was there to answer questions about the union and collect the signed union cards. More than the required 55 per cent of the employees had signed cards and the union was ready to file the application. (However well the guild finally did in signing up new members, support was far from unanimous. It almost never is. Joanne Burghardt, for example, a reporter at Oshawa/Whitby This Week, who has since become a news editor, didn’t feel the guild would provide her with any help in dealing with problems that arise in the newsroom. “I prefer that the newsroom sit down and discuss things as a group,” she says. “We feel close at my paper and I don’t want an outside force tearing us apart.” At the certification hearing in October, Burghardt spoke against the union on behalf of hers elf and five other employees at the paper.)
Little time was lost in applying for, and getting, the certification hearing in October of 1985. At the end of more than six hours of debate at the hearing, the OLRB assigned two labor relations officers to the case; they were asked to investigate the legitimacy of having one bargaining unit for all the papers, and to assess eligibility for membership in the unit. This process would involve many meetings with both parties and the officers. And the process would also soon be interrupted-and stalled-by charges of unfair labor practices brought by the guild against the company.
Since the union’s presence at Metroland became known by company management, certain things started to change, and some of these changes have resulted in complaints to the OLRB.
One complaint involved two men who left The Mississauga News in November, claiming they were fired. In a deposition to the OLRB, the guild charged that one, who was hired as a summer reporter in June 1985, was, over the course of the summer, offered a full-time staff position to commence Sept. 9. On that day, the deposition stated, he was told by his editor that he would be working on a contractual basis with the News instead. On Nov. 1, the deposition stated, both he and another contractual reporter were told that their contracts were terminated effective immediately. Both reporters were offered continued work with the News on a freelance basis, it stated. On Nov. 11, Baxter said, in an interview, that he didn’t know of any of the firings at the News. He said he would have to check it out but he thought “the editor would have mentioned it to me, especially during these times with the Department of Labour.”
After some checking, Baxter said “no one in editorial at The Mississauga News has been terminated.” Baxter went on to say, “I have alerted the publishers that they have to have a strong reason to let someone go right now.”
Another of the guild’s charges involved alterations in the number of hours reporters were expected to work. At 16 of the newspapers the hours changed from 36.5 hours to 40 hours per week, the deposition stated. At the other newspaper the hours changed from 35 to 40. “I wasn’t really aware of the change,” Baxter said. “I did hear something last Wednesday though (a month after the change had been made). We’ve been doing a lot of cleaning up on payroll. One of the editors realized there was a mistake in all the slips and talked to our vice-president in charge of finance. He ordered the change.”
It didn’t have anything to do with the union, Baxter said. “Reporters are unsupervised staff. If a reporter is out of the office he could be doing his groceries for all we know. We don’t know how many hours they really work so we said it should be 40 hours and this way we can control things.”
The guild also laid charges of intimidation, alleging that one publisher in the chain, “conducted individual interviews with certain employees on Aug. 26, 27, Sept. 25, and Oct. 8, during which he gave to [employees names] pay increases which were substantially greater than the annual wage increase expected by these employees; suggested that the introduction of collective bargaining into the workplace would result in significant detriment to employees. Among other things, he suggested that a punch clock would be installed, employment expense allowances eliminated, and hiring of editorial staff done in the future on a contractual basis only; suggested that union activity on the part of any employee could lead to dismissal or non-advancement in the company; and requested that certain employees [names] use their influence with other editorial employees to prevent the complainant union from gaining support at the [newspaper] all of which above actions are in violation of ss. 64, 66 and 70 [of the Labour Relations Act].”
Even though the OLRB heard the evidence the guild had to support these claims in January, 1986, a ruling was never made. None was required, as it turned out. Metroland and the guild reached an agreement among themselves. The guild dropped all charges against the company when the two Mississauga News employees were rehired on a full-time basis. Another employee was also rehired and a woman whose maternity leave had been in question was granted the four month leave she said she had been promised. The guild’s calculated risk paid off, but it did delay the certification process for at least two months.
No matter what is ultimately decided on the certification issue, John Baxter feels confident that Metroland can accommodate unionization. “In terms of dealing with the union,” Baxter says, “It doesn’t present a problem.” The success of the negotiations will depend on how reasonable the union is, he says. “We don’t have anything against unions and, in view of our 18 year history with the Graphics Communications International Union, no one could say that.”
But after waiting more than a year-and-a-half, from the beginning of union interest to the beginning of real contract bargaining, some of the employees are losing their confidence; there is a sense of uneasiness within the prospective bargaining unit now. The months of delay have resulted in lost momentum and lost enthusiasm. So have Metroland’s alterations and/or improvements in working conditions. In the period between the October certification hearing and the hearings for the guild’s charges, it was not uncommon to hear employees adopting the cynicism of those who feel caught in the middle of two forces beyond their control.
“As a consumer of unions, I just want the best deal for me.”
“If the union fails to do a housecleaning job, then my ass is on the line and I could be out of a job.”
“If it were the ad salesmen, there would be some quick negotiations for a first contract. They [the company] don’t care about the quality of the papers, just so long as they get stuff for around the ads.”
What begins with idealism, the belief that unionization will not just better working conditions, but lead to a better newspaper, almost always passes through a cynical phase. And sometimes the whole thing just dies there-as it did five years ago at The PO.l’t in Burlington and Oshawa This Week. The longer things drag on, as they have since the employees first sought out the guild, the more likely that conclusion becomes.
by Arlene Waite
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.