Unionization campaign at the National Post is steeped in irony, and not just because hell has frozen over

Posted on September 14, 2017, 12:41 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: A couple of strikers picket the Calgary Herald Building, proudly bearing its National Post sign, in 1999 or 2000. You’ll probably recognize one of them. The other is my friend, the late Brock Ketcham. The building is now for sale and its tiny journalistic staff is holed up, appropriately enough, in the single room that used to house the newsroom’s “morgue,” as we called the library in those days. Below: Herald journalists and their supporters, some of them quite well known, on the picket line.

Been there. Done that. Took the buyout.

“‘Hell freezes over’: National Post staff announce union drive at Postmedia’s flagship paper,” a headline on the Global News website said yesterday morning.

Less than two months from now, it’ll be the 18th anniversary of the start of the ugly eight-month strike at the Calgary Herald, a newspaper that was and is part of the same corporate fleet at the head of which the Post, rightly described as its ideological flagship, founders in the waves.

That strike ended in a humiliating defeat for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, a career disaster for many of the strikers, and a catastrophe for good journalism in Calgary and Alberta.

The ownership of the Toronto-based parent corporation changes from time to time, as the fortunes of the newspaper industry – which still seemed like a going concern back in November 1999 – decline. So does the name of the “Canada’s largest newspaper company”: Southam, Hollinger, CanWest Media, Postmedia … whatever.

But from an outsider’s perspective, it’s basically the same crowd running the company – with the same business philosophy and ideological blinders, both of which have contributed to the decline of the corporation to the point its collapse appears imminent. What about the Internet? That’s only part of the problem.

The sad-sack state of Postmedia, everyone seems to agree, is a key motivating factor behind the unionization drive at the Post – where senior editors and writers, the Global News reporter observed, “took pride in the paper’s non-unionized work environment that was seen to encourage a meritocracy.” (This was always baloney, of course, as anyone who has worked in the newspaper industry knows. But it’s comforting baloney if you happen to be one of the beneficiaries of the alleged meritocracy.)

Indeed, non-union Post staff were proud to mock the Herald’s strikers as childish socialist ninnies and occupants of a metaphorical “velvet coffin,” and to do their bit in the company’s ultimately successful effort to bust the union and force a generation of fine, experienced journalists out of the building and into new careers.

Different times, and mostly different people, I know. That’s not the irony.

The irony is that the heartfelt rhetoric of the Post’s would-be unionists today is almost identical to that of the Herald strikers in 1999 and 2000, before the strike ended in disillusionment and decertification. And it is true now, as it was then.

“We see unionizing as the best way to protect both ourselves and our readers across the country, who suffer every time the newspaper loses a great reporter, photographer, editor or designer to a buyout or a better-paid job with a competitor,” said a statement by the Post employees who are asking for a certification vote with the Communication Workers of America Canada.

The only difference between then and now is that in 1999 the writing was on the wall about what the company planned to do to its employees. Now it has all become reality – layoff after layoff, pension cuts, huge cuts to benefits, meagre buyouts, low starting pay, and an end to job security.

“We’re unionizing because we love this newspaper,” said the staff statement. “We want the Post and its newsroom staff to have long, bright futures. We have broad support among our colleagues and are planning to file for certification soon.”

Ditto at the Herald in 1999.

According to the Global account, one of the significant factors in making the success of the union drive at the Post a real possibility was disillusionment among the most experienced (and hence most valuable and at the same time most expensive) employees, who were being hit hard by the by the latest round of company cuts while Postmedia’s top managers rewarded themselves with rich bonuses for squeezing a few more drops of blood from the stone.

This too is an irony. These folks include the same people who complained endlessly in their ideological bloviations about “forced union dues” and how, at other papers, they were dragooned into unwanted union membership. (They were not. Under Ontario labour law, they had the option of not joining.)

Well, as I was taught as a lad in Sunday School, a change of heart and a sincere desire for redemption, even in extremis, is always welcomed by the angels.

And I truly hope to welcome the Post’s journalists to the union movement, and I wish them the best in confronting a difficult corporation at a difficult moment in history for a traditionally profitable industry that is unlikely to see such days again.

But I also hope they will forgive me if I say how much better off everyone in Canadian media would have been if the Calgary Herald strike had been as successful as its union drive, because, truly, a journalists’ union at the Herald would have done much to protect readers as well as employees, and to have ensured Postmedia treated the employees at its remaining non-union papers more fairly as the industry declined.

That was not to be. I am personally grateful. It got me out of the newspaper business with my health, sanity and retirement plans intact. I have proudly worked ever since for the trade union movement. Others were not so lucky.

Now? It will be a much harder row to hoe for the new trade unionists at the National Post. For many reasons, not least among them the survival of real journalism in Canada, I hope they succeed.

The author was the vice-president of CEP Local 115-A at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000. When the company succeeded in busting the union, striking employees were given the option of returning to work, a requirement of the law, or taking a buyout.

23 Comments to: Unionization campaign at the National Post is steeped in irony, and not just because hell has frozen over

  1. Andy M.

    September 14th, 2017

    As another active participant in Calgary Herald strike of 1999/2000 (and there I am with Gail Lem in one photo, and Margaret Atwood in second!) I can only admire your generosity in not being harsher about the stupidity of the new Post certification drive. We, the delusional of 17 years ago, at least imagined we had some leverage. What possibly could persuade journalists today they can extract something worthwhile from their sinking enterprise? More interesting and potentially successful certification efforts going on at places like WestJet.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 14th, 2017

      Andy: Perhaps I can be less harsh because I see more value in union membership even in an industry that is, as you correctly state, a sinking enterprise. For one thing, employees are more likely to be treated according to due process as the organization winds down, and can benefit from the representation of professional union staff in those difficult circumstances. I speak from experience when I say not all unions represent their members in the same way, and some are definitely better at it than others. That said, as you infer, Post staff need to go into this with their eyes wide open, because CWA Canada, no matter how good a union it is, cannot change the economic challenges facing newspapers as an institution or business. DJC

      Reply
      • St Albertan

        September 14th, 2017

        In my past I’ve been a union member and I’ve been management. What always seemed like a missed opportunity to me was the fact that unions don’t market themselves as human resources solution providers and that they don’t start or buy buy and run businesses to employ their members. Every time I saw staffing companies like Drake for example, I wondered why a union hadn’t stepped into that market. Do you know why they don’t? It seemed to me like many workers and employers might benefit from a union organization that offered employment placement beyond their collective bargaining unit. Is there some regulatory impediment?

        Reply
        • David Climenhaga

          September 15th, 2017

          Totally agree. Unions – no matter what you’ve been told – are profoundly conservative institutions, in the true sense of that word. This can be a positive thing, but it makes it hard for them to adopt good ideas like this. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post. DJC

          Reply
        • Northern Loon

          September 16th, 2017

          Unions have entered the marketplace with at best mixed results. Unions have a primary duty to represent their members, so when they mix being owners/bosses and attempting to represent the best interests of their members its kind of an oil and water thing where nobody is happy. Can you imagine how a company whose employees are represented by a union would react to that union setting up a competitive company? Can you imagine the members of the union when they find out that either their employer is undercutting the competition while claiming to represent them.

          Unions have a number of restrictions placed on them through court decisions as well as legislation. Our favourite blogger should really know this.

          Reply
      • Val Jobson

        September 15th, 2017

        My parents got the Herald every day for many decades, but my mother cancelled the paper for a while after she saw Conrad Black screaming at a striker on TV, someone she had known in Airdrie.

        Reply
        • David Climenhaga

          September 15th, 2017

          Good for your mom, Val. She did the right thing. The striker from Airdrie was Andy Marshall, our mild-mannered local president, pictured twice in the story, on Day 1 of the strike and with Margaret Atwood on the picket line. DJC

          Reply
          • Val Jobson

            September 15th, 2017

            I thought it might have been Andy; I’ll have to tell my mother.

  2. Bob Raynard

    September 14th, 2017

    Given the bonuses the executive have been giving themselves, there has to be a lot of resentment at the production level. That said, the same resentment has to exist at all the other papers in the chain. If the National Post staff are successful, I wonder if unionization will spread to the other papers. If so, that will make it a lot harder for the likes of Rick Bell and Lorne Gunter to complain about unionized government employees.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 14th, 2017

      I suspect Postmedia will fail before there will be another newspaper organizing drive, successful or otherwise, in Alberta. As for union membership making it harder for right-wing claptrap to emanate from the computers of unionized drivelists, you are far more optimistic than I will ever be. DJC

      Reply
      • Bob Raynard

        September 15th, 2017

        Your use of the word optimistic is very generous, David. Really, though, let me enjoy my fantasies! Now, if you will excuse me, a super model and her sister just made a very interesting suggestion…

        Reply
  3. tom in ontario

    September 14th, 2017

    Dear Blogger,

    How many of your former colleagues now pressing the “join a union” panic button were only too happy to diss the union during the 1999 strike, crossing picket lies and waving their paycheques at the window? How many welcomed the out of town replacement workers who helped break your strike?

    Nice of you to wish them the best. Some of your striking co-workers, who like you got out, might feel otherwise.

    Reply
    • Anon

      September 14th, 2017

      My organ donor card PD states that no current or former member of the Conservative/PC party or any members of their family are ever to get any of my organs in the event of my death. I will never forget or forgive them for what they were a party to during the Klein years.

      Reply
  4. Expat Albertan

    September 14th, 2017

    Don’t discount the important symbolism, even if the union drive fails – it is yet another arrow in the heart of neo-liberal market fundamentalism as the dominant ethos of the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. Alas, the zombie continues to walk the earth. Say what you want about communism, but at least when it died, it had to good sense to stay dead.

    Reply
  5. Farmer B

    September 15th, 2017

    A close relative was out for a visit the other day and somehow we got talking politics and unions. A little history here, this person had worked at the same unionized workplace for over 30 years and had just taken early retirement. This is how she summed it up for me, as a worker it is great, once you are in management it sucks. I asked why? She said because you can’t fire the dead weight. After more discussion she revealed that she had taken early retirement because of long term conflicts with a co-worker who they were unable to get rid of, so she retired. So yes I am sure unions have their benefits but they also have their drawbacks. Enjoy your day:-)

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 15th, 2017

      Farmer: As you know, I do not usually respond to comments, as I believe readers should be allowed to express disagreement. However – as a point of information, shall we say – your relative, while I am sure she is sincere in her belief, is simply mistaken when she says “dead weight” employees cannot be fired in unionized workplaces. I have worked in labour relations, first as a volunteer and now as a staff member, long enough now to know that any unionized employee not doing their job properly can be fired by an employer. The employer cannot necessarily fire employees frivolously – “she has bad breath,” “he’s too fat” – but any unionized employee who is not fulfilling his or her duties properly can be fired by any competent employer. The catch? Due process must be observed. And believe me, I have seen many employees fired for a range of legitimate and not-so-legitimate workplace offences. So your relative is right only if she means an employee can’t be fired in an instant, on a whim, when a superviser takes a notion to summarily can them. This is similar in concept and practice to the criminal justice system, about which some conservative people, like a close relative of mine, complain … until they find themselves, as he did, in conflict with the law. Then, suddenly, the idea of due process makes a lot of sense. What unions do do, and should do, is represent all employees facing discipline to the full extent of their abilities. This is because our labour relations system, like our courts, is an adversarial system. Every accused person is entitled to a conscientious defence. Indeed, it is the law. By law, unions must act this way. Does that mean an employer can’t fire an employee who doesn’t come up to snuff? Absolutely not. Perhaps your relative’s employer should have engaged the services of a competent HR director. Does a union shop cost more to operate? Not significantly, and there are savings unions can bring to employers too. For one thing, because they know how it works, volunteer union stewards can and do often correct problem employees’ behaviour before management has to intervene. More often than not they end up telling the employee who is facing discipline, “if you keep this up, they can, and they will, fire you!”

      Reply
      • September 15th, 2017

        The reverse is also true. You only have to look at the unjust firing, about a year or so ago, of a unionized rail company employee for placing and acting upon Board of Transport regulations above the mis-directions of her supervisor.

        This business of it being difficult to fire dead weight employees is true. But it is also difficult for management to unjustly fire employees. Both work in tandem with each other.

        Reply
      • anonymous

        September 16th, 2017

        Excellent comment. I once worked in a factory when I was in university. I asked one of the workers if they would be interested in forming a union. The upside was that I had my own private table in the cafeteria for the rest of the summer.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nvzEqsZIGo

        Reply
      • jerrymacgp

        September 16th, 2017

        This is probably the most articulate and best-formulated debunking of the pernicious “unions protect the lazy and the incompetent” myth I have ever read. Bravo, Sir.

        Reply
  6. Sasha

    September 15th, 2017

    Well written David. I agree with Andy that you were generous, but I understand your point of view. Time heals much, but it doesn’t alter who is/was on the right side of history. I believe we were then, and now. For me personally, the strike made all the difference in the world as I learned to value my work and my contribution to the industry. Standing up to bullies does wonders! I fear the Post union drive will not save the paper, though it may give some of the old right wing Post apologists a target to ascribe blame on its inevitable demise. And that would be a shame as those who remain at the Post are no doubt hard working journalists who deserve a chance to earn a liveable wage and have a bright future.

    Reply
  7. tom in ontario

    September 17th, 2017

    “You can’t fire a lousy teacher.” Like David I was a union rep and saw the system at its best and worst. In one case the guy could and should have been let go. But, his supervisors including principals, subject consultants, superintendents all looked the other way, refusing to gather the documentation that would have sealed his fate.

    When enough became enough, they cobbled together some irrelevant facts, gathered some unsubstantiated opinions and presented them at the arbitration. Most of the stuff the arbitrator almost laughed at. Also, the teacher’s lawyer skewered every board official during cross examination, showing up their lack of due diligence. Our union officials sat back and watched the circus. The teacher walked away, his job intact.

    As a union, we didn’t want poor teachers any more that the school board. But, if they wanted to get rid of someone, they had to give due process and do their homework. In this case and many others, they got an F minus. Which begs the question: who’s incompetent?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)