I have held memberships in several unions over the course of my working life – writers’ unions, musicians’ unions, broadcasters’ unions – yet I never considered myself a trade unionist until I joined forces with my journalistic colleagues to bring a union into the hitherto non-unionized newsroom of the Calgary Herald.
That organizing initiative began 13 years ago and – though it ultimately ended in defeat – I look back upon it now as one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. I had worked at the Herald for 24 years as a staff writer, and the union drive gave me a sense of empowerment I had never felt before as an employee. I cover the story in some detail in a chapter of my memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, just published by the estimable RMB | Rocky Mountain Books. The labour action I describe was kindled in a cauldron of repressed anger and frustration, gleamed for an instant as a flame of hope and shared purpose, and finally was extinguished for reasons beyond the control of those of us who dearly wanted to keep it burning.
It happened during a time, in the late 1990s, when daily newspapers were no longer what they had been for 100 years: a guaranteed source of profit, a licence to print money as we used to say. Now they were printing in red ink, losing advertisers to television, and losing readers – especially younger readers – to the blandishments of the newly arrived World Wide Web.
The Herald came through these industry perils relatively unscathed. Because it is located in one of the more affluent cities in Canada, the newspaper continued to generate profits of between $30 and $40 million annually while its sister papers in the Southam (now, Postmedia) chain were posting total annual losses of more than $150 million. However, the Southam bosses could not sit idly by while several of their holdings suffered financially. So they siphoned profits from the Herald and ordered the paper to cut costs.
It was not long before we felt the direct impact of these cuts in the Herald newsroom. First we had a round of voluntary layoffs. Then we were told that expense accounts and travel budgets were being shaved. Finally – after more layoffs and some changes in corporate ownership and senior Herald management – we were told that our primary purpose was no longer to produce award-winning journalism, but to keep advertisers, government leaders and corporate clients happy. We were now to view ourselves as “content providers.” Before, we had thought of ourselves as the newspaper equivalent of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, we were playing in a kazoo band. When we tried to express our concerns to management, we were told they had no interest in listening to us as a group. Dignity went out the window, along with respect. That was the point at which we asked the union – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) of Canada – for help.
The CEP reps warned us that a first contract would not be easy to obtain. It would take at least 18 months of tough bargaining, and we would have to fight hard for every clause that was not about management rights. But at the end of the day we would have what most major newsrooms in Canada already had: an equitable agreement with a legally mandated grievance procedure and guaranteed rights and protections for the employees.
We never achieved our goal. Weak provincial labour laws – no compulsory first-contract arbitration, no anti-scab legislation – and an unyielding employer combined to keep us from getting a first collective agreement. After an eight-month lockout and strike, our union local was dissolved and most of the 93 journalists who had walked the picket line for the duration opted not to return to work.
Some people had told us we were crazy to take strike action against the company. “You are jumping off a cliff,” they said. But we felt it was the only tool we had left to bring the company to the table to deal with our grievances. There are some battles that you fight, not because you think you can win, but because you know it is the right thing to do. The defenders of the Alamo – who as legend holds opted to stay and fight – could have gotten on their horses and ridden away. We could have done likewise but chose not to. This was our hill to die on.
Though the outcome was dispiriting, the experience for me was gratifying. Through it all, I gained a deeper appreciation for the collective efforts that had led to previous generations of unionized employees obtaining benefits that we now take for granted: an eight-hour day, five-day week, minimum wages, workplace health and safety regulations, unemployment insurance, paid vacations and company pension plans.
The Herald has moved on and so have I. But nobody has told this story before and it is an insider story that demands to be told. That is why I have included it in my memoirs. Maybe it will provide food for thought for – among others – those construction industry leaders who are currently asking the Alberta government to make the province’s already weak labour laws even weaker.
Leaving Dublin is available from Amazon.ca and wherever else fine books are sold.
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Copyright 2011 Brian Brennan - Writer