It really sucks being a journalist these days. That’s more true than ever at the Chronicle Herald. Beleaguered newsroom staff at the daily paper are facing another blow as management walked away from the conciliation table late last week after asking unionized employees for aggressive cuts.
The paper’s latest offer to newsroom staff will not only roll back the current contract, but the size of the union as well. The Herald’s management has told the union it will lay off 30 percent of newsroom staff no matter what deal is signed. It also wants to put non-unionized staff on equal footing with unionized workers, and if union members are locked out, scabs already stand ready to replace them.
“The contract is all or nothing,” says Halifax Typographical Union local president Ingrid Bulmer. Even if the Union accepts everything contained in the Herald’s offer, Bulmer says 18 newsroom employees will still be laid off.
A release from the HTU, which represents the Herald’s 61 unionized newsroom workers, says management tabled a contract offer with significant wage cuts made through decreased pay, reduced benefits and increased working hours.
The paper’s management also wants to change the current contract’s job security clause, which right now bans non-union workers from performing the same tasks as newsroom employees.
That would in practice eliminate the very reason the union exists and open the door for any outsourced, non-union or freelance employees to do the same work as the Herald’s current reporters, photographers and editors.
“The company very much wants to see this [clause] relaxed to the point where the company has full control over when and where and how we work and whether it’s a unionized position or not,” Bulmer says.
It’s an extensive rewrite of the existing agreement, including the elimination of a clause that stipulates equal pay for equal work between male and female employees.
“The contract that they’re proposing would set us back almost 20 years in the fact of job security, of wages, management rights, those sorts of things. The company wants to be where it was pre-union.”
The 18 newsroom workers that management wants to lay off could also see their positions outsourced to the paper’s ‘custom content’ advertorial department, or simply re-created as non-union positions with lower pay.
Bruce Wark, a retired professor of journalism ethics at University of King’s College, is aware of the financial problems newspapers are facing, but says cutting jobs is not the answer. He’s also skeptical of what long-term gain there is for young journalists in accepting non-union work that replaces a unionized job.
“I have sympathy for young journalists who might need work coming out of journalism school,” he says. “At the same time, in the long term all journalists are under pressure.”
Bulmer says that the Herald’s management left the bargaining table on Friday before the union could prepare a full response to the offer. The company is now calling for provincially appointed conciliator Peter Lloyd to file a report with the Labour Department, while the union is preparing a counter.
An additional meeting is scheduled in January, at which point contract negotiations will either progress to the next stage or turn into a lockout. Sources have told The Coast that the company has already been contacting potential scabs (including former Chronicle Herald reporters) to write for the newspaper in the event of a lockout.
Freelancer writer Rebecca Rose has been organizing Halifax’s communications and media freelancers on behalf of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union. She says that should newsroom staff at the Herald be locked out, the freelancers union will be urging its members to stand in solidarity.
“We would encourage members not to cross the picket line but it’s our job as a union to explain why that is,” Rose says. “We have to have discussions about…why that would hurt us in the long term.”
Last winter, the Chronicle Herald lost 17 newsroom jobs through layoffs, buyouts and early retirements. The HTU voted in favour of employee concessions—including a reduction in mileage pay and increased employee contributions to the pension plan—as a way to stave off more job losses.
At the time, CEO Mark Lever told The Coast the cuts were about positioning the paper for the future.
Lever also predicted that there would be more people working at the Herald by the end of 2015 than at the same time last year, though cautioned that “they may be doing different things than people that are working for us today are doing.”
With files from Jacob Boon