- Joanne Park

– Joanne Park

On John Corcelli’s first day back in the CBC Broadcast Centre, the atmosphere was different from two months ago. Employees had begun the day with a victory parade around the building, complete with bagpipes, banjos and congratulations from union leaders. Corcelli missed the parade, but walked inside with a heavy feeling in his stomach. “I was kind of nervous,” he says. “It was a bit weird.”

Lower-level managers were welcoming as workers walked in, shaking hands and hugging, but there was a feeling of change. In the hallways, Corcelli ran into colleagues he’d met for the first time on the picket line, and more hellos ensued. Employees were glad to be back, but the mood was also cool and sober. It was hard to figure out where to start after being away so long. There was an internal email announcement from Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president, CBC Television, in Corcelli’s inbox, which he immediately deleted without reading.
I first meet Corcelli, a researcher for cbc.ca archives, on the Toronto picket line September 26. As federal New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton is addressing a mass of CBC workers and supporters on Parliament Hill – including 400 Toronto employees bused to Ottawa the previous night – Corcelli is out walking in Toronto with a surprising number of his colleagues. Too many to be counted, even though it’s raining and the numbers are thin compared to most Mondays. In Ottawa, Minister of Labour and Housing Joe Fontana is threatening to lock union and management teams in his office. Meanwhile, in Toronto, reporters, producers, technicians, archivists and marketing staff sport CBC-logo-adorned hats and T-shirts underneath hoods and raincoats. Some carry CBC-patterned umbrellas as they circle the massive, silent fortress.

People need their lockout pay and like to get their picketing duties over with early in the week, but those I meet today are among the most dedicated. Staff members, unaffected by negotiations focused on contract workers, are here to support their colleagues. They’re angry at the treatment these co-workers are receiving and say they’ll be out as long as it takes – though they don’t think it will take much longer. Bob MacGregor, who says he’s “well over 65” and a permanent part-time radio news host, hobbles around the building with a cane. He’s been here 12 hours – since midnight last night – and he’s still grinning and eager to talk about his love of the CBC. Lillian Hunkeler from news archives doesn’t mind picketing: “It’s almost like a small price to pay to ensure steady staff work for generations to come.”

“I’m not sure with the people we have out here that it can get depressing,” Pat Senson of Quirks & Quarks tells me. “This is very much a very educated picket line. People here are creative, full of energy and ideas. This is what we do for a living, it’s create, so when you’ve got people like that, we’re finding ways to prevent it being depressing.” Ways like a lockout bake-off, aerobics and rock concerts in the grass of Simcoe Park, a picket line burlesque show and a costume contest, which Senson won for a revealing “lockout” getup made of chains and not much else.

It’s a far cry from the shock and anger present at the start of the dispute, when union and management teams refused to speak and workers picketed knowing little progress was being made. “Aw man, it was awful, the rage, the rage on the line,” Corcelli says. “The astounded looks everybody had on their faces the first two weeks was brutal.”

But as the lockout dragged on, workers became certain of victory. A sense of calm, acceptance and cautious optimism sprung up. The general feeling was that senior management couldn’t survive without them – they didn’t have the broadcast experience and they didn’t know how to run the CBC anyway. Some locked-out workers bonded by creating a rogue CBC, with pirate radio shows, online news, podcasts and blogs. Most cemented their resolve with a perpetual mingling on the picket line. Staff from opposite departments met for the first time and plotted new ways of working together. It’s the type of integration management has always called for at the CBC, but has never been able to enforce.

Perhaps most telling about this new camaraderie is the attitude of CBC technicians. Before joining the Canadian Media Guild, technicians were represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada and the film technicians union NABET 700. The technical workers have been involved in numerous labour disputes with the CBC in recent years, and frustrated by numerous lockouts. In 2001, they were left outside the building in the snow.

This time it’s different, because the technical workers aren’t isolated from their colleagues. Doug, who works in props and staging, points out how amazing it’s been. “This is the first time everyone’s been out all together,” he says, “so it’s not like other coworkers are going by you and you really feel ostracized.”

Like their journalist colleagues, technicians and members of other departments are passionate about the future of the CBC. Doug speaks adamantly about how essential public broadcasting is to Canadians. I meet a sales and marketing employee who would support CBC television going commercial-free – even if it meant losing his job. He thinks such a move would improve the service. And Corcelli, tired out yet positive, thinks the lockout is a chance to give the CBC the redesign it’s needed for years through a performance review by the auditor general of Canada. He says the reconfiguration should involve the election of a president and board of directors by CBC employees.

Corcelli doesn’t know if he has the stomach to take on such a crusade by himself, but he spoke at the Toronto ratification meeting about the topic. There was some interest from colleagues, but no one jumped up to volunteer. Publicbroadcasting.ca, a website intended to keep up the discussion about the CBC’s future, has been launched by Justin Beach, a casual worker in Toronto who blogged the lockout. But many lockout blogs are disappearing and, though workers plan to enforce their new deal by watching management closely, settling back in at work is the priority.

Whatever happens, Corcelli believes change at the CBC will be slow. “The wounds are going to be very deep and they’re going to take an awful long time to heal. It will not be the same. We will no longer be able to trust management, because they’ve betrayed that trust. It could take months, years for management to regain the trust of the people.”