Simon Sung grew up reading Ming Pao. Mind you, that was in Hong Kong. Back then he never imagined he’d one day be heading the union, CEP Local 87-M, at the newspaper’s Toronto office.
For more than a year, Ming Pao employees fought, first for a union, then for a contract. Sung, a 33-year-old graphic designer and George Brown College graduate, is and was a key player in this journey.
When we meet, he’s quick to point out that he didn’t initiate the process. At first, he says, “I did not know what unions about. I’m young, I don’t know much about unions. I know union is good, it protect the employee, but I’m not familiar.”
Sung was hesitant, but did some research and it persuaded him to assume the role of chairperson. “It bring the fairness to the workplace,” he says simply. “Reviewing our workplace, I see a lot of unfair things happen. So I agree that union can help us. That’s why I devote myself to participate.”
This wasn’t the first time employees at Ming Pao tried to unionize—Sung tells me that two or three prior attempts were unsuccessful. “This time we do it very secretly,” he says. “We secretly told this person-to-person. It’s not a spread-out communication. We do it point to point, so eventually we got enough supporters so we have a chance to file application to have a chance to vote for the union.”
Support was overwhelming—80 percent of employees voted in favour of the union. But it soon became apparent why previous attempts had failed. The company issued internal memos that highlighted the disadvantages of unions and likened organizers to drug addicts, Maoists, and communists. It suddenly hiked salaries and proceeded to fire 10 people, including Sung, citing financial cutbacks. Nine were active in the union. (Michael Li, the assistant to editor and North American CEO Ka Ming Lui, declined to comment.)
Employees went on strike in September 2011, when negotiations for a first contract hit a dead end. The union applied to the Ministry of Labour to intervene under first strike arbitration (an option for unionized workplaces that don’t yet have a contract). The appointment of a mediator in December 2011 effectively ended the strike, so employees returned to work, except for Sung and his fired colleagues.
In February of last year, the arbitrator ruled that the layoffs were illegal, finding that their purpose was to quash the union. Sung was reinstated. Of his first shift back, he says, “I’m well prepared, because I have full of confidence that it is an illegal layoff. So I foresee that day will come, so it’s just another normal day for me.”
The new contract was signed on June 4, 2012. “Before contract, no matter how long you serve the company, you got only 10 days’ vacation,” says Sung.Now, that’s based on seniority. For instance, Sung’s colleague, who’s worked at Ming Pao for more than 15 years, gets up to four weeks holiday time per year .
“That’s a lot of improvement,” says Sung. “Especially for the immigrants from Hong Kong and China mainland, and Taiwan, that’s most of the employee. We need that long vacation because we need to go back to our original places, which is family.”
Before the contract, employees worked 44-hour weeks. Now, that’s limited to 40 hours. Wages have gone up as well. Sung earns $15.15 per hour, up from $13.25. This is one area where he sees the possibility for further improvement. A worker at Sing Tao, in a similar position to Sung, earns $17 per hour , he says. “But still, compared to the past, with no improvement, this is a lot.”
Sung says management has mostly respected the contract so far, although there have been comprehension difficulties because the document is in English, which isn’t the employees’ or employer’s first language.
Reflecting on the still-ongoing process, Sung describes it as “a new challenge.”
“Before union, when we face unfair treatment, personally, I will choose not to say anything because of the consequence,” he says. “But after we had union, I’m not afraid to speak up. Personally, I think the major function of a union is the protection.”
He gives an example: what if he were fired illegally and no union existed? He wouldn’t be inclined to file a complaint with the labour board and hire a lawyer because that’s a difficult and expensive process to undertake on your own.
“However, when we have a union, I spend nothing on all this legal process except paying union dues after we have the contract. So I see the protection—it’s more important than other benefits. But still the other benefits are good.”