The two-storey brick warehouse in Stoney Creek, Ontario, that is home to Brabant Newspapers Ltd. is anything but impressive. Inside, the drab walls and exposed pipes are dingy with age and neglect, and when it rains, buckets catch the water leaking through the roof. Fifty miles away in the heart of Yorkville, the posh high-rise that houses Southam Inc. could not present a greater contrast: the spacious reception area is decorated with lush plants and thick carpeting, with neither an exposed pipe nor a speck of dirt in sight. When Southam took over Brabant in October 1987, Brabant employees hoped that some of that luxury might rub off on them in the form of better pay and working conditions. They were wrong-for Southam, the seven Hamilton-area community newspapers that make up the Brabant chain are just cash cows. With the year-long contract negotiations at an impasse as of this writing, Brabant’s 17 editorial employees were expected to strike at the end of March.

Representing the Brabant bargaining unit is the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, which calls the company “a slave camp”- and it’s not difficult to see why. During the negotiations, the local’s chairman Richard Leitner, editor of The Dundas Star Journal, requested a general statement of principle regarding the physical condition of the workplace. Southam refused to discuss such a statement. Currently, editorial staff are entitled to two dollars a week for camera maintenance: to afford the $75 to $100 cost of camera cleaning they must work at least 38 weeks, but Brabant’s bid for an increase was also refused.

Salaries, too, are puny. Michael Duff, entertainment editor for the Brabant papers, makes $270 a week plus $50 car allowance. He can’t afford to repay more than $40 a month of his student loan and a collection agency is harassing him. “I had to go to university to become a qualified journalist,” says Duff, “but my job doesn’t pay enough to even keep up with the interest accumulating on my loan.”

The seven Brabant papers were dubbed “The Good News Papers” by their previous owner and publisher, Roger Brabant, who founded his small empire in 1956. Filled with stories on local sports heroes, town council meetings and community events, they became a staple in the media diet of readers in the Hamilton area. With a combined circulation of about 136,000, the newspapers provide coverage of events ignored by the dominant daily, the Southam-owned Hamilton Spectator. Loved or hated, they are read religiously-“The Good News Papers” are a local institution.

When Roger Brabant was running the show, salaries were on a par with current wages. But Brabant was an old-style, paternalistic publisher who encouraged a family feeling among his employees. Financial incentives such as Christmas bonuses and publisher’s awards for hard work, as well as the freedom to set their own hours, kept up employee morale and loyalty. Under Southam’s corporate management, those feelings are gone. “Before we didn’t have any expectations,” says Duff. “Mr. B. was tight with his money but what made working for peanuts bearable was working with happy people. Now I work for peanuts with miserable people.”

Brabant’s editorial philosophy made no apologies for spreading good news. “Ideally, a community newspaper should reflect the happier side of community life,” he says. “[Weekly papers] should be about people and they should be interpretive. Never should they try to be a daily paper once a week. The two should complement each other, so readers can get the whole parcel of news.”

But under Southam, which encourages autonomy and editorial individuality, several Brabant papers have reduced their overall editorial content, increased advertising and cut back on community news. Because Southam no longer allows employees to claim overtime pay without permission, reporters are reluctant to work extra hours above their 40hour work week. As a result, Girl Guides, Cub Scouts and store openings are disappearing from the pages of the Brabant newspapers. Brabant is saddened by the change, by the lack of photos of local children -the items he says “inspire dinner table conversation.”

When the deal with Southam was announced in October 1987, his employees lost no time in seeking union protection. Southam offered them the opportunity to form an employee association but the editorial staff felt more secure with a union behind them. A preChristmas organizing blitz, spurred by members of the Spectator unit, resulted in 100 percent of Brabant’s editorial staff signing their names to union cards. The union has been bargaining with Southam and chief negotiator Orval McGuire since April 1988 but Southam executives, including McGuire and Brabant publisher Bill Findlay, refuse to comment on the company’s position.

Brabant employees want wages on a par with those paid to employees of Metroland, the Torstar-owned chain of community newspapers. The starting salary for a Metroland reporter or photographer is $365 a week-rising to $505 after four years-and editors earn $615 after two years. Although Southam demands no less than 15 percent pretax return on revenue from all its divisions, Leitner feels that figure should not make it impossible for employees in their situation to gain a fair wage and some respect. Both Leitner and Duff wear buttons with a slogan “Dignity starts here” that echoes the sign on the Brabant building, “The news starts here.”

When Roger Brabant sold his seven weeklies a year and a half ago, he fully intended the buyer to care for them as he had. “I was concerned with the welfare of the papers and the welfare of the employees and their future. ..they depended on me,” he says. And although Southam’s bid was only the third highest, Brabant sold to the conglomerate in the expectation that, despite its relative inexperience with community weeklies, “eventually they will do a good job.” At the moment, 17 unhappy Brabant employees think otherwise.