It’s not that I am anti-union, it’s that I’m anti-union for newspaper writers,” wrote columnist Christie Blatchford in 1991, while praising her employer, The Toronto Sun, on its 20th anniversary. “This is one of the greatest jobs in the world. I do not need a union to tell me I should be demanding time-and-a-half while I am seeing something interesting, staying in a hotel and eating at company expense.” Given that the Sun avoided a union for 30 years, she was undoubtedly speaking for most of the paper’s employees.

And why not? The Sun’s parties were legendary, good reporting was celebrated and the three founding fathers of “the little paper that grew,” Doug Creighton, Peter Worthington and Don Hunt, took great pains to ensure they had smiling employees. As Worthington wrote in a column shortly after Creighton’s death earlier this year, “Doug’s door was always open, and he and I (and Don) were adamant that we give a union no reason to appeal to the staff.”

But things, including management and ownership, change. In 1998, rival Torstar hoped to absorb Sun Media. Sun management found a saviour in Quebecor, which ended up buying the company for $983 million. What Sun staff didn’t realize was the Montreal-based media company would end up using the paper’s $40 million annual profit to service the debt racked up by Videotron, Quebecor’s cable business. Soon the rescuers demanded more. With little concern for the editorial quality of its cash cow, Quebecor squeezed harder, forcing management to cut employee perks and layoff staff for the first time in years. Morale plummeted. “People I had a great deal of respect for and who helped build the Sun were out in the street,” says city desk editor Brad Honeywill. “I found that offensive.” He wasn’t alone. Today a front page with a headline screaming “Black Monday” above pictures of fired employees still hangs on the wall of Betty’s, a popular reporter’s hangout down the street from the Sun building. Disheartened survivors created the mock-up after 86 employees lost their jobs on May 14, 2001. It’s a reminder that what the Sun once was – a warm, friendly and fun place to work – had become a dismal place where staffers feared for their jobs.

That fear – coupled with cuts to profit sharing, Christmas bonuses and the popular sabbatical program that let employees take two months off after 10 years of service – allowed Sun staff to finally run a successful union drive. There had been two unsuccessful attempts in the 1990s to unionize circulation staff, the pressroom and the mailroom, but life at the paper was so enjoyable few employees had any interest. Honeywill, for example, had no desire to join a union back then, but with an unpredictable management in charge, he wanted some protection.
Jobs and perks were not the only things in peril; editorial content also suffered. The travel section, for example, lost its editor and two writers. And entertainment columnist Jim Slotek, for one, worried that Quebecor would just run the Sun into the ground. “If you really have a low regard for the product then there’s no limit to how low you can go with it. There is no limit to the number of papers in this country that have gone to the lowest, cheapest denominator. That being wire copy, wire photos, unpaid interns.” As the atmosphere went from sunny to toxic, people told each other on the days of the layoffs: “Don’t answer your phone; you could be next.”

To some, unions mean raised placards and gruff, beefy men cheering a teamster on a makeshift stage in a low-lit factory. The only journalists in the picture are the ones pushing through the crowd to cover the story. But when it comes to organized labour, journalists have more at stake than a good lead. Concerns over media integrity are increasing – first, family-owned papers were bought out by corporations; and now small chains are being absorbed by bigger companies who push for greater returns. This has union leaders and media critics worried that quality journalism is being sacrificed for profit. “This is an important concept to many of us,” says Gail Lem, former president of the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild (SONG). And while it is hard to write clauses emphasizing editorial integrity into the confining language of a contract, newspaper unions want to protect not only their members, but also the quality of their papers.

SONG is the largest media local in Canada and the first to organize journalists (the press and composing rooms were already unionized). Now officially known as Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union, Local 87-M , SONG represents 26 publications, including The London Free Press, The Toronto Star and Maclean’s. Creating a Canadian union was a tough battle. In the 1930s, journalists faced low wages, hectic schedules and random firings, so budding unionists looked to the American Newspaper Guild, founded by New York columnist Heywood Broun in 1933, for inspiration. But management’s intimidation tactics, including the demotion of known union supporters, quashed the first attempt by the Guild to unionize. In 1948, however, the Guild garnered the support of a majority at the Star, received certification from the Ontario Labour Relations Board and quickly gained a reputation as a tough, feisty local that won higher wages and greater job security for its members. In the mid-1980s, the union began to fight for editorial integrity because the firewall separating editorial from advertising was crumbling. It was the heyday of business-sponsored ads thinly disguised as stories. (Today, union contracts typically require such advertorials to use a different font or be clearly labelled as advertising.) At the same time, newspapers were shifting from institutions with influence on social, political and economic policy to simple moneymakers. In fact, A. Roy Megarry, then publisher of The Globe and Mail, openly admitted that the role of a paper was to sell advertising; editorial content was secondary.
For Martin Mittelstaedt, defending editorial integrity and protecting people’s jobs are closely linked. The current SONG president divides his time between the union’s cluttered office in the east side of downtown Toronto and the Globe, on the west side, as a reporter. Mittelstaedt says having a job secured by a union contract means journalists can stand up to an editor or publisher. “There have been cases where companies have gone after people who have spoken out in a forthright way about the need for workplace improvements,” he says. “They view it as disloyalty that needs to be punished.”

Richard Leitner was certainly glad to have a union behind him in 1999 after being involved in particularly nasty contract negotiations. Leitner, a news reporter and union representative, learned he was leaving The Stoney Creek News for a split beat position at the Brabant Group’s two smallest papers, The Dundas Star News and The Ancaster News. Leitner and other union officials believe he was being punished for his union work. In an unusual grievance settlement, Leitner got a month’s paid “sabbatical,” during which he could work on any story he wanted. The result was an investigation into Hamilton’s sewage treatment that won four awards. Although he admits the language of union contracts can’t directly address editorial quality, Leitner says it is possible to use a contract creatively.

Reporters at the Free Press got creative in 1990, when the union produced a strike paper. Staff felt the paper’s editorial quality was suffering after its owner, the Blackburn Group, had been placed under trusteeship. Out went the substantive and in-depth reporting; in came what Joe Matyas, Free Press news reporter and SONG treasurer, called a “McPaper” approach to journalism. Editors restricted stories to 10 inches in length and the traditional big story on the front page gave way to an index of headlines and small snippets of information that directed readers inside. The idea was to offer the news in bite-sized pieces for busy people on the run. On November 9, 1990, striking employees, angered by the editorial changes as well as low wages, put out a free paper called The Express and distributed it about 60,000 households in London. The Express had longer stories and more features with a narrative style. It was supposed to remind readers of the quality of reporting they were missing. And it did: readers called to find how to get the next issue. Today the front page of the Free Press is more like the original.

Despite that success, sometimes the only way journalists can protect editorial content is to take their names off it. “When reporters withdraw bylines, it does send a message to the community that something is different here, something is amiss,” says Rob Reid, entertainment reporter at the unionized Record in Kitchener-Waterloo. Byline removal is an effective tool against the company if an impasse has been reached during negotiations or if a strike or lockout deadline is approaching. Some publishers question a journalist’s right to remove bylines and that has observers worried. “That’s one of the very few weapons that a journalist has to protest something publicly,” says Catherine McKercher, associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism. “When an employer says, ‘No, you can’t do that, you don’t have the right,’ that is a big deal.”

Journalists at the Montreal Gazette discovered just how big a deal in 2001 when they collectively removed their bylines to protest CanWest Global Communications Corp.’s national editorial policy. The editorials, written at the Winnipeg head office, ran in all 12 major CanWest papers across the country. After the second day of no bylines, Gazette management ordered them back on the page, allegedly threatening disciplinary action against those not complying – which the company denied during the hearings. The Montreal Newspaper Guild grieved the decision, and Gazette staff protested the national editorial policy in January with an open letter signed by 77 journalists and printed in the Globe, the Star and La Presse. “We believe this centralizing process will weaken the credibility of every Southam paper,” it read. “Credibility is the most precious asset a newspaper possesses. When the power of the press is abused, that credibility dies.”

In response, the company forbade newsroom staff from talking publicly about the issue. “They put this gag order on us because they think that in speaking out we’re hurting the product, that we have to stay loyal to the employer,” a Gazette reporter says. “Our stance is that our loyalty is to the readers – that’s who we have to serve. It’s not like we’re working in a factory making widgets. There is a public trust there.”

When the case went to arbitration, Minko Michael Sotiron, who teaches journalism at Concordia University and John Abbott College, testified on behalf of the union. “The byline is a reflection of the reporter’s personality and belongs to him as surely as the colour of his eyes and other personal features,” he argued. “It follows that what he does with his name is his business.” Arbitrator Jean-Pierre Lussier decided that withholding bylines did not violate the Gazette’s collective agreement and declared that the journalists “have the right to withhold their byline as they see fit.”

Although CanWest never officially stopped the national editorials, the practice petered out in 2002, something Gazette employees see as a victory. And a recent settlement between the Montreal Newspaper Guild and the Gazette means reporters can now speak out against the company and not worry about the consequences. Meanwhile, SONG’s Howard Law watched the Gazette ruling with great interest because the Star filed a grievance after reporters pulled their bylines in solidarity with The Guelph Mercury employees involved in eleventh- hour negotiations. Law says the contract language concerning bylines is similar to the Gazette’s. “If the arbitrator in our case follows the example of the Montreal Gazette,” says Law, “we’ll win it.” That will uphold journalists’ right to protest practices they feel are unfair or damaging to the integrity of a paper.

Skeptics counter with horror stories of how unions have a negative effect on editorial quality. In one case, a photographer left the reporter the minute his shift was done, though the story wasn’t. There are the complaints when editors or publishers step into union roles as deadlines approach. And in the 1970s, when Martin Goodman, then the managing editor of the Star, was covering a story in China, the grievances flew. The editors weren’t sure that it was permissable under the union contract, but believed getting the story was worth it.

At the same time, union rules on seniority can also conflict with editorial quality. John Geiger, entertainment editor at the National Post, says the union actually diminishes editorial standards because people with seniority can get precedence over more talented colleagues. “The rigid application of that rule is probably counter to the best interest of many of the journalists themselves,” says Peter Desbarats, former dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario “and to the best interests of the newspaper as an organization.” Similarly, when it comes to cutbacks, the last in are the first out, regardless of journalistic talent. It also means that talented journalists may not rise through the ranks as quickly as in a non-union shop. Desbarats says unions have had great success on economic issues – he eagerly signed his card when he first started his career in 1950 at the Canadian Press – but when it comes to journalistic independence, that’s best worked out in dealings between reporter and employer. “We are not making cars,” says Geiger. “We are creative people dealing with intellectual property.”

True, a newsroom is not a manufacturing plant – but that just makes the union’s role even trickier. Not only must contracts deal with standard labour issues, but also the right of reporters to protect their stories, their names, and even freedom of speech. Early in 2004, for example, the Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America – which represents Ottawa Citizen journalists – spoke out against the RCMP raid on Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill’s home and office. And Carleton’s McKercher says what reporters do is different because the role of a journalist suggests a contribution to democracy. Perhaps that’s why the Sun’s Slotek uses the analogy of reporters on a factory line in a different way than Geiger does. “It doesn’t matter who owns it, we are it,” said Slotek. “The paper is us, this is not a factory. These are our names and faces and our words on the paper. Shareholders don’t write the articles. They aren’t the reason that people buy the thing. You don’t buy a car because of a particular assembly line worker, but you read a paper because of the personalities and the caliber of writing and reporting.”

The quality of the journalism is what makes or breaks a paper, agrees Mike Pearce, publisher of the unionized Expositor in Brantford. But he gets frustrated with the union perspective at times. “We are all working for the same objective and that is to make a better paper,” he says, adding that when a new owner steps in to save a floundering paper, unions start to cry about editorial integrity. He figures that unions too often use editorial integrity as a bargaining tool. Sometimes it’s just a public ruse to gain sympathy, when the union is really just protecting the status quo. And with papers facing stiff competition from radio, television and the Internet, they need to be constantly improving. “Readers expect more from a paper than they did 20 years ago,” says Pearce. “Newspapers have to adapt to the changing circumstances.”

Circumstances changed at the Sun after Quebecor bought the paper. And that meant the people had to adapt to the idea of union. Starting in small groups, Sun staffers, including Slotek and Honeywill, met with Howard Law, local SONG representative, over breakfast in surreptitious meetings at local greasy spoons. By late November 2002, 13 people were ready to put their jobs on the line. They needn’t have worried, though, because within 24 hours half the newsroom had signed cards, and in January, 71 per cent of the editorial staff voted to join SONG. Contract negotiations started that May, and the two sides are still thrashing it out. The issues on the bargaining table include the usual labour issues, such as job security and wages, but also the practice of journalists writing promo copy for the paper, something the union argues is a conflict of interest and damages the paper’s editorial integrity. “Being non-union worked for the Sun because it was a mutually beneficial relationship. People came in who didn’t share that philosophy, so we had to change ours,” says Slotek. “It’s not a war, it’s just a reaction.”

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About the author

Julia Coey was the Column Editor for the Spring 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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