Three years ago, while it was still owned by Thomson Newspapers, the Niagara Falls Review’s newsroom was organized by the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild. Mark Skeffington, a general reporter at the Review for four years, was its union steward. The paper’s first contract came into effect just over a year later, around the same time Hollinger bought a majority interest in Southam. The Review was a profitable paper and Hollinger had taken on Thomson papers in worse shape, including The Guelph Mercury and Cambridge Reporter, without any sudden job cuts. So when the Review starting laying off employees within days of the takeover, everyone was bewildered. Suspicion set in when the firings—which were done strictly according to seniority, as the SONG contract dictates—reached further and further back—two years, three years, four years…. Zap! Skeffington was gone, as were the four reporters with less time at the Review who had to be let go before he was.

Among the most suspicious was Lorne Slotnick, then a local representative for SONG. “I believe they reached back in the seniority list to get one guy,” he says. “Mark Skeffington was clearly one of the leaders in forming the union at the Niagara Falls Review. He was the chair of the union.” David Beattie, who took over as Review publisher last November, after the publisher who let Skeffington go left the paper, doesn’t buy Slotnick’s theory. “It strictly was a financial situation based on a reduction of manpower,” he says firmly.

Whatever the truth, the Skeffington incident was nothing compared to the management practices that were standard in the 1930s, a decade before Canadian papers were first organized. In 1980, Jessie MacTaggart Geissler, a former Mail and Empire general reporter, recalled those days in a SONG newsletter. She and other Mail and Empire employees worked six days a week, from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m., for $20 a week. Overtime pay was unheard of. When Mail and Empire merged with the Globe’s in 1936, almost all of the Mail and Empire staff were fired, including a 26-year veteran. The Toronto Star would spend “big money on big stories,” MacTaggart remembered, then fire four or five people at a time just to get its budget back on track. No wonder that talk of forming a Toronto Newspaper Guild was met with enthusiasm.

At that time, legendary Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson supported organized labour in the pages of his paper, but when it came to the guild, management demoted employees who were openly affiliated with union activity and intimidated those who were not. MacTaggart recalled how a rumour once spread that Atkinson had suffered a heart attack upon receiving news that his employees were threatening to strike fi they didn’t get a contract. Feeling guilty, workers gave up the strike. The next day, employees who had been demoted were given back their old positions and Atkinson showed up at the paper grinning from ear to ear, the picture of perfect health. Nevertheless, Newspaper Guild Local 87 was formed in 1947, although the union dates its official founding to its first Toronto Star contract, signed on April 12, 1949, a year after Atkinson’s death. (Ironically, the union side was led by Beland Honderich, then financial editor of the paper.) The contract was the beginning of many years of successful representation of staff at Ontario newspapers.

Today, however, there are signs that SONG may be in decline. Like other unions, it seems to have lost the support and appreciation of some of its members, perhaps because they no longer believe in the union or perhaps because they fear reprisals. The conservative mood and economic uncertainty in Ontario today haven’t helped either. Nor has the purchase of Southam by Conrad Black’s Hollinger last fall, which further concentrated press ownership in the hands of a company not known for its union sympathies. After 50 years on the job, will SONG survive to the age of retirement?

The provisions of the first Star contract included weekly salaries of $45 for a five-day, 40-hour week, plus time-and-a-half, in cash, for overtime. By the mid-fifties, the Toronto Newspaper Guild had also organized The Globe and Mail and the Brantford Expositor; in 1978 it became the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, to reflect its wider-ranging membership. Today, SONG represents almost 3,000 reporters, photographers, editors, and advertising and circulation employees at over 50 publications in Ontario. Gail Lem, president of SONG until last September, characterizes the union’s history as a “50-year track record of successfully negotiating collective agreements with the largest newspapers in the country and the most powerful newspaper chains.” Its achievements including winning some major concessions at Macleans’s, The Expositor and the Cambridge Reporter, among others. Most memorable was the five-week strike at The Toronto Star that started in June 1992 and cost the paper approximately $1 million a day in lost ad revenue. Three weeks into the strike, on a Friday afternoon, union members prevented the paper from going to press for the first time in 100 years. They locked arms in front of the paper’s main office on Yonge Street to bar nonstriking employees from getting in. A little over a week later, the 1,600 members of the Star unit accepted a contract offer from management.

The Star strike was a major event in the lives of many of the SONG members affected, but is the union still a big part of their lives today, five years later? It’s probably fair to say that most don’t give the union a second thought. As Star reporter Nicolass van Rijn says, “As long as the situation here is relatively peaceful and stable, you come in and do your job and that’s it. You don’t think of a union.” In a 1993 Columbia Journalism Review article about the U.S.-based Newspaper Guild, Walter Brasch, a journalism professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, identified what he thought contributes to the apathy toward newspaper unions in general. “The guild has a problem with a whole lot of reporters who’ve gone through college or journalism school, wear suits and ties, and don’t see that they have anything in common with labor,” he’s quoted as saying.

SONG members, however, say that it’s not that they feel they’re above the labour movement; it’s more that SONG’s activities have changed as the times have, so the union is no longer a visible force. “I think the days of unions going in and hitting the bricks for big wages increases—that’s gone,” says Brian Thompson, a photographer at The Expositor. “Now unions are, a lot of the time, in more of a defensive role to try to maintain job security and fairness.” Slotnick also feels that the problem with the union movement has little to do with class; rather, it seems some reporters are simply too wary of getting involved in a union when that can easily become their ticket out the door. Slotnick certainly believes it was in Mark Skeffington’s case.

And since then, it’s become easier for employers to identify staff involved in union activity ad harder to organize a paper, due to the Tory win in the last provincial election. When employees are thinking about unionizing, someone at the paper will call SONG, sometimes anonymously. If the staff are still interested after SONG outlines how it can help, the union proceeds to try to sign up as many people as it can. Under the legislation put in place by the provincial Tories’ NDP predecessors, SONG or any other union could apply directly to the Labour Relations Board for certification once 55 percent of the employees signed union cards. The board then simply ordered the employer to start bargaining. The Tories changed the rules, so now the LRB conducts a secret ballot vote, then notifies management of the result. If the vote is in favour of organizing, the employer has a chance to try to dissuade staff members from joining the union; only if a majority still supports the union in a second vote does certification proceed.

One journalist who isn’t upset by such obstacles to organizing is Catherine Ford, national columnist for the Hollinger-owned Calgary Herald. Ford frankly abhors media unions. “At the very least, like plastic silverware, military intelligence or tight slacks, ’journalists’ union’ is an oxymoron,” she wrote in a column for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 1994. Today, her opinion of unions has hardly changed. “The adversarial system infects our whole country,” she says haughtily. “I am profoundly tired of guys and their methods of negotiating, which is ’Let’s pull down our zippers, stick it on the table and see whose is longest.’”

When SONG got into that sort of contest three years ago at the Thomson-owned Oshawa Times, the results were disastrous. The Times had been published for over a century until it officially folded on December 4, 1994, during a month-long SONG strike. Management had proposed turning the paper into a triweekly and retaining only a quarter of the staff. According to Hank Kolodziejczak, then a Times reporter/photographer, that offer was monumentally rejected by the employees as demeaning. Instead, SONG helped its members launch a rival twice-a-week newspaper, The Oshawa Independent. By the time it folded six months later, SONG had poured over half a million dollarsinto the Independent. Because of this, Kolodziejczak says, very few of the employees blamed SONG for the Times’ shutdown; its closing was virtually inevitable. “Should we have gone on strike? It probably was, in retrospect, a dumb decision,” Slotnick says now. “But it was a decision made by the members there. It might have been a stupid decision, but it was a democratic one.”

Other recent SONG actions have been more successful. There was, for example, in 1994 split from Maryland-based Newspaper Guild to join the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Unions of Canada. At issue were concerns over a lack of local services, such as organizing grants, and the distinctly undemocratic nature of the union’s internal structure. For instance, Canadian leadership of the union was supposed to be elected, but for years the Canadian director was appointed by the Newspaper Guild president. It was only when 93 percent of SONG members voted in favour of leaving the Guild in 1994that Mike Bocking became the union’s first elected Canadian director. “The struggle to get out of the Newspaper Guild and join a Canadian union took up seven years of my life,” Lem says. “We did it because it was the right thing to do. Being in a Canadian union, being able to be a part of the labour movement and talk about issues that affect us, was something that was going to make the union much more relevant.” SONG is now the largest media local in the CEP and the largest print local in Canada.

For Lem, part of the impetus to join a domestic union was the unusually high level of ownership concentration that exists in Canada—a level that shot up when Hollinger bought its controlling interest in Southam last year. Twelve of SONG’s 22 bargaining units are now Hollinger-owned, and Hollinger has majority control of 58 of Canada’s 104 dailies, plus numerous weeklies, community newspapers and free-distribution papers and magazines. The purchase sent several groups, including SONG and the Newspaper Guild, racing to the federal courts for a judicial review of the Southam takeover approved by the federal Bureau of Competition. While the presiding judge dismissed their suit last December, the Federal Court of Appeal rejected that ruling late last month and the groups and Hollinger will be back in court April 9.

The takeover, however, may actually work to SONG’s benefit, by reminding members of the union’s utility. Michael Allen Marion, the agriculture and rural reporter for the Expositor, thinks so. Without the guild, he says, jobs would always be in jeopardy; he credits SONG with “saving the newsroom” when Hollinger bought his paper in December. Hollinger’s aggressive expansion may even result in more organizing drives at papers that are outside the guild. In mid-February, for example, there were certification votes at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader Post, which the company bought in February 1996. The ballots came after nine months of organizing by the Newspaper Guild of Canada, a branch of the international union, that began when 173 of 800 employees at the papers were cut right after the takeover. Neither vote carried, but the fact that the drive occurred at all suggests a renewed respect for guild activity. “We used to think Thomson was the worst employer we had but Conrad Black is worse,” Lem says gravely. “Thomson cared only about profit; Black cares about profit but he also cares about power and influence.”

While Black has gained both power and influence, recently SONG has seemed to be losing some of its clout. Of the four full-time union local representatives SONG had before joining the CEP, three are now national representatives for the new parent union, assigned exclusively to SONG business. Lem left the position she held for nine years as SONG president last fall to take on the role of national media vice-president for the CEP. The one full-time local representative left at SONG was Slotnick, and he quit at the end of last year, after almost 10 years with the union, saying he simply needed a change. The small office on Queen Street in Toronto now only has three secretaries, a full-time Toronto Star unit chair (because the Star’s membership is so large) and the newly elected part-time president. Joe Matyas, an editorial writer at The London Free Press, devotes two days a week plus whatever spare time he has to SONG. One of his priorities is membership participation in the union, the lack of which he believes has contributed to mild apathy and dissension within SONG, particularly among those units outise Toronto, where members have sometimes felt “lost in the shuffle.” “We have big, strong units in Toronto in The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. The people who work at those two papers are the cornerstones of our local; they have the bulk of the membership,” Matyas says. “But we still have 20 other bargaining units from outside Toronto and they require attention too.”

Can SONG overcome all these challenges? Lorne Slotnick admits these aren’t the union’s glory days. “With the economy and political regime in Ontario the way it is, I would say we, like other unions, are suffering right now,” he says. But he also believes better days are ahead: “I think that’s just a cyclical thing.” People always need and want what a union provides: a counterbalance to the power of the proprietor.

Joe Matyas makes the point even more strongly. “Bargaining is getting tougher and things are getting a little tougher for employees,” he says. “If you’re unorganized and you’re not protected by a union contract, you’re very exposed to the whims of the employer. When you have a contract, you don’t have absolute protection— there’s no such thing—but you do have the means to fight arbitrary measures.”