“The only thing workers have left to fight with to defend the right to put bread on the table for their children, when all other means have been exhausted, is a strike.”
This statement from 1947 by the former French communist minister Georges Marrane will certainly have struck a note among those sitting in the general assemblies of the employees of the Canadian daily paper The Chronicle Herald.
“When our movement began there were 61 of us on strike and 53 of us saw it through to the end, while eight people left the paper to go to other jobs,” explains Willy Palov, president of the Halifax Typographical Union, an affiliate of the powerful bilingual union the Communications Workers of America-Canada/Syndicat des communications d’Amérique–Canada (CWA/SCA).
“When the strike began on 23 January 2016, it wasn’t our choice, of course,” he continues. “Our reaction was above all a defensive ’hit’. The employers’ initial proposal was dangerous and iniquitous. It would have removed our seniority and our professional salary scales. It became untenable. We therefore decided to go on strike and we never imagined it would last so long or be so difficult.”
The trade union battle quickly went beyond the borders of Nova Scotia and many trade union organisations followed with interest what was happening in Halifax.
“We were on the front line, and the end of the strike has been a huge relief for us because the last 19 months have been exhausting for the workers,” says Martin O’Hanlon, the president of CWA/SCA – Canada, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
“I would like to say how proud I am of our members, who always wanted to defend jobs and quality information”. His views were echoed by the Unifor union, which campaigned for and ardently supported the struggle of the Chronicle Herald workers.
It was not only trade union organisations who rolled up their sleeves or put their hands in their pockets to support the struggle that began in the middle of winter, in temperatures well below zero. When negotiations fail and dialogue breaks down, it all comes down to a psychological and financial battle: how long can they hold out?
“The union helped us survive financially,” says Palov. “We also received a lot of donations from other organisations in our province and from North America. Some were as much as CAN$40,000 (€27,300). We were blown away by the way the union movement supported us. But, despite all the help we received, this strike was very difficult for all our families. And the hardest thing, I think, was the psychological pressure. But we were very lucky to have so much support.”
In the middle of summer, the strikers and management finally reached an agreement thanks to the direct intervention of Nova Scotia’s provincial government. The text of the agreement specifies that 26 workers will lose their jobs as part of a restructuring of the enterprise, but the amount of compensation has been increased from the initial proposal.
Management has also abandoned all the restrictions that it was going to impose on the departing employees, notably an unacceptable no-competition clause.
One of the Chronicle Herald strikers, who wishes to remain anonymous, admits that despite everything the conclusions of the agreement are not perfect: “We had to make a lot of concessions (a five per cent pay cut, a longer working week, shorter sick leave), but we had to find a way to put an end to the strike and come out on top.”
The long Chronicle Herald strike came in the wake of an earlier one by the employees of theJournal de Montréal, which lasted 765 days between 2009 and 2011: a struggle that remains an example for many trade unionists in Canada as the national situation is far from perfect.
Crisis in the Canadian press
Pascale St-Onge, president of the Fédération nationale des communications (FNC-CSN), which represents over 6,000 media workers in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick, is very worried about the situation and developments in their profession in the country.
“Today there is a convergence and a concentration of media that is undermining the plurality of sources of quality information. We deplore the generalised deterioration in the working conditions of journalists and other media works, a problem that is particularly acute for freelance journalists: the incomes of freelancers have stagnated over the last 40 years. A freelance journalist was paid CAN$50 (€34) a sheet [editor’s note: approximately 1500 characters] when they began their career, back in the 1970s. In 2011, they were still being paid exactly the same rate!”
In Quebec, there was a 43 per cent fall in jobs on newspapers between 2009 and 2015, dropping from 14,000 to barely 8,000. Job losses in radio and television broadcasting are estimated at over 1,200. Canada’s media industry has been facing a number of challenges since 2013.
At Pacific Press, in Vancouver, production workers in particular have suffered: over 300 printers have lost their jobs because the printing department, the distribution department and the postal sorting office of the Vancouver Sun and Province have been outsourced.
Since 2014, La Presse, one of the biggest French-language newspapers, has only been published from Monday to Friday.
In the same year, the Toronto Star offered its longest-standing employees the chance to buy the paper while developing an iPad app. This electronic version of the paper has led to the creation of over 60 jobs for online journalists, but they are less well paid than journalists in the traditional written press.
In 2015, Postmedia bought up the Sun Media chain of 175 English-speaking newspapers, for CAN$316 million (€216 million). Most are small local papers, but the purchase has given Postmedia a monopoly over the written press in many of Canada’s provincial capitals and other cities around the country.
Content sharing, the centralisation of editorial staff, printing and sales of publicity spaces, have created savings and therefore led to hundreds of job cuts. Overall, in the course of the last decade, thousands of jobs have been lost in the media, even if the trend seems to have slowed over the past year. Is this a glimmer of hope in this gloomy scenario?