Canada

Endurance Test

A labour dispute at the Calgary Herald is taking on coast-to-coast overtones

Brian Bergman December 13 1999
Canada

Endurance Test

A labour dispute at the Calgary Herald is taking on coast-to-coast overtones

Brian Bergman December 13 1999

Endurance Test

A labour dispute at the Calgary Herald is taking on coast-to-coast overtones

Canada

Brian Bergman

Dressed in casual black slacks and a cozy brown sweater, the grey-haired, bespectacled Andy Marshall doesn’t exactly look like a union firebrand. And as he sat last week in the Calgary Herald's spartan strike headquarters, he didn’t really sound like one either. Battling a pesky flu bug, Marshall, 57, was at times barely audible—then again, he gives the impression of a man who rarely raises his voice. Marshall spent more than 15 years covering business, education and the environment for the Herald. What he never thought he’d be doing is leading a strike against his employer. When Marshall first became involved a year and a half ago in the drive to certify newsroom employees, he considered the effort a “pipe dream.” What he describes as the “moderately conservative people” who write for the 116-

year-old Herald had little appetite for union politics. Even now, more than four weeks into the walkout, one of the common knocks Marshall hears is that the strikers are too polite for their own good. Public relations consultants, he says, told them they really could do to tough it up a bit.

Appearances notwithstanding, Marshall is at the centre of an increasingly nasty labour dispute that is garnering national attention. The 150,000-member Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which won the right to represent Herald newsroom staff last year, is pitching the strike as a laststand battle against a longtime ideological foe, Conrad Black and his Toronto-based Hollinger Inc. Strike leaders claim that Hollinger, which acquired a majority interest

in the Herald and the rest of the Southam newspaper chain in July, 1996, is orchestrating the Herald’s hardline stance on the strike. They say Hollinger wants to set an example for other member newspapers that might be susceptible to certification drives. Union activists also contend that Hollinger has a keen interest in such perennially profitable papers as the Herald, which they say are being bled of money and talent to help prop up the money-losing National Post, the newspaper Hollinger launched a year ago and which is locked in a fierce battle for national supremacy with The Globe and Mail.

Herald publisher Dan Gaynor flatly rejects such assertions. Strategy for dealing with the strike, he told Macleans last week, is entirely up to Calgary. “Head office and Hollinger have asked us to exercise our best judgment.” As for propping up the Post, Gaynor says the Herald’s editorial budget has not been reduced in any significant way in recent years.

There have been no substantial contract talks since the newsroom strike began on Nov. 6 (the Herald’s circulation and advertising departments are non-unionized). Herald managers have the help of about 30 replacement workers, half of whom are managers from other Hollinger newspapers. By last week, they had been joined by 34 newsroom employees who had chosen to cross picket lines (116 remain on strike). The most contentious issue is a seniority clause stating that, in any layoffs, the most recent hires will be the first to go.

Gaynor is adamantly opposed to that, saying that it restricts a papers ability to hire the very best and reward initiative. In the case of the Herald, Gaynor maintains union leaders want the protection so they can continue to resist recent editorial changes “free from the responsibilities of basic job expectations.”

What Gaynor is alluding to is an ideological shift that has occurred at the Herald in recent years. According to the newspapers current editor-in-chief, Peter Menzies, the Herald of a decade ago was afflicted with what he describes as left-leaning “group think.” Both its news copy and its editorials, he adds, seemed “utterly at odds” with the city’s prevailing conservative ethos. Three years ago, Menzies, then the newspaper’s editorial page editor, started making changes. “I thought we should be more inclined to support free markets and entrepreneurship,” Menzies told Maclean’s.

About the same time, the Herald, under then-publisher Ken King, moved to revamp the writing of news copy. Editors instituted a policy known as FAB, for “fairness, accuracy and balance.” In theory, FAB simply meant that both sides of the story should be represented high up in the copy. But in

practice, say its many newsroom critics, FAB tended to ensure that conservative causes got top billing. “It really was quite insulting,” recalls Marshall. “You’d keep getting little reminders to phone the local Reform MP for comment.” Nor did it help that some managers took it upon themselves to alter stories late at night without consulting writers—a practice Herald insiders dryly dubbed “drive-by editing.” Longtime Herald staffers didn’t take kindly to the implication that, pre-FAB, they were a band of feckless left-wingers who produced unbalanced stories. They were also disturbed by other changes they saw at the paper. Brian Brennan, who has been a Herald reporter since 1974, says it was once a place where writers pursued stories “even if it meant pissing off a corporate client or two.” Now, he maintains, civic boosterism often overwhelms journalistic objectivity.

The tensions in the newsroom led to what many had considered the unthinkable. After successfully fending off union drives for decades—in part, by paying their staff competitive wages—Herald managers watched in dismay as newsroom employees voted 75 per cent in favour of certification in November, 1998.

The labour dispute that ensued has revealed some fascinating newsroom cleavages. In one of many tardy worded pieces posted on the union’s robust Web site, striking columnist Naomi Lakritz—whose political viewpoints tilt to the right—lashes out at left-leaning columnist Catherine Ford, a resident of the upscale Mount Royal neighbourhood who has refused to join the union on the grounds that she will allow no organization to dictate how she thinks “How quickly Ford casts aside her feminist ideology,” snarls Lakritz, “when the struggle comes uncomfortably close to her Mount Royal doorstep!” All the same, Herald managers may have reason to wish Ford had joined the picket lines. In a column published during the strike, Ford heaped scorn on management, past and present, for the labour strife. “You cannot tell professional people their work is pointless,” she wrote, “and expect them to sit back and take it.”

As the internecine warfare dragged on, both sides talked wistfully of when they once again would work collegially. “I’m hoping,” said Brennan, “that when this is all over, we can turn a new leaf and put out a paper we are once again proud of.” Gaynor, who took over from King as publisher last May, said that “we have a wonderful opportunity to put things right and to build an editorial department that is an exciting place to work.” It’s a pretty picture—but, at this point at least, it was hard to see them painting it together. E¡]