Opinion

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Entrenchment and ideology, says a veteran, are risking the CBC’s future

MARK STAROWICZ August 29 2005
Opinion

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Entrenchment and ideology, says a veteran, are risking the CBC’s future

MARK STAROWICZ August 29 2005

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Opinion

Entrenchment and ideology, says a veteran, are risking the CBC’s future

MARK STAROWICZ

I DIDN’T KNOW whether to laugh or cry.

On one side of Toronto’s Front Street, hundreds of CBC employees, including me, marching in front of the Broadcast Centre with signs reading “Locked Out.” On the. other side, about an equal number of screaming teenagers in front of the Convention Centre theatre waving signs like, “We Love You Suzi.” Canadian Idol fans waiting for contestant Suzi Rawn right across from Newsworld employees waiting for Peter Mansbridge.

The bronze statue of Glenn Gould in front of the CBC seemed to be staring at the ecstatic Idol worshippers uncomprehendingly. Someone had put a “Defend Public Broadcasting” sign around his neck. “It’s got to be symbolic of something,” a CBC colleague said as ear-piercing cheers rose from across the street. “I’m just not sure what.”

It did have the unsettling quality of a biblical sign, and, being public broadcasting employees, we instantiy turned into a panel discussion as we walked in the baking sun. Opinions ranged from “It’s a sign of what the management wants to turn the CBC into” to “I wouldn’t mind their ratings.”

For scores of the CBCers on the line, it was their first lockout or strike—it was certainly mine—and, I suspect, Glenn Gould’s too. I’ve been in the CBC so long that I actually knew him. We had to virtually climb over him as he sat smoking on the front steps of the radio building. “Was he staff or contract?” someone asked teasingly. I said I couldn’t remember. “Probably contract.”

The CBC has locked out the 5,500 members of the Canadian Media Guild, and, with the exception of New Brunswick and Quebec, all CBC locations outside Ottawa and Toronto are closed. The English radio and television networks are being operated by management staff, radio’s running repeats and records, TV is running BBC News in The National time slot carrying cricket scores from Belgium. The lockout started at midnight on Monday, after 15 months of negotiations both sides have described as

fruitless. Veterans on both sides fear a standoff that will last well into October, if not later.

This could be the beginning of the largest single industrial implosion in the arts and journalism in Canadian history. Make no mistake, a momentous event is unfolding. I cannot think of any other media layoff or strike that equals its scale in numbers, even the legendary 1958 producers’ strike in Montreal. Never in CBC history has all of the talent on the English network been in one union. Beyond the most visible part of the spectrum—the great foreign correspondents like Joe Schlesinger, hosts like Mary Lou Finlay, icons like Don Cherry and Ron MacLean, and many of the finest cameramen in the country—are writers, artistic designers, documentary editors and directors, new media specialists, music and drama recording engineers and producers.

The ripple effect in the arts is potentially staggering. In radio alone, it means no recording and transmission of concerts, in publishing it means no reviewing and discussing of books, no authors on the air, no plays. In television, the cessation of production will, over time, extend well beyond

the CBC employees into independent sectors: composers, writers, actors and performers. In journalism generally, it means the shutdown of all CBC local and regional news, and the sudden disappearance of half the national political and social coverage on the airwaves.

Beneath the levity on the picket line, there is a current of bewilderment. How did it come to this? I walked for a while with an old colleague from As It Happens days, radio producer Steve Wadhams, now a celebrated documentarían, biographer of George Orwell, tenor with one of Canada’s leading chamber choirs. The gentlest of men, he was literally livid: “This is appalling! How could they let this happen?”

While Wadhams was furious with senior management, Evan Solomon, novelist and co-host of CBC News: Sunday, despaired of both sides: “This standoff is a failure, a terrible failure by the CBC and by the union.” For my part, you should know that I’m an interested party to the dispute, since I’m a member of the union, locked out with all the other employees. Like Wadhams and Solomon, though, I’m sufficiendy long in the

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tooth as a journalist to be cautious about accepting either side’s claims uncritically. I’m writing this not to belabour contract points—which are so intricate they could tie up a dozen theologians—but because I think, in the words of Wadhams, “Something very intricate and precious is being broken.” Why is it happening?

Ironically, one reason is because, for the first time, there is a single bargaining unit, and a single negotiation. Both sides, labour and management, wanted this. Instead of a patchwork of contracts with different unions, this was supposed to bring order to the marketplace. Instead, it has set up a Dodge City standoff. This next contract will set the template for every future one, so both sides are treating this as the defining battle. The CBC chief negotiator, speaking about one contentious issue, said, “This is the hill we will die on.” This was not helpful, and she ceased being chief negotiator at the last moment before the lockout. But it reveals the degree of entrenchment.

Second, the battle has become ideological. I’m told one of the mediators left the process at the end saying something like this to both sides: “You can settle money, working conditions, almost anything. But when you make it ideological, you’re doomed.”

That ideological battle is over how much programming is produced by CBC staff employees versus short-term contract staff, or by contracting out programs and services.

The CBC says that in a changing technological environment and shifting media market, it needs considerably more flexibility to acquire and release talent and services. If a program is cancelled, for example, the CBC does not want to be bound to find other assignments for the staffers, a process that has led to newer, younger staffers being “bumped” by ones with more seniority. It also needs to shed unproductive staffers. The guild says the CBC’s already free to use short-term contract employees and already contracts out all its drama, variety and comedy and is just trying to emasculate the union and have a disposable workforce without security and benefits. It points to times in the past when current affairs staff, for example, were jobless for the three or four months that programs like Marketplace or the fifth estate were off the air or in repeat cycle.

It’s not a frivolous battle; and neither is it

a new one. We can all tell old horror stories to support either side of the eternal debate.

I can remember when the first portable audio-cassette recorders came on the market in the seventies and revolutionized radio. The radio technicians’ union tried to limit the use of this technology and wanted all

CBC’S chief

negotiator, speaking of the issue of contracting out, said, ‘This is the hill we will die on’

sound recording to be conducted by a sound engineer—which meant we’d have had to send an engineer to every news event to carry a machine that weighed five pounds and cost $300.

I also remember CBC hired As It Happens and This Country in the Morning producers and researchers on 13-week contracts that for years were renewed only at the last minute, so that someone could be in the CBC for five years and have no benefits,

nothing accrued to a pension, no security and no disability in case of major illness.

Flexibility to hire for specific projects is important, as is a core creative mass. Canada: A People’s History was produced by a core of staff producers and editors who developed it and fought for it, but also brought in many independent producers and shorter-term staff, who left after the project was completed. Other areas require other approaches. All drama in the CBC, like DaVinci’s Inquest and This is Wonderland, is already contracted out to independents, as is all variety and comedy. On the other hand, that’s not the way to run a news department or the fifth estate.

Any creative institution needs the fresh breeze of new people and new ideas, and must resist artistic atrophy. But it also needs core strength. Take the analogy of a great hockey team. You don’t play against the New York Rangers next Thursday by going through a Rolodex and trying to find whatever goalie or forward happens to be available that day. You have a farm team, you nurture people, you balance grinders and Gretzkys, you create a culture of excellence. A great dance company, or theatrical company, or a great newspaper, are built the same way.

This dialectic is as old as the hills in the CBC, in all the arts. The creative process is messy and resists categorization. There is no once-and-for-all ideological solution to this, because the technology and the culture are ever-changing. We’ve lived with this balance, adjusted it, and many of us have fought on different sides of it at different times.

But, in a quarter of a century of cantankerous debate, we never came this close, never risked breaking the instrument itself. At the moment, there are no negotiations and no one is talking, except colleagues trying to resist the gloom. I just got an email from one of the mid-level managers inside: “Thinking of you. Miss you all. We’ve watered the plants.” Hfl

Mark Starowicz is senior executive producer of the CBC Documentary Unit