After months of lunchtime discussions in the Herald cafeteria, the journalists made the first move. One employee talked to the Teamsters Union but was told the union had no interest in organizing the Herald newsroom without an assurance that at least 40 per cent of the 160 staffers would sign up. Another newsroom staffer talked to a friend who was an executive with the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union (CEP) of Canada. CEP is an omnibus union representing 150,000 members from a diverse range of industries including print shops, mines, telephone companies, chemical plants and forestry. In Alberta, the CEP represented sawmill workers in Hinton, Catholic school support staff in Edmonton and television workers in Calgary and Edmonton.
The prospect of organizing the Herald newsroom was very appealing to the CEP. The union already represented newspaper workers in Ontario and British Columbia, and was keen to extend its reach into Alberta. During the spring and summer of 1998, organizers for the union made several trips to Calgary to hold secret meetings with unhappy Herald employees. Many, including me, agreed to sign membership cards. I was worried that I would be pushed out the door to make room for a younger and cheaper employee. This had already happened to a couple of my contemporaries and I was feeling vulnerable.
The Tribute column, once characterized by the Herald ombudsman as “one of the best new features this paper has introduced to its pages in a long time,” was no longer appearing five times weekly and had been moved from the well-read city news pages to the section of the paper dealing with fashions and food. I still had the satisfaction of writing it once a week, but the rest of the time I was obliged to generate trivial stories about “trends” and “lifestyles” that were of little interest to me.
On the Thanksgiving weekend of 1998, the organizing drive moved into full gear. The CEP organizers set up shop in the Sheraton Cavalier hotel and conducted a certification blitz. They signed up 62 per cent of the 160 newsroom employees before Herald managers had a chance to digest their Thanksgiving turkeys. The number of signers came as a surprise to us, and undoubtedly a shock to management. We figured we would be lucky to get 50 per cent. A year earlier, we had doubted we could get 40 per cent of the staff to sign. However, the level of discontent had risen considerably since then. On the Tuesday morning, the union formally applied for a certification vote. Having certification meant that the union, under Alberta law, would be able to officially represent us in negotiations with management for a first collective agreement.
The certification vote, conducted under the auspices of the Alberta Labour Relations Board, took place two weeks later. In the meantime, the managers did everything in their power to try and block the union. They held meetings with employees, singly and in small groups, to find out why we were unhappy. Christmas came early to the Herald newsroom, with a flurry of staff upgradings and attendant salary increases. Temporary editorial employees acquired permanent status and all employees were assured that the mistakes of the past would be corrected. “Our goal is to earn a renewed relationship with every staff member,” explained one manager. “To do so, we must change and we will.” Few believed him. It was going to take more than a few personality makeovers to fix problems that we saw as systemic.
On the afternoon before the certification vote, King held a staff meeting in the newsroom and appealed to us not to vote for the union. “We were guilty of taking our eye off the ball,” he said. “Give us a second chance.” Asked by one reporter if the presence of a union would stop him from pursuing his stated goal of making the Herald a better newspaper, King responded, “You should ask the CEP about that.” The die was cast. It was clear that many of us were going to vote for the union.
The newsroom staffers, including those who had not previously signed membership cards, voted more than 75 per cent in favour of certifying the CEP as our bargaining agent. It was a significant majority for a newsroom that had never been unionized. Few of us believed that things would change for the better without a union. Management had said, in effect, “trust us,” but offered no blueprint for improvement. The result of the vote came as a bitter disappointment to the Herald managers, who had convinced themselves – based on the premise that most of the employees, like the residents of Calgary itself, were moderate conservatives with little appetite for union politics – that the certification application would fail. When the Labour Relations Board ratified the result, the bosses grudgingly accepted that the majority had spoken. But that did not mean they would make it easy for us to proceed.
Bargaining for the newsroom’s first collective agreement began in January 1999. King would not grant permission for us to negotiate on company property, so the talks took place at a nearby hotel. We were also refused permission to bargain on company time, so the four of us newsroom-elected staffers – reporters Andy Marshall, Lisa Dempster, Mark Lowey and I – had to work a full shift every day after we had been in negotiations from 4:00 a.m. to noon. At other unionized newspapers, we would have been granted paid leave to participate in the bargaining process. But we didn’t have a collective agreement yet, so there was no obligation on the part of management to give us that leave.
The talks proceeded at glacial pace. We argued at length over semantics and contract language. The company’s hired gun, a tough human resources pro named Gary Johanson, reminded us repeatedly that a contract was a legal document and could not contain language that was ambiguous or unclear. The fact that such language was common in other North American newspaper contracts was of no matter to Johanson. He was determined, he said, to develop a document that would not repeat the mistakes of past contracts: a flexible agreement that would be a model contract for the ever-changing workplace of the 21st century.
A couple of months into the talks, it was clear to our chief CEP bargainers, the late Joy Langan and current CEP president Dave Coles, that this was more than just a battle over contract language or any particular issue in the collective agreement. This was about something more fundamental: our very right to have a union. The contract we were slowly and painstakingly putting together had plenty of clauses about management rights but very little – aside from a legally mandated grievance procedure – dealing with the concerns that had caused us to unionize. The most significant omission from the union’s point of view was a clause providing for protection against indiscriminate firings – the kind of job security employees expect for doing their jobs responsibly. Another sticking point was our demand for a clause allowing reporters to remove their names from stories that had been substantially changed without consultation.
In April 1999, after bargaining for a total of 91 mostly unproductive hours, our CEP team applied for a provincial mediator, hoping this would help us achieve an equitable collective agreement. But the mediator did little more than ferry messages back and forth between the two sides. His shuttle diplomacy brought us no closer to our goal of reaching an agreement.
In May 1999, King’s Hollinger bosses transferred him from Calgary to Vancouver to run the company that jointly operates the Vancouver Sun and Province. Three months later, King resigned and left the newspaper business. He returned to Calgary to run an asset-management firm and two years later became the president of the Calgary Flames hockey team. He said he felt bad about the labour unrest at the Herald and “any contribution I may have made, because (a) that was not my intention and (b) my intentions were completely honourable.” King also said that the employees should have come to him with their concerns because he would have been their greatest champion. This was being a bit disingenuous, however. The practice at the Herald, as at other large workplaces, was for employees to bring their concerns to their immediate superiors, not to do end runs around management to speak directly with the top boss. Hollinger replaced King at the Herald with Dan Gaynor, the 43-year-old publisher of the St. Catharines Standard. Gaynor had fought unionization at the Standard in 1998, when the paper’s newsroom staff went on strike for three weeks in a first-contract dispute over wages.
Our negotiations dragged on intermittently through the summer and fall of 1999, while Gaynor and his managers simultaneously developed an elaborate contingency plan for publishing the paper in the event of a work stoppage. By September, it was clear that the paper was actively preparing for such a stoppage. The managers had beefed up security inside the building, installed Plexiglas screens and video monitors in the lobby, and rented a dozen Ryder trucks to move papers out of the building to designated pickup points for the carriers, who previously had driven to the Herald building to collect their papers.
On September 16, 1999, the company rejected all of the key proposals we had tabled during the eight months of negotiations. The principal proposal was the clause protecting seniority rights – the cornerstone of every collective agreement – stating that in the event of layoffs the most recent hires would be the first to go. It also rejected a non-harassment clause, which stated that employees should be treated with respect and dignity. Three weeks later, the Herald’s 160 editorial staff voted 82.5 per cent in favour of strike action, hoping this would be the hammer to forge a first contract. Three more days of bargaining followed, but the company persisted in refusing to deal with any of our key proposals. The talks broke off on October 28.
On November 5, a Friday afternoon, four of us newsroom staffers served 72-hour strike notice on the company, hoping this would aid our quest for a first contract. We did so knowing that publisher Gaynor had hinted ominously at a chamber of commerce dinner that such action would be folly: “I hope these people know that if they go on strike, they will be jumping off a cliff.”
I was reluctant at first to take strike action. I saw our attempt to reach an equitable agreement with the local employer now escalating into something much larger: an unwinnable battle against Hollinger boss Conrad Black, a millionaire newspaper tycoon who wrote in his 1993 autobiography, A Life In Progress, that he “never had much regard for organized labour, other than when it has taken on heroic proportions as in Poland.” However, Hollinger was already facing the possibility of a strike at its profitable Vancouver newspapers, and it was losing millions of dollars on the operations of the National Post, so I decided to gamble on the possibility that the management might not want to incur further expense by having a long strike in Calgary.
I wondered if my father would have given his support to our action. He had been dead for three years when we served strike notice on the company, and I often found myself thinking about him as I walked the picket line during the weeks and months afterward. Years previously, his bosses had characterized Dad as a “bit of a Red” when he served as general secretary of the tax officers’ in-house staff association. Would he have been proud of his son, the junior Red, for taking the stand that I did? I like to believe he would have been with me in spirit.
Though our strike notice did not expire until the Monday afternoon, something told me on that Friday afternoon that I would not be back at work on Monday morning. I turned off my computer, looked around my office cubicle and briefly considered leaving the photos of Zelda and Nicole on my desk to prick the conscience of the strikebreaker that would be occupying the space during my absence. I quickly thought the better of it and tucked the pictures inside my briefcase. Scabs were mercenary and opportunistic, I thought; why would they even care?
The following afternoon, I received a phone message at my home from a nervous Herald editor who was obviously reading from a script. The company had decided, she said, to give me a three-day “holiday” with pay. “I’ll see you when it’s over,” she said with a shaking voice. I tried phoning my office number and heard a recorded voice saying the number was invalid. I encountered the same problem when I tried to access my office voice mail and e-mail. I realized that this was no holiday. It was a lockout. It was a heartless and cynical move aimed at keeping us conveniently out of the way while they brought in their strikebreakers. Later that evening, a group of us set up an impromptu picket line in front of the newspaper building.