The end, when it came, was not pretty. Union bargainer Dave Coles met behind closed doors in June 2000 with senior company executives and came back with two offers from the employer that might have been drafted in Hades. The first involved continuing to bargain until all the outstanding issues, including the bad-faith legal proceedings, were resolved. That would mean us fighting on for many more months for a contract the company clearly did not want to give us, with the prospect of imminent decertification always hanging over us. The other offer was for us to immediately end our job action, disband the union and either return to work with a no-retribution promise from the company or accept buyout packages. We voted 68.5 per cent in favour of the second option. Of the 93 remaining strikers, only eight opted to return to the newsroom. The rest, including me, accepted buyouts. “I wouldn’t call it a loss,” said Andy Marshall, our courtly, soft-spoken local president. “I’d call it a disengagement with honour.”
Why did most of us take the money and leave? In my case, it was because I knew life would be unbearable for me in a non-unionized newsroom run by anti-union managers. This was not the “leaving-on-my-own-terms” exit I had envisaged four years earlier when I vowed I would never give younger managers the satisfaction of seeing me “bugger off and die.” But the protracted labour dispute, and the attitude of the managers toward it, left me with no choice. I simply did not believe the company’s statement that there would be no retribution. In fact, the reprisals had already started. Herald editor-in-chief Peter Menzies had sent us a “without prejudice” letter (meaning he could not later be held legally accountable for its contents) saying that the proposed newsroom restructuring would mean the loss of several full-time positions, including the Edmonton legislature correspondent; the theatre critic; baseball, hockey and golf writers; the chief business columnist; the books editor; the food columnist; and my own job as Tribute columnist. Menzies wasn’t bluffing. One writer who did decide to return to work, editorial page columnist Naomi Lakritz, had to hire a lawyer get her old job back after the employer invented a new position for her writing “personality profiles” that the editors had no interest in publishing.
A few of the strikers were upset over the way the strike ended. They had walked a picket line in solidarity for close to eight months to get a first collective agreement, only to see the company divide and conquer by offering buyouts in return for decertification. For me, the governing emotions were relief and sadness. This was not the outcome any of us would have wished for, but we had stood by our principles, fought until there was no longer a majority will to continue and ended our struggle with dignity. As my fellow bargainer Mark Lowey said:I believe the union was ours to create. I believe it was ours to bring to an end, or continue as we saw fit. I made the choice I made because I don’t believe you can plant a seed in barren ground, in a hostile environment, and retain much hope that it will grow. For me, it was either be cleaved now in terms of this union local, or face a thousand tiny cuts and a withering away over the next five years. Either way, our local that we all fought so hard for would bleed to death. This way, at least the choice was ours and it was, in keeping with the principles of trade unionism, a democratic choice. The union will rise again, I am convinced, on more hospitable ground. To everything there is a season.
Which leads to the inevitable question: did we, as Gaynor suggested in November 1999, jump off a cliff when we decided to take strike action against the company? Though I had some reservations at the time, I now believe we took the only course left open to us as a newly certified bargaining unit with fading hopes of getting an equitable first contract. We used the strike option, the last tool at our disposal, to bring the company to the table to deal with our grievances. If the company saw this as an opportunity to rid itself of some journalists that it perceived as troublemakers, one of whom undoubtedly could have been me, then so be it. There are some battles you fight not because you think you can win, but because you know it’s the right thing to do. The defenders of the Alamo, who as legend holds opted to stay and fight, could have gotten on their horses and ridden away. We could have done likewise, but chose not to. This was our hill to die on.
The strike ended on June 30, 2000. Within a matter of weeks, the grass around the red-brick building had lost its trampled-down look, stamped by the feet of a hundred pickets. Our crudely built wooden picket shack was gone, as was the phalanx of black-clad security guards who had patrolled the building 24 hours a day. To all outward appearances, it was back to business as usual at the Calgary Herald. Yet, even a cursory glance at any issue of the paper showed that the pre-strike quality was now permanently gone, never to be regained. Missing were the familiar names of dozens of reporters and photographers, many of them national award winners, who had once combined to make the Herald one of the best daily newspapers in western Canada. With a new editorial roster of mainly young and inexperienced prospects, the Herald had become, as one sports-minded media commentator, John Mather, later observed, a minor-league paper in a major-league city. Management no longer viewed the reporters as writers, in the literary sense. They were now “content providers.”
I was sad to see the paper’s decline in quality, but hardly surprised. It was no longer the paper I had come to work for in April 1974. It was no longer the paper of my old mentor, Bill Gold, the respected and influential editor who ran the newsroom during the Herald’s glory days as the newspaper of record for southern Alberta. Retired early on disability pension, Gold had died during the last month of our strike. He likely would not have approved of our “left-wing” union activities, because he was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who had once written speeches for Ontario premier William Davis. But then, there wouldn’t have been any need for a union when Gold was running the newsroom, because he believed in the importance of good journalism and supported his journalists accordingly.
I paid tribute to Gold in a chapter of my first book, Building a Province, completed during my 234 days on the picket line and published in the fall of 2000. After marking time for all those long weeks and months, I was now ready to get on with the rest of my life. I no longer felt a dull ache rising in my chest, and I had no desire to suffer a relapse. I had been in limbo for far too long. I wanted to write more books and experience the freedom and fear associated with being a freelance journalist. I wanted, in some manner, to return to the state of blissful uncertainty that defined those early years in Canada when my father thought I was “unemployed.” I had already started writing the next scene in the drama of my life, as an author of books about the social history and colourful characters of western Canada.
Excerpted from Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way From Dublin to Canada, by kind permission of Rocky Mountain Books