Local television and radio reporters gave the lockout plenty of coverage. So did the rival Calgary Sun, which distributed an edition of the paper wrapped in what appeared to be a Herald front page. “I always pray for opportunity,” said Sun publisher Les Pyette. The Herald opted not to tell its readers that the labour dispute had intensified. Publisher Gaynor later told a television reporter “there was nothing new to report” and described the lockout as nothing more than “a day off with pay.”
Reporters for other media organizations, asking the only question that ever seems important to them when covering a labour dispute, wanted to know what kind of salary increases we were seeking. I’m sure we told them at the time, but I can’t for the life of me remember the details now because this dispute was never about money. That is what made this an unusual event in Canadian labour movement history. We were not looking for more money and we were not looking for shorter working hours. We were a group of well-paid white-collar workers who wanted nothing more than to be treated with dignity and respect. One of the Herald managers said we were naive to think that such subjective demands could ever be written into a union contract. But we were determined to prove him wrong.
The strike officially began at 3:00 p.m. on November 8, 1999, with 107 journalists marching down the hill toward the Herald building from our newly rented strike office, hoisting our hand-made signs and waving to passing motorists who honked their horns in support. Our numbers constituted about 70 per cent of the newsroom workforce at that time: 40 editorial employees were philosophically opposed to trade unionism and chose to remain inside the Herald building, while another 13 adopted a wait-and-see attitude and stayed at home. The rest of us were on the picket line, accompanied by 67 striking workers from the Herald mailroom, loading dock and machine shop, who had also hit a roadblock in their talks with the employer. Journalists who usually reported the news were now making the news, giving interviews and putting on a picket-line, slogan-shouting show for the benefit of the television cameras. This was a strange role for many of us. We had changed from dutiful, rule-abiding employees into unionized rebels. Some of us had even taken to calling one another “brother” and “sister,” and making the words “solidarity” and “comrade” a regular part of our vocabulary.
The Herald was in full battle mode by this time. The depleted newsroom workforce was augmented by 40 reporters, copy editors, photographers and editorial managers flown in from newspapers in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. These strikebreakers were housed in an expensive hotel near the Herald building, given rental cars and free meal tickets for the Herald cafeteria (unlike regular Herald staffers, who still had to pay). On top of that, they were paid up to $600 a day for their replacement services, which was more than double what a senior Herald reporter earned. Sinister-looking, black-clad, commando-style security guards also patrolled the entrances to the Herald building 24 hours a day. Even with the newsroom on strike, a version of the newspaper was published daily with minimal disruption.
The union leaders moved quickly to ensure our battle would not be just a local skirmish like the three-week strike that St. Catharines Standard workers staged during the summer of 1998 when publisher Gaynor was running the paper. Money and other support poured in from union locals across the country, letters were written to politicians, and reader and advertiser boycotts were organized. Our story became national news thanks to the Canadian Press news agency, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine and the CBC radio and television networks. Also contributing to the flow of information about the strike was a cheeky union web page providing background detail unavailable elsewhere in the media, including a “Wall of Shame” featuring biographical snippets and photographs of the strikebreakers.
We told the media that the labour dispute began as a reaction by a group of Herald editorial employees to intolerable working conditions in the Herald newsroom. Publisher Gaynor begged to differ. He said the labour dispute stemmed from an “immovable core” of senior editorial employees resisting the paper’s efforts to shift from “advocacy” journalism to what his predecessor, Ken King, had described acronymically as FAB (fairness, accuracy, balance). “They want an environment in which they can continue their efforts to resist this new direction, free from the responsibilities of basic job expectations,” Gaynor wrote in a Herald column. None of the striking journalists had ever heard him use this far-fetched argument before, but I decided to respond to it. I published the following open letter to Gaynor on the union’s web page:
Let me tell you about new directions at the Calgary Herald, Mr. Gaynor. I have seen my share of them during the twenty-five years I have worked in the Herald newsroom.
I have seen the Herald progress from Underwoods to iMacs, switch from afternoon to morning publication, publish on Sundays, launch and subsequently abandon the Sunday magazine, embrace colour photography, and downplay the task of covering news and sports while actively promoting “line extensions” – otherwise known as advertising-driven special sections. Heck, I can even remember a time when we didn’t have rug on the newsroom floor.
Have I resisted any of these new directions? Of course not. I don’t make up the rules; I just play by them. Whenever someone brings in a new set of rules, I adjust my game accordingly. Whatever the gig calls for, as my colleagues in the music business used to say.
Because of advocacy journalism – which Mr. Gaynor suggests has no place in today’s Herald and which I would characterize as journalism practised selflessly in the public interest – city taxpayers received enough information to know that Calgary did not need a new city hall that would have been the Taj Mahal of Canadian municipal buildings, a lavish structure that would have given new definition to the term “edifice complex.” Because of advocacy journalism, Calgary received massive government funding for a performing arts centre that is rated by The New York Times as one of the finest in North America. Because of advocacy journalism, the Herald has won a slew of National Newspaper Awards and been nominated several times for the Michener awards in public service journalism.
What has FAB brought us? Let me count the ways. It has brought us celebrity gossip and turned us into purveyors of printed junk food at the expense of in-depth news and analysis. It has brought us seventeen – count them – front-page stories on Shania Twain, published before and after a concert that just happened to be co-sponsored by the Calgary Herald. It has brought us wall-to-wall coverage of such one-off events as the Rotary International convention, a bus-and-truck version of The Wizard of Oz musical, and the World Police/Fire Games – the kind of blanket coverage that even the participants in the games considered excessive.
We used to be the paper of record. Now we traffic in phony drama driven by the trash mentality of the tabloid press, the hysterical urgencies of commercial television and the blather of local talk-radio shows. We now fill our paper with sensation: Lewinskiana, Diana-itis, O.J. Simpsonitis; front-page rumour (remember the Spice Girls never coming to town?) and bloated Daily Telegraph trivialities, all at the expense of significant fact. We used to be the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, we play in a kazoo band.
As for the Herald’s supposed abandonment of advocacy journalism, how does one reconcile this with the fact that its current roster of scab writers includes both a former researcher for the right-wing Fraser Institute and a policy advisor to the Progressive Group for Independent Business – a right-wing lobby group that ran candidates in the 1997 Alberta provincial election under the Alberta Social Credit banner. The paper also has a replacement writer who belongs to the racist South African Institute, and a replacement writer with an anti-feminist, anti-gay agenda who pickets the Kensington abortion clinic on weekends.
I had a great job at the Calgary Herald before I went on strike. I wrote the Tribute column and feature stories about people and subjects that engaged me. I was well paid, had a semi-private office and generous company benefits. So why am I walking a picket line?
I am walking because I am one of the people chosen by the tribe to lead them from darkness into light. I am walking because I – together with Andy Marshall, Lisa Dempster and Mark Lowey – was elected by our newsroom colleagues to go to the bargaining table and bring back a collective agreement. I am walking because I believe in the fundamental need for a contract providing a measure of job security for all editorial employees, and protection against exploitation. My colleagues voted 82.5 per cent in favour of strike action supporting our efforts to obtain such a contract. I will not let them down. It would be a betrayal of everything I believe in if I were to do otherwise.
I have worked at the Herald for most of my adult life. I have the gold watch to prove it. I started as a police reporter and progressed through a succession of coveted writing assignments – arts and entertainment reporter, theatre critic, Sunday magazine writer, features writer – to my current position.
The Herald has been very good to me. It was a destination newspaper when I came here in 1974, and I have never wanted to work anywhere else. My sincerest hope for the future is that the people who come after me would be given similar recognition for their skills and years of service and be rewarded accordingly.
Mr. Gaynor, needless to say, never responded to my letter. Nor was I ever invited to run it in the newspaper as an opinion piece. As far as the Herald was concerned, the people working inside the building were the good guys and those of us on the picket line were the bad guys. If we had anything to say about the labour dispute, it would never be deemed sufficiently important to appear in the pages of the paper. I did, however, receive many congratulatory messages about my letter from union members across the country and around the world.
During the first month of the strike, we enjoyed some of the warmest weather in southern Alberta history, which helped boost spirits on the picket line. On November 11, Remembrance Day, the strikers were wearing shorts and T-shirts when I brought my accordion down to the line to play “The Last Post.” We observed two minutes of silence in memory of Canada’s war veterans and then sang a few choruses of “Solidarity Forever.” It was my 34th Remembrance Day in Canada, one I would always keep pressed in the memory book along with that wonderful day in 1966 when I became a landed immigrant. On other warm days, we tossed footballs and Frisbees around on the picket line, much to the annoyance of the grim-faced managers and replacement workers driving past.
We lost a few people from the picket line during the first weeks of the strike. Four returned to work, mainly for financial reasons, as Christmas was coming and they just couldn’t afford to go without their salaries any longer. Some of us were disappointed by this, others were angry. We were hurting too, but we were staying the course. Why couldn’t they do the same? The defecting strikers immediately became pariahs in our eyes. Such was the divisive, polarizing nature of this labour dispute. If they weren’t with us, they were against us. Friendships were broken as a result. But the defections did serve to cement the bonds between those of us still walking the line. Our numbers remained at a solid 103 for the next few months.
I could never see the point of the picketing. It was a 19th-century strike tactic that served no useful purpose in the late 20th century. We had no ability to shut down the plant, and nobody to give our message to aside from the workers going in and out of the building, the truck drivers who delivered mail and supplies, and the occasional individual who ventured into the building to buy an ad. If the Herald had been located in downtown Calgary, we would have had a more visible presence and the ability to remind passing pedestrians that we were the people responsible for giving them something worthwhile to read with their morning coffee. But the Herald building was located in an industrial district atop a hill on the outskirts of downtown, where the only passing creatures were rabbits, gophers, field mice and migrating Canada geese. Because we were journalists, we wanted to put out a strike paper to compete with the Herald, but the union leaders wouldn’t hear of this. Too expensive, they said. So, walking around the building became our daily routine, for hours and hours and hours at a time.
Though we could not stop the paper from coming out, we were able to delay cars and trucks entering and leaving the Herald building for the first six weeks. That allowed us to taunt the scabs, tell receptive individuals why we were striking and distribute our information leaflets. We received a sympathetic hearing from friends inside the building – non-unionized sales reps and other workers who brought us coffee and donuts – until senior management ordered them, under threat of termination, to keep their car windows closed and have no further truck with the enemy. The Labour Relations Board then took away our right to delay vehicles after a big labour rally outside the Herald building on the night of December 11, when the outgoing paper-delivery trucks were held up for more than the five minutes agreed to under the protocol ratified by the company and the union. That night, to stop the trucks from leaving the plant, several striking workers sat on the ground in front of the vehicles. The police asked us to move away, and when some refused, they were tossed into the back of a paddy wagon. One was CEP bargainer Joy Langan, who phoned fellow bargainer Dave Coles on her cell phone and said, “I have a really serious problem.”
“Yeah,” said Coles. “I know you have. You’ve been arrested.”
“No, it’s not that,” said Langan. “I need a cigarette.”
After the December 11 rally, the Labour Relations Board ruled we could no longer delay vehicles, so we shifted our focus away from the picket line and took our fight into the community. Though some of us were still walking around the building, despite the fact that we now saw picketing as mainly useless, most of us stood on city street corners with big banners urging people to, “Cancel the Herald.” We distributed 4,000 leaflets daily in Calgary neighbourhoods, at the stores and offices of Herald advertisers and at special events around town.
Our efforts met with some success. A survey conducted for us by Vancouver pollsters Campbell Goodell Traynor showed Herald readership down by 24 per cent. Chapters Online stopped advertising in the Herald and Ford Canada said it would consider doing the same. Other advertisers demanded rebates from the Herald. The paper’s daily press run dropped from 140,000 to 116,000, and the Herald tried vainly, with offers of free dinners and free subscriptions to the Hollinger-owned National Post, to woo back subscribers who cancelled their papers. Publicly, the Herald managers disputed our numbers and insisted the strike was having little or no effect on circulation. But among themselves they admitted that readership was declining precipitously and that they were powerless to stop it. By 2002, Audit Bureau of Circulations figures would show that the Herald’s weekday circulation had plunged to an all-time low of 112,258 during the strike.
A “cyber picket line” organized by CEP Local 2000 in Vancouver grew rapidly to reach 3,000 subscribers. Support for the striking workers came from people all around the world, including journalists in Britain, Lithuania, Brazil, Sweden and the Commonwealth of Independent States in the former Soviet Union. But for all the moral and financial support we received from other trade unionists, nothing brought us any closer to getting a first collective agreement. The CEP, while nominally a national union with members all across Canada, had little clout when it came to marshalling nationwide support for our cause. Unionized journalists at the Vancouver Sun and Province could not walk out in support, or refuse to handle copy produced by non-striking Herald employees, because they were bound by the terms of a contract signed with their local management. Unionized journalists at other Hollinger papers were in the same situation. A “national day of protest” planned by union leaders from different parts of the country fizzled out before it began.
We went to some lengths to ensure that the strike remained constantly in the public eye. Hundreds of letters went to Calgary’s Mayor Al Duerr and Premier Ralph Klein to complain about the mounted police in riot gear who intimidated participants at the labour rally outside the Herald building on December 11. A group of about a hundred community leaders, calling themselves Friends of the Herald, asked Calgary city council to vote on a motion urging the two sides to get back to the table. Six Christian church leaders did the same. The aldermen voted 13 to 1 in favour of the motion, but Gaynor responded by telling a radio reporter that nobody dictated to him how to run his business.
Throughout the strike, Gaynor insisted in radio, television and print interviews that returning to the table would be a waste of time unless the CEP dropped its demand for seniority protection. “It’s important we have an editorial department that encourages initiative and is motivated by pursuit of excellence, and that we have a framework for encouraging that,” he told Southam News. “I don’t think seniority contracts – last-in, first-out language – do anything to support that.” Yet at the same time, Gaynor conceded he did not know of any newspaper contracts that lacked seniority language. In fact, there was even a seniority clause in the first agreement he reached with the St. Catharines Standard workers in 1998.
On the picket line, during the weeks leading up to Christmas 1999, we had plenty of social activities – pancake breakfasts, barbecues, carol singing – to keep our spirits high. On Christmas Day, striker Dave Climenhaga served a turkey dinner cooked by his wife, Luanne, to 25 picketing strikers. Dave referred to it as a “union turkey” because the unionized workers at Safeway had donated it to us. “It was a great delight to carve a fine-looking fowl like that on the line and serve it up in a spirit of comradeship and fraternity,” said Dave. “Here we were, after several weeks on the picket line, serving up dinner to a happy throng, playing Frisbee and good-naturedly heckling the odd scab that scuttled past us.”
We started to become disgruntled, however, as the old year turned into the new. Repeated phone calls to Herald management went unanswered as we tried to get them back to the bargaining table. Finally, on February 1, 2000, they agreed to meet with us, but the talks went nowhere. After little more than an hour at the table, they left us with a take-it-or-leave-it contract proposal that would have allowed the company to indiscriminately fire workers without giving a reason or providing an avenue for appeal. Needless to say, we rejected the proposal. No further talks were scheduled after that.
While I hated being in limbo, not knowing when or how this labour dispute was going to end, I did manage to fill my time and preserve my equilibrium with activities unrelated to the strike. Because I was still on the books as a Herald employee, I could not freelance for competing publications, but I was able to do some commercial writing that helped to ease the financial strain. I also added some professional music engagements to my calendar, including a week-long concert tour of Saskatchewan with my friend Felix Possak, one of Calgary’s top banjo players. Plus, I made a little money appearing as a piano-playing extra in a B movie called Dead Simple, a forgettable bit of trash that went straight to video. And I began work on my first two books: a literary biography of my ancestor Mary O’Leary, one of the most celebrated Irish-language poets of the 19th century; and Building a Province, a collection of biographical profiles of notable Albertans.
The enduring support of Zelda and Nicole also helped me to stay calm. Zelda knew exactly what I was going through, because she too had been involved in labour disputes, as a teacher with the Calgary Catholic School District. She often joined me on the picket line, as did Nicole, a strong believer in workers’ rights. Zelda came down to the line whenever we held a rally or an event, such as a candlelight hymn sing, and Nicole joined me on the line when she wasn’t working or rehearsing as lead singer for Calgary jump blues band the Dino Martinis.
In early May 2000, we were joined on the picket line by one hundred pressroom workers, who rejected concession demands that would have seen them working additional shifts for no added compensation. We hoped this would cause the Herald to stop production, but the paper continued to publish without significant disruption. The press workers stayed on the line for just six weeks and then ratified an agreement with the company. At that point, the heart went out of our strike. We had been on the line for more than six months and hopes for getting a first collective agreement had all but faded. To drag out the negotiations for as long as possible, the company had taken full advantage of Alberta’s labour laws, which are viewed as among the weakest in the country because they allow replacement workers and have no provisions for compulsory first-contract arbitration.
In early June 2000, with our seven-month-old picket line crumbling, our bargaining committee decided to play the one last card that we hoped would win us an agreement: we dropped seniority protection from our list of contract demands. We knew this would draw criticism from people in the labour movement, as well as from some of our own members, but it seemed our only remaining hope. Then, just as we felt we were about to start scoring some points, the company moved the goalposts by saying that seniority was only one of several issues that would have to be resolved before an agreement could be concluded. Among the outstanding issues were the conditions for returning to work, which would involve finding new positions for the striking journalists in a soon to be restructured newsroom. This process, the company said, would be complex and take time. “We’ll grind them down,” said one of the managers at a staff meeting inside the building.
As a last-ditch effort, the union launched a bad-faith bargaining action against the company in mid-June. Hollinger’s chairman and CEO, Conrad Black, had told our local president, Andy Marshall, during a televised confrontation in the lobby of a Calgary hotel that the strike would be resolved “either by coming to an end after two years, by decertification, or by you people coming back to work.” Black added, in an interview with The New York Times, that he expected the strikers to continue with their job action for a further two years “and then [the company] won’t have to keep their jobs anymore” (because a union that goes for that length of time without a first collective agreement automatically becomes subject to decertification). This statement struck union leaders as being actionable, and they filed suit accordingly. However, with the prospect of the Labour Relations Board hearings carrying on through the summer and into the fall, the striking journalists were not consoled by this initiative. We wanted an end to the strike. And we wanted it soon.
Next page: “The end, when it came, was not pretty.”