Media companies are converging, so should the unions

Marc EdgeIn The Laboring of Communication: Will Knowledge Workers of the World Unite? scholars Catherine McKercher and Vincent Mosco argue for larger, more powerful unions to combat the media concentration that’s resulted from media mergers and acquisitions.  Reviewed by Marc Edge.

Convergence has increased the power of media corporations nowhere more than in Canada, where unchecked cross-media mergers and acquisitions have resulted in one of the world’s highest levels of media ownership concentration. To counter that power, Vincent Mosco and Catherine McKercher argue in The Laboring of Communication: Will Knowledge Workers of the World Unite?, media workers should also converge into larger, and thus more powerful unions. This bigger-is-better mantra contradicts classical labour relations theory, which holds that smaller, more cohesive unions organized by craft rather than by industry can better hold out in support of their demands. But that was then and this is now, argues this husband-and-wife team of scholars.

McKercher, a former Ottawa Journal reporter who teaches in the School of Journalism at Carleton University, studied the phenomenon of media labour convergence for her 2002 book, Newsworkers Unite. She looked at the consolidation in 1996 of seven fractious unions at the jointly-operating Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers into one bargaining unit under the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP). The CEP, as it turns out, has proven just as powerful a voice for its membership without the inter-union battles that once raged at Pacific Press. Mosco, who currently holds a Canada Research Chair in Communication and Society at Queen’s University, is one of the world’s leading political economists of communication and author of 2004’s award-winning The Digital Sublime.

The Laboring of CommunicationMosco and McKercher cast their net broadly in The Laboring of Communication, defining knowledge workers to include not only media personnel but also creative talent, such as entertainers and musicians, and technical workers, such as software designers. Through a series of case studies, they examine the shifting sands of the information economy in the context of declining trade union membership, which is down about 22 percent in Canada and about 40 percent in the U.S. since the early 1980s. Technology, they note, has shifted the balance of workplace power in favor of management, making it more difficult for labour to organize. A shift from factory work to office work in the post-industrial “network” society weakened traditional blue-collar unions. So did neo-liberalism, which put business interests first as a matter of policy starting in the 1980s.

Corporate convergence has been most pronounced in media industries due to digital technology, creating global conglomerates of unprecedented cultural and political power. Some media unions, such as the CEP, have responded by adopting a convergence strategy of their own to combat such practices as outsourcing and permanent temporary workers, or “permatemps,” who work without job security or benefits. In this revival of the One Big Union movement from a century ago, Mosco and McKercher see possible “green shoots” of labour’s future.

For example, when the CBC went to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board in 1999 to reduce to one the number of unions that represented its workers, which had been as high as 12, the plan was to weaken labour and move to an all-contract workforce. After CBC staff chose the Canadian Media Guild over the CEP, however, the attempt met unexpected resistance.

The CMG was a local of the U.S.-based Communication Workers of America, a union with what Mosco and McKercher see as the best example in North America of a focused labour convergence strategy. Once strictly a telecommunications union, the CWA began diversifying in the 1980s and in 1991 declared a “wall to wall” strategy of unionizing all of the workers in a company. Its enormous size allowed it to muster vast financial and organizational resources in support of its members at the CBC, who were locked out in August 2004. By providing almost $10 million in strike pay, the CWA allowed CBC workers to hold out eight weeks. The agreement they won capped contract workers at 9.5 percent, lower than the 14 percent limit at the BBC, and allowed them to convert to permanent status after four years.

A similar battle in the telecom sector showed how convergence can be not only a technological phenomenon, but also one that is political and rhetorical. Phone company Telus followed a convergence strategy by diversifying from wired into wireless, mobile and Internet services until it reversed course in an attempt to marginalize its union. By splitting into four separate companies, Telus hoped to limit the Telecommunications Workers Union to representing workers in only its wired phone division. The TWU fought the move before the CIRB, however, and won the right to represent all Telus workers. It also won a three-month strike that ensued in 2005, after which Telus returned to its convergence strategy and combined its operations into one.

Again, just as it had at the CBC, convergence “bit back” against management attempts to use it to strategic advantage. Not all attempts at labour convergence in media have been successful, however. In Hollywood, note Mosco and McKercher, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Film and Television Artists (AFTRA) have twice failed to complete a planned merger despite many common concerns, such as outsourcing.

Increasingly, however, knowledge workers such as IT professionals have been organizing to protect their workplace rights. Contract workers at Microsoft in Seattle started the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, to represent the company’s permatemps. One global organization formed in 2000, Union Network International, represents more than 15 million knowledge workers internationally. UNI has negotiated Global Framework Agreements with multinational companies to establish rights for their workers no matter where they are located. For example, UNI signed a GFA with Quebecor World in 2007 that set basic labour standards for its 35,000 workers in 160 countries and provided them with protection against employment discrimination.

Mosco and McKercher see the “business union” model that focuses on economic power as contributing to the decline of organized labour in the late 20th Century. They see hope, however, in two new types of unionism. “Value-added” unions, such as the CWA, focus less on adversarial relations and even work in partnership with management to create “win-win” situations for both. And “social movement” unions, which return to organized labour’s roots by fighting politically for economic and social justice, as in the Service Employees International Union’s campaign against Wal-Mart’s business practices.

Whatever the future holds for knowledge workers, argue Mosco and McKercher, they deserve more attention from media scholars who tend to focus instead on media, messages, and audiences.

[Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the wrong version of this review was originally posted. The correct version includes the additional lines of text below, added Oct. 13.]

The Laboring of Communication is a good step in that direction, but events subsequent to its publication have shifted the sands yet again. The recent economic downturn, which saw media companies shed large numbers of staff as ad revenue fell, has created even more uncertainty for knowledge workers. Whether labor convergence can match corporate convergence in hard times as well as good will be a test of the bigger-is-better strategy and a logical subject of further study, for which Mosco and McKercher have laid a solid foundation.

Marc Edge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He was a journalist for the Vancouver Province and the Calgary Herald from 1974-93 and is the author of Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly and Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company.