What’s in a union?

Rhiannon Russell listens in as journalists from the Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star, London Free Press and CTV discuss unions in the newsroom, publisher influence and working for free.

Rhiannon Russell listens in as journalists from the Hamilton Spectator, Toronto Star, London Free Press and CTV discuss unions in the newsroom, publisher influence and working for free.

Hamilton Spectator reporter Nicole MacIntyre opened the panel discussion with a tale of woe. Six years ago, her friend and (now former) colleague jumped ship for the National Post – and has never had a pay raise since. She makes $40,000 a year.

The Spectator is unionized; the Post isn’t. MacIntyre said joining the union “was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”

This was just one of the stories shared at the lunch-and-learn panel discussion on the importance of unions and collective agreements, held last week at Ryerson University. In addition to MacIntyre, panelists included Norman De Bono of the London Free Press and Scott Burton, a producer at CTV London. All three are very involved in the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild. Paul Morse, president of CEP Local 87M, acted as moderator. Stuart Laidlaw, unit chair of the Toronto Star, later joined the group from the audience.

He had a similar story to MacIntyre’s. Laidlaw worked at the Financial Post before he came to the Star, and “The money I was making at the Star after tax was more than I made before taxes at the Post,” he said.

“Being a part of a union is about having a voice in the workplace,” said De Bono. He said he was laid off from the Spectator years ago during staff cutbacks, but it didn’t change his attitude that unions are important. “It didn’t stop me from being involved, from being an activist.”

“Unions in the newsroom can be a bit of a uneasy relationship,” said MacIntyre. “There’s this fear amongst workers about how hard should we push.”

As the face of journalism evolves, so do its unions. Corporatization is a growing issue. “It’s cheaper to produce copy from a corporate office and have it shipped, dropped and dragged,” De Bono said.

In this economic climate, it’s also becoming increasingly popular to include generic copy in newspapers that isn’t relevant on a local level. For a news outlet to truly do its job, said De Bono, it must reflect the community.

Corporate influence on newsrooms is increasing.  De Bono said head office will sometimes direct certain stories or coverage. He mentioned a series he wrote for the Free Press about wind farms. He later got word from people at the head office that they wanted another story on them, so he revisited it at their direction. Doing the story this way altered the whole news cycle for the newspaper.

“[Corporations] have a brand, and they’re passionate about their brand. They feel they have the best vision for communicating on a multimedia platform,” said De Bono.

Burton agrees that journalists should be aware that corporatization is going on. “At one point, [De Bono’s] and my employer was the same guy. And it was literally one guy,” he said. “Eventually, all his assets were bought out.”

This is relevant to unions because it’s easy for a corporation or conglomerate to infringe upon its workers’ rights.

Regulation of hours is also key for reporters today. “In a newsroom, you could work all day, and frankly we often do,” said MacIntyre. “A story is always evolving. You could always do more.” The union ensures that if its members do work around the clock, they’re paid accordingly.

This is especially important because journalists today are expected to do anything and everything. Blog, tweet, take photos, record video and audio – you name it and employers very often expect it. “By the way, they should all be great-quality and you have to do it in eight hours,” joked MacIntyre. “There’s a lot more demands now.”

There’s also a union for freelancers and independent media workers. “Freelancers are being subjected to increasingly onerous contracts,” said Morse. Plus, these jobs typically involve more risk and uncertainty than full-time work at a news outlet.

Then there’s the issue of unpaid internships. As one audience member, who has a student currently completing a one-year internship for a major American news outlet without pay, asked: When do they turn into taking advantage of young journalists?

“It’s very easy to exploit people who are trying to get into a career,” said MacIntyre.
“Don’t allow yourselves to be abused.” She said she thought a one-year unpaid internship was a violation of young journalists’ rights and eagerness to work.

Laidlaw said the Star pays all of its interns full-time, starting wages.

“If you give your milk away for free, no one’s ever going to pay you for it,” MacIntyre added.

So why doesn’t the Post have a union when most of its counterparts do? Posed this question, the panel was silent and exchanged glances. De Bono stepped forward. “There’s a very strong anti-union climate at the Post,” he said. “The short-term answer is that we’re working on it.”

This panel was a part of Ryerson’s social justice week and was organized by Winnie Ng, the Sam Gindin chair in social justice and democracy, and Ann Rauhala, associate professor of journalism. “I would have been happy to have an event like this in the past few years,” said Rauhala. The journalism program gives students lots of information about employers, and, likewise, gives employers access to students. “I thought it was appropriate and long overdue to have the union people in,” she said.