Strike that

Posted on January 04, 2017 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

As a bitter strike at Atlantic Canada’s largest and most storied daily newspaper heads into its second year, both sides frequently invoke the memory of the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s late publisher to justify their competing arguments. But the more important question now is, will his paper be around for anyone to remember by the time this strike ends… if it does?

Even before today’s I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours, beginnings-of-bargaining dance between representatives of the Halifax Chronicle Herald and the Halifax Typographical Union, David Wilson already knew this round of contract negotiations would be the most difficult yet.

It had been 16 years since Wilson, the Ottawa-based staff representative for the Communications Workers of America (Canada) — the parent union that represents the newspaper’s 61 reporters and editors — negotiated a first contract at the Herald. That one had taken seven months. “There was pushback from management,” he recalls today, “but, at the end of the day, we got a decent deal for a first contract, and everyone was happy.”
Much had changed since then — none of it for the better for anyone.

The giant, fire-breathing, media-killing dragon in every ink-on-paper newspaper newsroom is the Internet. The entire industry is reeling, not only from over-the-cliff declines in the numbers of print subscribers, thanks to oceans of free-for-the-clicking content online, but also from the continued cratering of all forms of traditional newspaper advertising (houses, automobiles, classifieds, display, etc…), thanks to the reality that sellers now have so many digital channels to reach their buyers.

The traditional 80-per-cent-advertising/20-per-cent subscription revenue model appears broken beyond repair, and most experts agree the future of the old printing-press, fleet-of-trucks, legacy newspaper industry (if it has one) will involve becoming more digital. The questions for those legacy publishers that no one can yet answer: how to get there? at what cost? who will pay for the news of the future and what will they be willing to pay?
In addition to those big picture woes, the Herald itself faced increasing competition for readers and advertisers in its own small market: there was Metro, a free daily that is part of the deep-pocketed Toronto-based Star Media Group; The Coast, an alternative weekly that attracts plenty of entertainment-related advertising;, the online business daily that has become the go-to source of business and political news for the local business community; and the Halifax Examiner, an ad-free online news outlet run by award-winning investigative journalist Tim Bousquet that is building readership with a mix of free and paid content.

The Herald had non-journalism-related financial issues as well. Like plenty of private companies, its defined benefit pension plan had been sideswiped by the 2008 financial meltdown. Management recently had to write a cheque for several million dollars to make things actuarily right again. Perhaps understandably, the company wanted out of that costly, contract-mandated plan.

That said — unlike many newspaper companies across North America, which were still shuddering under the debt burden of expensive, expansive mergers and acquisitions made in earlier, headier times — the Herald had avoided at least that fiscal abyss by steadfastly remaining one of the few large independent newspapers in the country. Not that the company didn’t have significant other debt of its own: it was still paying down a $26-million “state of the art” Wifag printing press bought back in 2003.

As a private company, the Herald was under no obligation to make its finances public, of course, but it has insisted its current union contract (signed in 2011) is “unsustainable.” According to the union, however, the company’s audited financial statements (which it was permitted to examine on a confidential basis) “showed the Chronicle Herald to be profitable.” The “potential reduction in its profitability,” according to the union’s reading, was that the newspaper had decided to write down its printing press debt faster than normal in order to make its finances look worse than they really were in order to pressure the union into more concessions.

The first official bargaining session was scheduled to take place today, October 21, 2015, in a private meeting room at Halifax’s Lord Nelson Hotel. When it began, the company handed union negotiators a copy of its 2011 contract with penciled-in changes it wanted. There were more than 1,200 changes to the non-monetary contract clauses alone! Some were mundane, but others seemed designed to slam a heavy management fist down hard on the scales of union-management balance.

Jula Hughes, a University of New Brunswick law professor who specializes in labour law, reviewed the contract for the CBC. She concluded it would change the notion of job security to “an aspiration rather than a right… I can’t tell you what would happen, but I can tell you that the employer certainly would have the ability to fundamentally move from being a unionized to a non-union workplace.”
When he first saw the company’s offer, Wilson remembers, “I said, ‘Oh my lord, look at this.’ If we accept this, we’ll be a union in name only…. We knew this would be tough, and we knew we would have to be concessionary. But…”

He tried to be optimistic. Without strikes, or public rancour, the union had recently struck deals with other newspaper owners, occasionally even achieving modest salary increases. Wilson himself negotiated contracts with all three New Brunswick dailies. In Saint John, he says, “we reached a deal in one hour and 24 minutes. With the Irvings!”

And yet he knew relations between Herald management and the union had been deteriorating for at least a decade. Each of the last three sets of contract negotiations had become more fraught. In 2009, the company laid off a quarter of its 100-journalist newsroom; in 2014 another 17 had been lopped through layoffs, buyouts and early retirements. In the winter of 2015, the company locked out its small pressmen’s local after those members had rejected company proposals to decimate their pension plan. The pressmen were quickly (some said brutally) brought to heel in a way many in the journalists’ union saw as a dry run for company plans to do the same to them.

To complicate matters for everyone, Graham Dennis, the paper’s longtime owner and publisher who’d helped make the Herald one of Canada’s most successful independent newspapers, had died in 2011. Dennis, who didn’t want the bad publicity that would result from having his employees on a picket line in front of the Herald building, had often apparently intervened to short-circuit near-strikes during previous negotiations by instructing his negotiators: “get it solved.”

He’d now been replaced as publisher by his daughter, Sarah, and — more worrying to the newsroom — her new husband, Mark Lever. He had become the company CEO in 2012. As the union was quick to point out, Lever knew nothing about newspapers and his own relatively skimpy business resumé included two bankruptcies. Lever had spoken hopefully of re-inventing the Herald as a new and different digital-based entity “with all the complexities and risks this transition entails.” That re-invention would be easier, it went without saying, if the company didn’t have to deal with a pesky union.

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