Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 3, 2000
Conrad Black and the Herald strike
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
It would seem that most Canadians still do not accept labour unions and collective bargaining as the legitimate institutions they are.
There are many reasons for this anti-union stance: unions receive bad press; they are highly visible pressure groups; their sinfulness (which is no greater than that of any other human institution) tends to be especially visible; their use of the social process of conflict is widely misunderstood.
Labour unions are an emotional subject for many people, including Conrad Black, chairman of Hollinger Inc., the major shareholder of Southam, which owns the Calgary Herald.
During a recent visit to Calgary, Black alleged: "We're dealing with a union movement whose methods consist principally of intimidation, defamation and vandalism. They are trying to swaddle themselves in the clothes of oppressed workers seeking respect for their rights."
When asked why he insults his once-valuable employees, Black said, "We're not. We're amputating gangrenous limbs. If they have the grace of conversion and want to function as employees instead of staging an NDP coup d'etat in the newsroom, they'll be welcome."
Despite the oblique religious references to "swaddling clothes," "conversion" and "healing," there seems to be more than a few gaps in Black's understanding of Christian social teaching which has been a staunch defender of the right to unionize and of the need for strong unionism in our society.
In its social teaching, the Catholic Church firmly maintains that labour unions have an essential role to play in preventing the violation of the dignity of human work and serving as a "mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice."
Without unions, working people have no collective voice in our industrialized society. Through labour unions, workers are able to strive for just wages, decent working conditions, appropriate social benefits and a democratic voice in the workplace.
Through labour unions, workers are also able to press for changes in public policy and to participate in a broader social movement to build a just society. In effect, the Church maintains labour unions are an "indispensable element of social life."
For these reasons, Church teaching encourages Catholic workers to become actively involved in their own unions and urges the Catholic community as a whole to support the essential role that labour unions have to play in society.
In the words of Pope John Paul: "In the interests of the common good of the whole of society, union demands . . . can and should seek the correction of all those elements which are harmful in the ownership of the means of production or in the way they are directed and administered.
"Social and socio-economic life is like a system of interconnected vessels. . . . It is in this respect that the activity of unions undoubtedly enters the area of politics, understood as the prudent care of the common good."
It is important to remind ourselves of the history of the labour movement in Canada and its contribution to building a more just society. Along with other community organizations, labour unions have been a major factor in promoting some of the most progressive social legislation in the country, including medicare, social housing, unemployment insurance, health and safety regulations, and consumer protection measures.
In so doing, they have played an important role in enhancing the social and economic rights of workers and of the poor and defenceless in our society.
What a union does primarily is bargain with an employer on behalf of the employees of a firm. This is actually an exercise of joint regulation, with management, of the workplace. The union and management, together, engage in a process of acting as joint authors and interpreters of some of the rules that will govern employment in the firm.
In this process they act as power blocs, using joint discussion, supported on each side by economic power, to determine what laws shall prevail in the workplace.
Collective bargaining is by no means concerned only with rates of pay. Its more important aims are non-economic. Thus, unions ensure the existence of grievance procedures, and of seniority systems, both of which are important checks on possible abuse of management authority.
In the Calgary Herald dispute, Black states: "They are trying to impose the sclerosis of absolute seniority as a criteria for treatment of employees" Herald publisher Dan Gaynor is a bit more tempered in his comments: "We want to create conditions in the newsroom which would foster initiative and the pursuit of excellence. The seniority package they're looking for runs counter to that philosophy."
Nevertheless, it's difficult to see any substantial difference between the seniority clause that the union is asking for and the seniority clauses contained in collective agreements negotiated between the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union (CEP) and The Globe and Mail, Pacific Press, The Ottawa Citizen, The Gazette and St. Catherines Standard.
Equally puzzling are Black's comments that management isn't averse to reopening contract talks. "We'll bargain with them if there's any point to it. But if we're just going to repeat the same positions back and forth to each other, what's the point? I understand that's the position the arbitrator has taken. If they want to show some flexibility, of course we'll talk to them, anytime."
A number of key union proposals before the Oct. 6-7 strike vote and tabled on Oct. 27 are: service and security of employment, freelancers, equipment and expenses, personal harassment, night differential, photographers on call, alternate work arrangements, technological change and library.
Management's response in each instance is simply: "Request that the union withdraw this proposal."
Black was close to the truth on at least one point, that is, "We have not lost any advertisers apart from a couple of clerics they gulled because of their naiveté and who have bought into this bunk about oppressed workers."
I think he might be referring to me as I have adopted the stance of "No talk (on the Herald's part at the negotiating table) = No talk (no interviews granted to the Herald until negotiations resume)." Admittedly a naive protest!
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