View my bio

Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, September 2, 2013

Does Every Newsroom Gets the Union it Deserves?

It's Labor Day in North America and as I look back on my working life in journalism and teaching journalism, it's been entirely in union shops.

The CBC has had a long and fractious relationship with its unions. And until the 1990s, every job category had its own union. At its most combative in the 1980s, CBC in Quebec had to negotiate with 14 separate unions. In English Canada, it was as many as 27. Through a series of government demands, the number in both English and French Canada is now down to 13 unions.

Unions in Canada have required membership. Once hired into a union shop, a worker must join the union and dues are automatically deducted from the pay check. It's called the "Rand Formula" (named for a supreme court judge) and has been in existence at the CBC and other public institutions for more than 60 years. The rationale is that workers who refuse to join a union, but who gain benefits from a union contract, are obliged to pay dues, even as non-members.*

No "right-to-work" laws exist in Canada, as they do in many states.

(At NPR during negotiations, management would routinely threaten to move NPR HQ from the District of Columbia to Virginia, a "right-to-work" state). Everyone knew that was the definition of an empty threat...

As a reporter at the CBC in Montreal, I was represented by the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) which was (and still is) on the left of most Quebec-based unions. I also served as a shop steward in one round of negotiations. When I became a producer, I joined the Association des Réalisateurs. (The AR went through a particularly brutal strike in 1959 in which their English-speaking colleagues refused to join them and even crossed picket lines to go to work. This lack of solidarity poisoned relations among CBC unions for years).

When I left Montreal to work in the Parliamentary bureau of CBC TV News, (crossing the Ottawa River into English Canada), I became a member of the still-damned Producers' Association. When I got to Toronto to work on The National, I was with The Newspaper Guild of America. Later the journalists at the CBC affiliated with a non-US union called the Canadian Media Guild.

At NPR, the journalists are represented by AFTRA - the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The engineers had a house union, but they are now represented by NABET, the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians.

As a manager at both the CBC and NPR, I believe there was an association to represent me. I never heard from anyone in that capacity. I think the union dues were very low, so I got what I paid for...

As a university teacher, I am now back in a union - CUPE - the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3902 (education workers).

I was involved in negotiations with unions in both of my media jobs. And in both shops, the union leaders were quite outspoken. Characters abounded.

When a shop steward at the CBC pulled a handgun (unloaded) on his supervisor, he was suspended without pay on the spot. The union grieved and won. The arbitrator ruled that management cannot suspend a union member unless a union representative is present. Evidently, it's not illegal to pull a gun on a supervisor at the CBC.

At NPR, one of our employees pulled a gun ( a .357 Magnum) on her supervisor. Security had her out the door and gone in 5 minutes. No union grievance there...

Aside from the occasional idiocies by both union and management, I thought that having a union was better than not having one. In my time, the sides always came to an agreement without a work stoppage both at the CBC and NPR. Decent wages and benefits allowed for people to earn a living and raise families.

Tensions were always there as management continually tried to find ways to do everything more cheaply and the union tended to defend its better paid members (the so-called "labor aristocracy") at the expense of the entry level journalists. But overall, the arrangement seems to work.

Which is why I was shocked to read how unions are treated in other media organizations. The memoirs of a newspaper reporter in Montana are sobering. And as news organization struggle to survive, the price of that survival is being paid by the reporters and editors at the bottom of a declining wage scale in a struggling industry.

You can read all about it here.

Happy Labor Day.

* Dan Bjarnason, a colleague from CBC TV News days notes that the Rand Formula "doesn't mean you have to join the union...but it does mean you have to pay union dues (and in return are entitled to the provisions of the union contract. I also assume the union would have to fight a grievance on your behalf, even through you aren't a member...).


  1. I "enjoyed" a brief stint as a manager at CBC and was invited to join the Management Association. One meeting was enough. A group of disgruntled folk were all complaining about how badly they were treated by the corporation and were agitating for more rewards for themselves. Their sense of victimization and entitlement turned me off. Employing my best reverse "how to make friends and influence people" technique I announced that I had come to the meeting thinking the Management Association was all about how to better manage the CBC for the sake of audiences, not how to get raises and shorter hours. Suffice to say, I didn't endear myself to the group. That experience foreshadowed my not very illustrious 12 months in management, after which I gratefully returned to on-air broadcasting!

  2. Thanks David. Management's loss is psychotherapy's gain!