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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Strikebreaker issues bizarre condemnation of Tory candidate for management role in strike

| September 17, 2012

It takes more than a little brass for retired Calgary Herald editor and columnist Catherine Ford to condemn Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt as someone who all but caused the strike at that newspaper in 1999.

In a Globe and Mail article last week that characterized the recently nominated Conservative standard-bearer in the upcoming Calgary-Centre by-election as a "polarizing candidate" -- as a case can be made she is -- Ford was quoted assailing Crockatt as "one of the main reasons workers went on a union drive in 1999 and ended up in long strike (sic)."

Ford also characterized Crockatt "as a 'drive-by editor,'" which the Globe reporter helpfully described as "someone who makes significant changes in stories without consulting the writer."

Just for starters, whatever Crockatt's role in the Herald strike may have been -- and it is said here it is preposterous to suggest she single-handedly provoked the strike or even was a major contributor to it -- Ford also played a significant role in assisting the company to hurt her co-workers by busting their union.

That is to say, Ford was a strikebreaker. She lent her prestige, her high profile in journalism and Calgary society, and her undoubted talents as a scribe to writing for the Herald while her friends and colleagues took the risks and walked the picket line. And for what? Heaven knows. Her future was more secure than those of most of the journalists who actually stood up for the principles she had long claimed to espouse. It makes no difference that she crossed our picket line "electronically" -- filing her copy by email and telephone -- rather than in person.

Crockatt, whatever her journalistic and leadership sins may have been during her short tenure as managing editor of the Herald, was not a strikebreaker. She was legitimately in management at the time and owed a duty to her employer to show up for work, if not to take any pleasure in it.

The characterization of Crockatt as a drive-by editor, by the way, is ours, the strikers, and not Ford's. We had mean nicknames for Ford too, although there was no exclusivity in that. We had mean nicknames for almost everyone long before we contemplated joining a union, including one another.

"I have seen this woman at work," Ford went on, according to the Globe's account. "I do not trust her. I would not trust and I will not in any circumstances vote for her."

In the years since the Calgary Herald strike, which began in November 1999, there has been a lot of myth making about what happened and why. I was the vice-president of Local 115A of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada throughout the strike and I left the Herald afterward rather than try to work for an organization that treated its employees so shabbily, so I think I speak with some knowledge of the situation.

Was Crockatt "one of the main reasons" we went on a union organizing drive in 1999? Her management style, which was interfering and immature, was a factor, to be sure, but not much of one, in my view. I would characterize her more as an annoyance.

It is simply absurd to suggest, as the Globe's story does, that Crockatt was a major cause of the strike. Like all the managers, she took the party line, as was to be expected in such a situation. But in reality, her role was relatively minor. She was an unseasoned manager, and she certainly alienated some journalists through her approach to her job, and I suppose a few of them may have signed a union card as a consequence, but really that's about it.

Either acting on her own or someone's orders, she did shut down the informal newsroom group and told it to meet off-site to discuss journalists' concerns. In doing that, it is true, she gave us one more reason to unionize.

But the underlying causes of the strike were our concerns about job security at a time when the employer's attitude clearly indicated an interest in the idea of eliminating the jobs of more experienced (and thus more expensive) older workers, and perceived pressure from the publisher's office to insert right-wing, pro-government editorializing into our fair, accurate and balanced stories.

By the way, while regular readers of this blog will recognize that I am not a huge fan of Conrad Black, I don't blame him for the strike either. As proprietor, Black must have played a role in the conduct of the labour dispute, and it is hard to believe that he did not influence strategic decisions as the strike progressed. But he would have had very little to do with the fundamental origins of the strike.

Nor do I blame the leadership of our union, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, although it can be criticized for making strategic errors that may have made the strike harder to settle -- for example, the demonization of Black, which may have been fair enough in moral terms, but which was strategically counterproductive.

My personal view is that no one deserves more blame for the strike than Ken King, who was the publisher at the time we joined CEP, and who as such surely made the strategic assessments of the strength and commitment of the union that contributed to the way the employer conducted itself. As a union activist, of course, I was not privy to those discussions within Hollinger Inc., the company that owned the paper. But, ultimately, ex officio, the publisher was the company's man on the ground in Calgary and must take responsibility for the way things unfolded.

The push for news coverage that reflected the views of corporate Calgary's boardrooms also must have originated in the publisher's office, and certainly not in the mind of Joan Crockatt!

King was replaced part way through the labour dispute, before the legal strike actually began, by Dan Gaynor, who had a reputation within Hollinger as a successful tough-guy, effective at dealing with unions. Gaynor too must shoulder some of the blame for the company's conduct during the strike, and the fact it was needlessly prolonged. However, he certainly wasn't responsible for the simple reason he wasn't publisher when we started down that road.

There were likewise many senior executives in Hollinger who surely understood that the striking employees were good people who had loyally served the company, and who would have accepted a reasonable or even a significantly inferior contract to settle the strike. But they too became caught up in the dispatches they were receiving from their leaders on the ground -- led by the publisher of the day, whoever that was -- and allowed the travesty to continue.

The false promises and cowardly decisions of the leaders of the Graphic Communications International Union in Washington, D.C., our supposed union brothers, also helped to encourage the strike, prolong it and ultimately contributed significantly to the defeat the strikers. Finally, the role of the Alberta Labour Relations Board was an utter disgrace, which rankles to this day.

So to cast Crockatt as the cause of the strike, or even a significant contributor to it, is risible. For heaven's sake, one of her key roles once the strike was under way -- if reports from inside the Herald Bunker are to be believed -- was to deliver a welcome cake to strikers who had given up and gone back to work!

Anyway, the fact that Crockatt was an inexperienced manager or a lousy editor does not strike me as a sound reason to vote against her in the Calgary Centre by-election.

If you're going to vote against Joan Crockatt, do it because she advocates a heartless and harmful economic philosophy and because the party she is standing for increasingly represents an existential threat to the survival of a unified Canada.

As for Ford, she and Crockatt were on the same union-busting team. For her to now attack Crockatt's role in the strike is bizarre. If she so distrusted Crockatt, she should have said something in 1999!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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Comments

Ahh. Conservatives and their principles.

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