No clear winners as Chronicle Herald strike ends

Newspapers on a desk at a hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo: Tony Webster/flickr

A few hours after the 19-month strike at The Chronicle Herald in Halifax ended on Thursday, photographer Christian Laforce was making plans to eat chicken wings. He wasn't sure exactly what he'd order, having never eaten at the restaurant he and a friend intended to visit, but he knew it would involve blue cheese sauce "no matter what."

The dinner wasn't necessarily a celebration.

Laforce said he has "mixed feelings" about the eight-year deal that passed with 94 per cent approval from the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU).

He won't be returning to the paper on Tuesday.

He's not alone.

Members have been on strike since January 2016. In July, the province launched a commission to end the strike. Mediation began earlier this month. Of the 61 striking members, only 25 will return to the Herald. Twenty-six have been laid off, one will be moving to another paper in the SaltWire Network, the Herald's parent company, and nine left during the strike for other jobs.

While workers were striking, the company was expanding. In April, the Herald purchased all of TC Media's newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada, as well as four printing plants.

Laforce said he knew he was going to be laid off, and has secured future employment.

Those who remain will see their workweek increase, changes to their duties, and a decrease in pay and benefits.

Workers are "relieved" said, union president Ingrid Bulmer, but mainly because the strike's finished. "It's not a win-win for either side because both sides are losing something." The paper lost subscriptions and advertisers during the strike, and its reputation suffered, she said.

Journalists have lost jobs. Those who will return to the Herald will see wages cut by five per cent, with an additional eight per cent cut for new hires, a concession Bulmer called "unfortunate." The deal also sees pension plans frozen, reductions to vacation time and sick days and an increase in the workweek to 37.5 hours from 35.

There will be modest pay increases after the first year of the deal, said Bulmer.

The new contract also guarantees workers cannot be laid off for two years. If workers are laid off in the future, their positions cannot be replaced with non-unionized workers, said Bulmer.

In a statement, Mark Lever, the paper's president and CEO, said the Herald wants to welcome the returning employees back to the newsroom.

But returning staff aren't sure exactly what they'll find.

One of the biggest tasks will be mending relationships within the company, with many predicting a strained newsroom environment, at least at the beginning. Both sides recognize returning after such a long strike will be difficult, said Bulmer. Returning staff will be given a couple days of orientation and employment counsellors will be on site to help with the transition. Offices have changed during the strike, so unionized and non-unionized staff will be working alongside each other, and this could cause tension.

Pam Sword, who will be returning to the newsroom, said her mental strategy is to "not overthink it." But she said the end of the strike is "surreal." Sword's been at the paper since 1989, most recently as a digital news editor. She doesn't know what her new job will be; workflow has changed during the strike. She's been told her position has been classified as a "lead editor."

During the strike, the company created a central hub for editing newspaper pages before they went to print. It isn't entirely clear how editing duties for print and digital products will be divided.

What Sword does know is many familiar faces will be missing, including the first friend she made at the paper. She spent her evening after the vote scrolling through former colleagues' posts on social media reminiscing about their time at the Herald. She contemplated what she'll wear when she goes into the office. She decided against sporting a "Local News Matter" button created when the strike began, saying she needs to "play by the rules."

The support workers received during the strike proved the message of the button true.

"We've said from the beginning that our fight was to not see journalism be crushed by what businesses think is good enough," said Bulmer, noting how newspapers across North America "continually attack the newsroom to save money." Readers need accurate information, she said, whether that's from a printed newspaper or digital news source. "The more journalists that go out the door, the less information people are going to have in order to make (informed) decisions," she said.

The conclusion of the strike means more than the end of several journalists' careers at the Herald. It also means the closing of LocalXpress, a news site created by the striking workers. Workers could choose to picket or work shifts for the site. While it was volunteer-run, photographers would shoot breaking news photos after midnight, said Sword, the site's editor. All the photographers wanted to contribute to the site, so it had the largest photo department in Atlantic Canada, she said.

Sword worked on the site, what she says her daughter called her "second child," from her dining room table, her three cats nearby. The community supported the site, saying readers were much more forgiving of errors like bad links posted on Facebook sites than they would have been if she was at the Herald.

It garnered recognition outside of Halifax. The site won two Atlantic Journalism awards for photojournalism. In the photojournalism feature category, it not only won gold, but claimed three finalist positions as well.

Christian Laforce, who was a feature photojournalism finalist, called the awards "validating."

Reporters Frances Willick and Michael Gorman, both now with the CBC, were finalists in the business reporting category for their work on the site.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Tony Webster/flickr

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