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Media workers can lead the fight against austerity

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In recent discussions within the labour movement in Canada and Quebec, people often overlook the role of media workers in fighting against neoliberal austerity politics and precarious, flexible work. Yet labour activists could learn from, and collaborate with, news and broadcast media workers to resist capitalist assaults.

What insights can the labour movement gain from the organizing strategies of media workers? Precarity has arguably been one of the defining features of broadcasting and newspaper work. Against these labour conditions, media workers have a long history of mobilizing.

Since the birth of the labour movement in Canada in the 19th century, media workers have been at the forefront of labour struggles and social change. Newspaper printers were at the centre of one of the most significant events in the history of the Canadian labour movement: the 1872 strike at Toronto newspaper the Globe.

On March 25, 1872, after the paper's management neglected the Toronto Typographical Union's demands to work less than 12-hour days, the printers went on strike. These workers were among the pioneers of the international Nine-Hour Movement for a shorter workday. On April 15, 1872, a demonstration was held in Toronto in solidarity with the striking printers. A parade of around 2,000 workers quickly grew to 10,000 people, representing about 10 per cent of the city's population at the time.

Following the strike, the federal government passed the Trade Unions Act (1872), legalizing labour unions in Canada. Beyond legislative reform, after 1872, many of the labour movement's more radical demands stemmed from the news workers strike, including the demand for a shorter workweek. The Toronto Trades Assembly, a major labour organization at the time, also published the weekly publication Ontario Workman, Canada's first labour newspaper. As capitalism accelerated, the labour press gave workers a crucial autonomous platform to not only raise awareness of labour injustice and oppression, but also to fight against it. 

This practice of autonomous or alternative labour-based media is still important today. In April 2007, locked out workers at Journal de Québec created their own newspaper, Média Matin Québec, urging people to boycott the Journal. Sun Media Corp., the owner of the paper, locked out 140 unionized staff, deciding to end negotiations with workers regarding salaries, the length of the workweek, job outsourcing, and media convergence.

With the support of their union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), news workers published and distributed around 40,000 copies per day of their free alternative paper, from Monday to Friday. The paper ran for more than 14 months, the duration of the lockout. It was meant to serve as a pressure tactic to force the employer to return to the collective bargaining table.

Another strategy is to use alternative or community media to support non-media workers. Campus-community radio and television stations can use media to build links and solidarity with the labour movement. An example of solidarity-building media is the monthly "Labour Radio" show on CKUT 90.3 FM based at McGill University in Montreal. Community media programs like "Labour Radio" are important to counter mainstream, profit-driven media and provide spaces for alternative voices.

Compare mainstream media and "Labour Radio" coverage: the former tends to focus on events rather than issues. One of the key events through which corporate media frame labour is the strike. Strike coverage is typically centred on the effects of the dispute, often erasing the broader context in which it emerges. To address these work stoppages, mainstream media typically use biased, anti-worker language, based on assumptions of mobilization against the labour movement.

Unlike profit-driven media, "Labour Radio" regularly includes in-depth coverage of concrete labour issues. Without this discussion, many people aren't usually able to fully grasp labour events. "Labour Radio" is also inherently pro-worker and supports the labour movement: often, stories are about the projects of rank-and-file workers.

For example, a December 2011 "Labour Radio" show included a piece about McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association's A Christmas Carol hardship fundraiser for workers following the fall 2011 strike, and the importance of union strike funds. Also aired was an in-depth interview with Michel Daigle, the president of the union representing workers at a pork processing plant in St. Simon, Quebec, who were locked out since 2007, and a documentary about the labour of basket-making in India. Workers and unions are not only reflected on Labour Radio but also help to directly oppose anti-labour biases found elsewhere in the media.

In addition to autonomous or alternative media, a key strategy of precarious media workers is to organize collectively in unions. L'association des journalistes indépendants du Québec (AJIQ) is a union that represents freelance journalists in Quebec. AJIQ is affiliated with La Fédération nationale des communications (FNC). FNC is a federation of unions that represents around 7,000 communication workers in Quebec.

AJIQ fights to improve the socio-economic and labour conditions of freelance and contract journalists, some of the most precarious media workers who don't typically form unions. It has also supported individual grievances related to worker pay (for example, underpayment, no payment, or late payment). In addition, AJIQ has fought for the recognition of author rights of independent journalists.

If the labour movement is looking to move beyond precarity, it can learn a lot from, and build solidarity with, media workers.

Errol Salamon is a PhD student in Communication Studies, and can be reached at [email protected]. Errol organized and moderated a panel on media strategies for labour on Thursday, November 7. Panelists included Mariève Paradis, a freelance journalist and President of AJIQ; Lisa Djevahirdjian, a Conseillère syndicale for SCFP (CUPE); and David Tacium, a CEGEP teacher with experience on the executive of his union amd host of “Labour Radio” for six years.This event was part of Labour Week at McGill University organized by the Inter Union Council. For more information about Labour Week and the Inter Union Council, please visit interunionvoicemcgill.com.

This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.

Image: flickr/howlmontreal

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