It has been almost two year since 253 workers of Le Journal de Montréal -- journalists, photographers and office staff -- were served with a lockout notice by their employer. On every single day since Jan. 24, 2009, whether under the scorching summer sun or the chilly winter of Montreal, these locked out workers have picketed the building they used to work in.
What started out as normal bargaining over working conditions quickly turns into an issue of much greater significance: the future of journalism in the face of media convergence and the antiquity of the Quebec labour code in the internet age. It is no wonder that the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), the parent union of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l'information du Journal de Montréal (STIJM), has picked up the plight of these workers as one of its main campaigns. The struggle of Journal de Montréal employees has also received much support from other workers. Ten thousand people, according to the union estimate, braved the cold in a solidarity rally organized by the CSN last December, making it one of the largest demonstrations in Montreal that year.
Owned by Quebecor, one of Canada's largest media conglomerates, the Journal management states that it seeks to maximize its profit by merging the online content of Quebecor's network of media and publications. This means fewer journalists and staff on the job. In the last round of negotiations last October, the management was demanding to lay off 80 per cent of the workforce, leaving only 50 workers on the job to run the largest French-language newspaper in North America.
Moreover, what this convergence will do is diminish plurality in reporting. Quebecor owns 77 newspapers, 22 magazines, and a French-language television network, Groupe TVA, that runs 17 channels across North America. It seeks to break down the walls between these newsrooms so that news can be copied from one publication to the other. The previous collective agreement of the Journal de Montréal contains a clause that prevents such thing and the management wants to get rid of it.
Quebecor not only owns newspapers and magazines, it also owns publishing houses, book stores, music stores, video stores, telecommunication, cable television (Videotron) and marketing companies. "Media concentration [of Quebecor] is at such a level that you have to really go out of your way right now to not consume anything from Quebecor," said Pascal Filloto, the union secretary of STIJM, in an interview.
With such concentration convergence in reality will mean blurring the line between reporting and advertisement. "The separation of publicity content and newsroom, that they also want to be able to loosen and permit things that wouldn't be allowed in our current collective agreement."
Every single day since the lockout, Le Journal de Montréal has still managed to put out its papers without employing any of its workers. One might ask how the largest French newspaper in North America can produce a daily newspaper without a journalist on its payroll. Evidently the Journal has been filling its pages with news that they recycle from the QMI (Quebecor's news agency). They are practically running the newspaper the way they have envisioned it: to have one person write one article and reprint it in every single Quebecor publication.
By doing this, Quebecor sidesteps the anti-scab law that only stipulates that no individual should be employed during a strike or a lockout in the establishment. The law, dating from the 1970s, clearly doesn't take into account the emergence of the internet that now allows many jobs, especially ones that involve mental labour, to be done virtually without relying on a physical establishment. "It is a 30-year-old law. It is before the internet. You put an army of $500-an-hour lawyers on that, and they are going to find some stuff, they are going to find some holes, and they did," said Pascal.
This loophole poses a serious challenge to the spirit of the anti-scab law. It diminishes the leverage that the unionized media workers have as their work and services could be "legally" replaced by virtual means. The union has launched a campaign to call for the lawmakers to update this antiquated law. Last October, the STIJM and the CSN presented before the National Assembly a petition, signed by 24,000 people, calling for the anti-scab law to be updated to suit the current working environment.
Two months later, a private member bill was put forward by Guy Leclair, a MNA from the Parti Quebecois, to amend the law. Bill 399, if passed, will add more protection to striking or locked-out workers whereby an employer will be "prohibited from utilizing, outside an establishment where a strike or lock-out has been declared, the services or work product of an employee, a contractor, a legal person, or a person employed by another employer." Pascal Filotto said that he really likes what he sees in this new bill, that "it fills most of the loopholes."
Meanwhile, the Conseil du patronat du Quebec has a different idea. As the province's largest employers' association, it said in a statement that the labour law, as it stands now, is "among the most constraining in North America" and has called for sweeping changes.
The Journal de Montréal conflict has shown that the Quebec anti-scab law is no longer adequate to protect the workers in times of conflict. Moreover, what's at stake here is not only the livelihood of 253 workers, but the future of journalism. Quebecor has made it clear that their business model is one that tramples upon journalists' independence and plurality of voices. The last barrier to their media convergence is the union and it has managed to undermine the union through these loopholes in the labour code. Bill 399 is a step in the right direction to close them, protect journalists, and prevent a repeat of such a bitter drawn-out lockout.
Ted Sprague is a labour activist and an independent journalist based in Montreal. He also writes the "Red Star Over Asia" column for the McGill Daily at McGill University. He can be reached at [email protected]
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