Chronicle Herald workers prepare for strike as 'last-ditch' talks fail

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Photographer Christian Laforce has been a loyal supporter of the Halifax Chronicle Herald since he was a kid.

The Halifax native, who began his photography career at the Nova Scotia daily as a contractor in 2002, first became involved with the newspaper as a nine-year-old delivery boy.

"We used to read the Herald as my parents were subscribers," Laforce said.

"I liked to compare the sports sections before I used to head out and deliver my daily newspapers."

Today, the 38-year-old is one of 61 unionized newsroom workers preparing to picket outside the company's main office on Joseph Howe Drive following weeks of failed negotiations over major changes being proposed in the newsroom.

"It's dark days," Laforce said.

According to the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU), which represents Laforce and his colleagues, the changes being proposed would result in a third of newsroom editorial staff being cut, a 17 per cent pay reduction, longer hours for employees and the removal of the clause ensuring equal pay for equal work in contracts. 

Mark Lever, company chief executive and president, stated in an open letter published in the Chronicle Herald last week "some of the people involved in designing and producing pages and some of the people who take photographs will be laid off."

The company has also been recruiting editorial contractors as temporary labour for the pending lockout.

In a final attempt to reach agreement and avoid the work stoppage, the HTU presented a number of concessions to the Chronicle Herald two days ago.

These included a five per cent wage cut for members, a two-year freeze on wages, a 25 per cent reduction in starting salaries for new reporters and photographers, reduced vacation allotment and a cap on severance packages.

The concessions were rejected in a few hours, and the company -- which last week stopped publishing story bylines over the dispute -- remained adamant a work stoppage would begin at the end of today, the HTU said.

"I feel that I'm well prepared to weather this," Laforce says.

He and his wife Joanne Firth have been saving for "a couple of years" in preparation for something like this.

Laforce, who became a full-time employee at the Chronicle Herald in 2005 after three years as a contractor, has witnessed several rounds of restructuring at the company.

"The first time was 2009 and that was a real shock to me. I was actually given a layoff notice but subsequently called back after another member of the photography department took a buyout offer. That hit me pretty hard.

"It hasn't been that much of a shock to me this time."

Career highlights at the paper include a month-long stint embedded with the Canadian army in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2007, Laforce said.

Helping to tell the story of bullied Windsor teen Sarah Atwell, whose face is distorted because of a genetic disorder, in 2012 was also pretty special.

Sarah's story made news around the world, and Laforce won an Atlantic Journalism award for his photography of her.

"I think everybody in the newsroom would agree that right up until the point that we stop working, we owe it to our subjects and our readers to be professional and execute.

"I have a big spot in my heart for the Chronicle Herald and I'm looking forward to getting past this," Laforce said.

Frank Campbell, vice president of the HTU, local 30130 of the Communication Workers of America-Canada, said the company did not present a counteroffer after rejecting the concessions presented on Wednesday.

The union's declaration of its intent to strike also made no difference, with the Chronicle Herald stating the lockout would commence at 12.01 a.m. tomorrow unless members agreed to the changes the company wanted in the newsroom, he said.

Management at the Chronicle Herald did not respond to requests for comment.

Members have decided to set up their own news website called Local Xpress during the pending work stoppage.

Few details are available as planning is still in the early stages, Campbell said.

"Our main objective will be picketing. We have 61 very talented people. The assumption would be that they rotate in and out of news and picket."

Publishing their own newspaper could be an important way to continue to ensure that Halifax's stories are told. This would not be the first time that striking newspapers published their own account.

In Canada's longest-running media labour dispute, 253 Journal de Montreal unionized workers were locked out by the paper's publisher in January 2009. During the 25-month lockout, the employees set up the newspaper Rue Frontenac.

Sun Media Corp., publishers of Journal de Quebec, locked out 140 workers for 14 months beginning April 2007. Employees distributed their own newspaper MediaMatin Quebec for free during this time.


Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/wikimedia commons

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