A Strike That’s Gone On Too Long

Last week there was a significant event in Nova Scotia that went largely unnoticed in the rest of Canada. Unfortunately it’s not a positive event, and it deserves more attention.

Over 50 unionized newsroom employees at the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax have now been on strike for more than 500 days. Yes, almost a year and a half. (The length of the average work stoppage in Canada is six days.) The strike started on January 23, 2016, after negotiations for a new collective agreement broke down.  The union representing the employees, the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU), says it has agreed to significant concessions in bargaining. But the employer has apparently refused to consider these offers, and continues to claim that it needs to cut costs significantly in order for the newspaper to survive.

There’s two important contextual factors affecting this strike. The first is that, unlike almost every other major daily newspaper in Canada, the Chronicle Herald is independently owned – by a company controlled by descendants of the newspaper’s founder (more about the paper’s ownership in a minute). Interestingly, the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU), which represents the striking workers, also has a long history; it was founded in 1869, not long before the newspaper which is now the Chronicle Herald began publishing in 1874. So, unlike many newspapers in Canada, the Chronicle Herald’s owners and managers don’t have to follow directives from some distant corporate headquarters – which, theoretically, should give them more flexibility and latitude in what they can bargain for.

The other is that Nova Scotia’s labour law allows employers to hire replacement workers to do the jobs of employees on strike. Not every province in Canada permits this, and some research indicates that in provinces where this option is available, it is not used very often. However, it has been argued that allowing employers to use replacement workers creates an imbalance in bargaining power that favours the employer. Hiring replacement workers when regular employees go on strike means that the employer can continue operating their business, and can avoid most of the economic damage that would usually result from a work stoppage.

Using replacement workers is exactly what the Chronicle Herald’s management has decided to do, and the results have been, by most accounts, a disaster. The newspaper is continuing to publish, but, as this analysis shows, it’s full of typos, bad editing, bad writing, and factual mistakes. The striking workers have taken the initiative of starting their own local news website; it says something about the comparable quality of the two news sources that, at the recent Atlantic Journalism Awards, the strikers’ website won two awards and received four other nominations, while the Chronicle Herald won a single award and was nominated for another.

The HTU says that part of the reason it’s refusing to concede to the Chronicle Herald’s demands – which, it says, now include handing over the strikers’ news website – is that “if one employer gets away with busting a union, others will follow”.

Generally, and rightly, labour law in Canada takes a hands-off perspective to collective bargaining. It’s not government’s job to micromanage how unions and employers bargain. So labour law sets the legal boundaries within which bargaining takes place, and then it’s up to the union and the employer to work together within those boundaries.

Halifax Typographical Union members on January 23, 2017, marking one year of being on strike. (credit: cwacanada.ca)

But every provincial labour law in Canada also provides ways for government to intervene if bargaining goes nowhere. In Nova Scotia, one of those mechanisms is an industrial inquiry commission. The provincial Minister of Labour can appoint a commission to “investigate and make recommendations”; the union and the employer don’t have to follow the recommendations, and the Minister can decide how or if they want to proceed after the commission makes its report. So an industrial inquiry commission is less of a hands-on government intervention in bargaining than other interventions that government can use, such as back-to-work legislation. But industrial inquiry commissions can be very useful in providing a neutral, external perspective on the issues and events in the dispute, and in identifying potential resolutions to the dispute.

The HTU says it has made two requests to Nova Scotia’s Minister of Labour for an industrial inquiry commission to be formed. A labour dispute lasting this long would certainly seem to be worthy of the government’s attention, if not its intervention. But in mid-April, things got even more absurd. The company allegedly suffering such major financial problems that it couldn’t afford to settle a collective agreement somehow managed to strike a deal to buy more than 20 other newspapers and four printing plants in Atlantic Canada. The newly named SaltWire Network now owns 35 newspapers in four provinces and is Atlantic Canada’s largest media organization.

Leaving aside the practical absurdities of the company’s name (salt can corrode wire and cause electrical systems to short out), the creation of SaltWire should have been more than enough impetus for the Nova Scotia government to step into the bargaining dispute between the HTU and the Chronicle Herald. There’s no question that the Canadian newspaper industry in general is struggling financially, and undoubtedly the Chronicle Herald has also been hit by those problems. But, to be blunt, it’s absurd for a company to claim for more than a year that it can’t afford a new collective agreement – especially with workers that have already agreed to make financial concessions – and then suddenly have enough funding for a major expansion of its operations.

Even if the Chronicle Herald’s owners had outside investors helping them finance the SaltWire deal – which, it appears, is what happened – an external investor, unless they’re badly informed or reckless, is likely not going to invest in a company that doesn’t have a reasonable chance of producing a positive financial return for them. The Chronicle Herald was apparently financially secure enough for investors to want to support the SaltWire purchase. That casts even further doubt on the Chronicle Herald’s claims of poverty, and makes it even more reprehensible that this bargaining dispute has lasted nearly a year and a half.

I don’t have enough information to be able to speculate on why the Nova Scotia government has refused to intervene in the Chronicle Herald/HTU situation. But another factor that’s significant here is that a newspaper isn’t just a business. It also provides an important service. Newspapers and other media keep people informed about what’s going on in their neighbourhood, their province, their country, their world. Losing a newspaper can decrease the amount of civic engagement in a community, and that’s a loss that can have long-term effects on how a society operates.

The mandate of Nova Scotia’s Ministry of Labour and Advanced Education, in its own words, is to “provide fairness, safety and prosperity for all Nova Scotians. The “fairness” seems to be missing in the Nova Scotia government’s refusal to intervene in this labour dispute. Between the excessively long time that this strike has lasted, and the apparent contradictions between the employer’s statements in bargaining and its business activities, there are more than enough reasons to call for a formal investigation of this situation. If the Nova Scotia government is truly committed to “fairness” for all its constituents, starting an industrial inquiry commission would be a good way to show that.

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