Montreal Newspaper Guild coordinating with Ottawa Newspaper Guild; potential for labour action at both newsrooms at the same time.

Debbie Cole has been an employee of the Ottawa Citizen since 1977. She remembers when the Citizen’s union, the Ottawa Newspaper Guild, was almost 400-members strong.

That was a long time ago. These days, Cole, the president of ONG and a data analyst in the reader sales and service department, empties her trash and recycling bins into a communal repository because there aren’t enough building maintenance staff to clean individual desks. “If you look at the paper you can see the results (of cuts) … the lack of local reporting, the lack of all kinds of things that should be in the paper and aren’t there anymore,” Cole said. “We don’t see it, but those cuts have also happened in other departments.” The ONG unit which represents employees of the combined Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Sun newsrooms has dwindled to under 70 members.

And now, after negotiations with Postmedia management, the ONG faces a vote on Sept. 9 for a new contract which, according to Cole, demands cuts to Citizen and Sun employee benefits and sick leave, and offers only a minimal raise to staff who haven’t had one in six years. If union members vote no, they are in a legal strike or lockout position – and if they go, the union local that represents staff at the Montreal Gazette will follow suit. After years of cuts, and facing an uncertain future, the union wants to take a stand.

According to CWA Canada, ONG’s parent union, meetings about ONG’s new contract started more than two years ago. During that period, Postmedia announced the Ottawa Citizen and Sun newsrooms would be merged, as part of a number of newsroom mergers and job cuts that took place in January 2016. It was a significant cut, but only one of many experienced by the Citizen, Sun and other newspapers across the Postmedia chain in the intervening months. In June 2018, Postmedia closed six community newspapers and announced it would cut 10 per cent of its salary outlay across the company. (The Ottawa newsroom will lose four editorial staff members through buyouts as a result of the latest cuts.)

Cole said that through this, ONG members have still worked hard to bring people the news, even contributing free overtime. Yet, employees have not had a pay increase in six years — and the latest contract on the table did little to rectify that, only offering a .5 per cent pay increase in the last few months of the deal. Postmedia also wants ONG to adopt the “Common Plan” health and benefits package. This plan, which was imposed on non-unionized Postmedia staff in 2017, significantly reduces employee benefits and wages for extended periods of illness, according to Cole.

ONG had already agreed to change their pension plan to a union sponsored defined benefits plan, a concession Cole believes will save the company millions. “The guild wasn’t looking to make huge gains in our contract,” Cole said. “We know we are in an industry that is not thriving – but we haven’t had an increase since 2012.”

Phyllise Gelfand, Postmedia spokesperson, said in an emailed statement to J-Source that the media company would only discuss details of their contract negotiations with employees and the union, and won’t speculate on what might happen in the future. “At this time, we have no further comment.”

Martin O’Hanlon, the president of CWA Canada, has repeatedly said that Postmedia staff across Canada have born the brunt of cuts while Postmedia pays back $225 million in debt to investors over five years — and, in 2016, gave $2.3 million in bonuses to five executives. “We wouldn’t be in this position if the company would show real moral leadership and have the executives and investors share the same pain as the employees,” O’Hanlon said. “But it is always the employees who have to bear the burden, and we don’t think that’s fair. A real leader wouldn’t do that.”

Cole says that the ONG does hope that members vote against the current contract being offered by Postmedia, “to send a message to this company that you have to take us seriously and treat us with respect — that includes compensating us properly for all our work.”

It’s not just the Ottawa Citizen and Sun that will be affected by the results of this vote. The Montreal Newspaper Guild, which has suspended bargaining with Postmedia until after the results of ONG’s Sept. 9 vote, has agreed to coordinate with ONG. So if a strike date is set by the Ottawa union, Montreal’s will be on the picket lines the same day. The Sault Star is not yet in a legal strike position, but will be soon, and negotiations are on the horizon in Sudbury and Regina. “Whatever deal we get in Ottawa and Montreal will obviously have a strong effect on what happens at those other papers,” said O’Hanlon.

Cole hopes that ONG strikes a deal similar to one struck by the union locals at the Windsor Star, where they were able to retain their original benefits package and not go on the Common Plan. And Cole said the union has told Postmedia at the table it would prefer to avoid a strike — but because it’s questionable whether the Citizen and Sun could survive a prolonged work stoppage.

“Any of the money that they save, they are not investing in the paper; they are not making the product any better; they are not making customer service any better,” she said.

“It’s not like we feel like even if we agree to more cuts that it will benefit the paper in the long run — so we feel like we are making a stand.”