How media workers are organizing to address issues of precarity, and what lessons the labour movement can learn.
By Errol Salamon
In the contemporary context of increasingly precarious, flexible and insecure forms of work, what insights can the labour movement gain from the organizing strategies of media workers? This question was the impetus for a panel called “Media Strategies for Labour,” which I organized during the Inter Union Council’s Labour Week at McGill University this past November. My aim was to address a blind spot in the labour movement in English and French Canada: the general lack of engagement with the mobilizing strategies of print and broadcast media workers against precarious labour conditions.
This blind spot is surprising considering that precarious labour conditions are a significant feature of media production across occupations and sectors. In its recent survey of 328 workers in Canada’s unscripted and reality and TV sector, the Canadian Media Guild found that workers are “precariously employed in difficult situations and have no safety net.”
One survey respondent wrote, “There is nothing to protect workers in factual TV. Exploitation is common and labour laws are commonly broken. Any worker who dares to complain about working conditions and other labour matters rightly fears blacklisting in the entire industry.”
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Such working conditions are the norm in Quebec and are increasing due in part to the province’s highly concentrated media economy. In its recently-released report, the Canadian Media Concentration Research project, based at Carleton University, highlights that the French-language media landscape in Quebec is more heavily concentrated than the media economy in the rest of Canada. Such conditions have contributed to massive job cuts.
The Canadian Media Guild released preliminary numbers on job cuts in the Canadian print media industry from 2008 to 2013. The cuts reveal a “troubling reality”: among the biggest cuts since 2012 are around 1,200 Sun Media Corp jobs across the country, 200 Postmedia jobs in British Columbia, and 9 per cent of the entire Toronto Star workforce.
As the Media Strategies for Labour panel demonstrated, media workers are addressing such precarious working conditions through key strategies that may be instructive for the labour movement, such as the alternative labour-based journalism of newsworkers. Panelist Lisa Djevahirdjian, a union representative in communications for Le Syndicat canadien de la fonction publique (SCFP), discussed the huge battle that the union helped newsworkers fight in Quebec City against Sun Media from 2007 to 2008, when Sun Media locked out staff at the Journal de Québec.
Rather than form a traditional picket line, the workers produced their own newspaper, MédiaMatin Québec, their version of a picket. With the help of SCFP, workers printed the paper for the duration of the lockout—around 14 months. They distributed 40,000 copies daily, from Monday to Friday, to Quebec City homes.
Publishing the paper was a challenge because Quebecor, Sun’s parent company, owned most of the printers in Quebec. In effect, the union had to negotiate secretly with a printer and only a few people knew where the paper was being printed. To produce MédiaMatin Québec, the SCFP spent around $200,000. Towards the end of the lockout, the paper unexpectedly generated a profit. In addition to the financial gain, Djevahirdjian said, “It was a better paper sometimes than the Journal de Québec because no one was on top of [the workers].”
The lockout paper’s success demonstrated to newsworkers the potential of labour media once the lockout was over. According to Djevahirdjian, the union considered buying its own radio station, but it was too expensive to finance: “[We] can’t gamble that much money, it’s workers’ money,” she said, pointing out the challenges that workers face in launching their own media initiatives. In addition, many of the workers that SCFP represents don’t necessarily want to stop publishing their work with media conglomerates such as Quebecor, but rather would like more opportunities to write stories from their own perspectives: “We want to set the stage,” said Djevahirdjian.[node:ad]
Panelist David Tacium echoed some of the challenges involved in sustaining labour-based broadcasting. Tacium is a college teacher in Quebec with experience on the executive of his union, and hosted Labour Radio for six years at community radio station CKUT 90.3 FM, housed at McGill University. “Labour Radio is about bringing people into the picture who don’t have a voice and are very often scorned,” such as sex workers, Tacium said.
Labour Radio stories are also presented from different angles than mainstream media reports, focused on aspects that mainstream media don’t usually cover, such as the post-traumatic stress of military workers.
Ultimately, programs like Labour Radio can help build coalitions across social movements. CKUT helped strengthen solidarity between workers and students during the 2012 student strike in Quebec, providing updates and live on-the-ground coverage of demonstrations from protesters’ perspectives.
Forming coalitions around issues of mutual concern have also been central to the collective organizing of freelance journalists in Quebec. Panelist Mariève Paradis, a freelance journalist and president of L’association des journalistes indépendants du Québec (AJIQ), discussed a successful mobilization campaign against a writers’ contract from Transcontinental Media (now TC Media) in 2013. The agreement asked freelancers to waive their moral rights and grant TC Media copyright across all of its brands, in all platforms, for eternity.
To resist this agreement, AJIQ formed a coalition with several groups, among them the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators, the Canadian Freelance Union, the Canadian Media Guild, the Canadian University Press, the Professional Writers Association of Canada and The Writers’ Union of Canada. The coalition went public with a press release and a hashtag campaign on Twitter, denouncing TC Media’s contract. In Sept. 2013, the mobilization led TC Media to revise the contract. For Paradis, this achievement is proof that we have “something in common that we should work together for.”
One of the main outcomes of the panel was that presenters and audience members alike stressed the importance of traditional communication media to mobilize people, such as face-to-face meetings or phone calls with individuals over less personalized digital media approaches. Social media shouldn’t be a primary tool to mobilize but rather could be a secondary source, for example, to provide information and document events.
As panel attendee Russell Harrison, a member of the community news collective at CKUT, put it, “You don’t stop a scab action by having a ‘like’ button. You do it with organization…. You have to mobilize on the ground. You have no other choice to build something that sustains itself.”
To build something sustainable, the labour movement can gain insights from media workers on how to form coalitions with a broader range of workers and groups with mutual interests outside of their local communities. From these workers, the labour movement can ultimately learn how to recompose precarity and fight against management control by forming autonomous organizations so that workers can retain their labour power.
Errol Salamon is a PhD student in communication studies at McGill University, where he is completing a dissertation on precarious newsworkers. In 2012, he co-organized the national, bilingual conference, Journalism Strategies, which brought together newsworkers, scholars, activists, policymakers, and others interested in journalism. Errol is currently co-editing a book that builds on the conference. As a newsworker, he was part of the community news collective at CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal, and his work has been published in The McGill Daily and on rabble.ca.
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