Blog by John Miller

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Convergence wins

One of the longest and most vicious labor disputes in Canadian journalism began two years ago when Quebecor Media Inc. threatened to lay off 75 office workers at its Le Journal de Montreal newspaper. Now the lockout is over, with a humiliating union surrender that, among other things, means the loss of 190 jobs.

What happened in Montreal should send shock waves through other Canadian media unions. The message seems to be that corporate convergence has won, and it will continue to win. It remains to be seen if good journalism is counted among the losers.

The 253 employees locked out by Quebecor in January 2009 included some of the best-paid journalists in the country, earning average salaries of $88,000 and enjoying 32-hour work weeks. They toiled for the most profitable media company in Canada. Despite the recession and competition from the Internet, Quebecor still racks up record revenues and earnings, keeping one dollar in profit out of every three it takes in.

Those who choose to return to Le Journal will see their work week extended to 37.5 hours over five days, for the same pay. They will lose some of their astonishing social benefits, including four weeks of vacation pay at time and a half. Only 62 full-time jobs will remain, including 42 in the newsroom.

"We lost everything," said Pascal Filotto, the Secretary General of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal (STIJM) and former journalist with Le Journal. His sentiment is shared by many of the workers who voted 64.1 per cent in favour of the settlement proposed by Quebecor.

The reasons for the lockout varied, depending on who you ask. Pierre Karl Peladeau, Quebecor’s chief executive, blamed it on employee resistance to out-sourcing all but editorial and production jobs in an attempt to make Le Journal more profitable and web friendly. The union cited proposed staff and wage cutbacks, and the removal of a clause promising staff 100 percent job security.

Certainly the union took an unyielding line in face of the current corporate love affair with convergence of print, television and online platforms for news. It had deep pockets, shelling out $7 million in strike pay, and was confident that Quebec's powerful anti-scab legislation would prevent Le Journal from publishing quality journalism during the dispute.

But the union miscalculated. Months before the lockout, Quebecor established its own wire service, QMI, which was exempt from the anti-scab law and was able to channel news from other papers to Le Journal. It also promoted several key reporters to management, meaning they would continue to work during the dispute.

And the brand name of Le Journal, which was born out of the 1964 typographer’s union strike at another French daily, La Presse, meant that readership stayed strong during the lockout. André Forté, an adviser at the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), the parent union of STIJM, told the McGill Daily that "they never lost any money; they actually made even more money. We had no hope against such an adversary. They could have continued in a conflict like this for years."

Le Journal de Montreal’s journalists and other employees banded together to form the newspaper and online news site Rue Frontenac. The site’s name, cannon logo and tag line, "Par la bouche de nos crayons!" are a play on Governor Frontenac’s retort to news of the British invasion -- that he would respond from the mouth of his cannons. If the paper can attract investors, it may continue compete with Le Journal. A company demand for the discontinuation of Rue Frontenac, printed weekly and distributed to 75,000 homes, was withdrawn in the late stages of negotiations.

Since becoming president and CEO of Quebecor in 1999, Péladeau has been unequivocal in his disdain for big unions, big government. Maclean's magazine reports that "many employees believe Péladeau has essentially bought himself the ability to purge the union movement from Quebecor-owned newsrooms across the country." (Quebecor also owns the Sun Media chain of newspapers, a number of which are unionized.)

"Quebecor has broken the most powerful union within the Centrale des Syndicats Nationaux," says Dominic Fugère, a long-time motorsports columnist with Le Journal. "They’ll drown union people in non-union labour. It’ll break unions one by one."

The pressure of convergence may take its toll on good journalism as well. The editor-in-chief of Le Journal, Lyne Robitaille, is also the executive vice-president of operations Eastern Canada for Quebecor Media and Sun Media Corporation. During the lockout, Robitaille spoke on radio saying, "We no longer talk about journalists now. We are talking about producers of multimedia content."

A journalist who every day scurries about trying to get the same story in a notebook, in type, in sound and on videotape is surely going to be less a journalist than a technician. To be sure, the news industry is going through challenging times, but it is still one of the most fabulously profitable sectors of our economy. For it to bet its future on such a risky and self-limiting proposition is nothing less than suicidal folly.