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Locked-out employees of Le Journal de Montreal protest outside of the Quebecor annual meeting Wednesday, May 12, 2010 in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The longest labour dispute in Canadian media history ended on Saturday when employees at the daily Journal de Montréal grudgingly accepted the company's latest offer to end a lockout that has lasted more than two years.

Many employees remained angry and bitter after reluctantly approving their union's recommendation to accept the offer by a margin of 64.1 per cent.

The new agreement called for the rehiring of 62 of the 227 remaining employees still locked out. Out of this number, 42 full-time journalists will be re-hired.

A total of 253 journalists and support staff were locked out by Quebecor Inc.'s flagship newspaper on January 24, 2009.

"We had to put an end to the suffering," said union president Raynald Leblanc. "You can't leave people out on the street indefinitely."

The impact of the labour dispute had taken its toll on most employees. Family breakups, psychological stress and financial hardships were some of the examples used by union members to explain why they were left no choice but to concede defeat in accepting the company's offer.

"For so many to have resisted for so long is quite admirable," said Yves Chartrand, a veteran political reporter at the Quebec National Assembly who said he was among those whose job has been eliminated. "We were up against a powerful empire. ... I wanted to continue the fight but you can't blame those who accepted the offer."

The province's flawed anti-strikebreaker law was blamed by employees for the long labour dispute. Throughout the lockout, Quebecor Inc. was able to use non-unionized employees working for its in-house news agency QMI to continue publishing the Journal de Montréal.

Members also expressed disappointment with a lack of support from the general public who refused to respond to the union's call to boycott the paper during the lockout.

However, some employees took aim at their own union federation, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux for failing to standup against what they called Quebecor's aggressive anti-union tactics.

For more then ten hours on Saturday, the employees went over the more than 80-page agreement with a fine-tooth comb, examining each provision of a collective agreement that called for major union concessions while the company backed away from previous demands.

Under the settlement reached with the help of provincial mediator Jean Poirier, media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau's Quebecor Inc., withdrew a demand that would have prohibited fired staff members from continuing to operate a competing on-line publication called Rue Frontenac, launched by the locked-out workers. A weekly print edition of the publication was launched last fall.

The company also withdrew a demand that would have prohibited, for a certain period, fired employees to work for competing news outlets.

The company proposed a $20-million severance and re-training package along with provisions to help finance the distribution and publication of the print edition of Rue Frontenac in what some union members called a "face saving" effort by the company.

But, in return, Quebecor Media wanted to have a say over the publication's editorial content. That provision was dropped during the course of the employee's meeting on Saturday when the company was contacted by phone and told that the deal would be rejected if it refused to strike the provision from the agreement.

The union was given 90 days by the company to turn Rue Frontenac into a workers' co-operative and dissociate itself from the publication. The union has been seeking financial backing from potential investors who may be interested in keeping the publication up and running as a co-operative.

"We are satisfied with the vote taken by the members," wrote Serge Sasseville, Quebecor's vice-president for corporate affairs, on Saturday. "We will soon sit down with the union to discuss details of a back-to-work agreement."

With several legal disputes still pending, it may take several days before both parties reach an acceptable back-to-work deal.

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