Skip to main content

Word arrived Thursday that Unifor has named Brad Honywill, a former journalist and staff member of the union, to the panel that will draw up rules for disbursing federal funds to news organizations. This says much about the weakened state of newspapers. It also says something about the weakened state of unions.

The Liberal government invited Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, to be one of eight organizations naming members to the panel. “It is not just newspaper owners and media giants that are on that panel,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House, Wednesday. “We need to make sure that hard-working journalists are well represented on that panel as well.”

This writer does not believe that supporting newspapers with almost $600-million in federal funds is money well spent. Market forces should decide which newspapers survive, or what replaces them.

But if such a fund is to exist, then yes, an arm’s length panel should establish the rules for eligibility. And if ownership is represented on such a panel, then labour should be too.

But Unifor?

Because it’s so big, the union likes to throw its weight around. Currently, Unifor is waging a campaign to prevent Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives from winning the next election. It calls itself “the Resistance,” and "Andrew Scheer’s worst nightmare.”

Mr. Scheer, understandably, objects to having a sworn political enemy given the job of helping establish the rules by which news organizations receive government funds.

For daring to complain, Unifor president Jerry Dias labelled the Opposition Leader, “Trump of the North."

“Does he really want to see the demise of our Fourth Estate?” Mr. Dias wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the Toronto Sun and elsewhere. “Scheer puts the very principles of truth and democracy at risk with his own brand of fake news.”

None of this looks good on anyone, including journalists. But Unifor’s efforts to bully the Conservatives reflect the weakness of labour in our times.

Union participation fell from 38 per cent of the Canadian workforce in 1981 to 29 per cent in 2014, according to Statistics Canada, and is now largely confined to the public sector. From 1999 to 2014, Statscan reports, the percentage of the public servants enrolled in a union increased from 70 per cent of the workforce to 71 per cent. But in the private sector, participation fell from 18 per cent to 15 per cent.

Unifor grew out of a 2013 merger between the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) unions, which reflected the thinning ranks of private-sector unionized workers. Although by far the largest private-sector union in Canada, Unifor ranks third in terms of size, its 300,000 members less than half of the members represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

The union represents 12,000 media workers, including journalists at The Globe and Mail. (I’m a member.) It also represents bus drivers, baggage handlers, sawmill workers, workers at oil refineries, mine workers, construction workers, auto workers, teaching support staff, workers in warehouses, restaurant workers, workers in the gaming industry, and many more.

In contract talks at newspapers, Unifor typically struggles to prevent its workers from losing existing benefits. Pay raises are thin at best. Workers and their union reps focus on limiting clawbacks by management. The strike threat is really no threat at all. Everyone knows what happened at the Chronicle Herald in Halifax, whose journalists are represented by CWA Canada. After a 19-month lockout, workers settled in August, 2017, for a pay cut, longer hours and layoffs. Sixty-one went out; 25 returned.

The workplace has been disrupted within the craft of journalism and without. Job security, especially for younger workers, has largely vanished. Many employers have forced workers to sacrifice pension and other benefits. Union-protected seniority has been replaced by contract work and the gig economy.

Unifor shouldn’t be representing journalists while also campaigning against a political party. In happier times, journalists’ unions knew better than to place their members in such a conflict of interest. But these aren’t happier times. Many journalists are either non-unionized or belong to labour conglomerates that don’t understand the special ethical obligations that newspaper writers and editors face.

The government bailout undermines confidence in the impartiality of journalists. Unifor’s attacks on Conservatives do the same. We do our jobs anyway, without fear or favour, as best we can.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe