Workers at Montreal's La Presse, the city's largest French-language broadsheet, have long enjoyed Quebec's tradition of rich and generous pay and benefits for newspaper employees. Now, management at the daily says the party's over and it's time for a reality check.
It has told about 700 employees that the 125-year-old paper and its website will cease operations indefinitely on Dec. 1, if an agreement is not hammered out by then to cut costs.
Key demands from management in talks that have been taking place over the past several months include an end to the four-day work week, a bumping up of hours worked in a week to 35 from 32, and a 6-per-cent cut in pay.
The ultimatum at La Presse, the flagship of the Gesca Ltée. media empire owned by the Desmarais family's Power Corp. of Canada, comes amid a general crisis for the newspaper business in North America. Publications are struggling to cope with declining ad revenues in a severe economic downturn and the threat from the Web and new social media. Some papers, such as Denver's Rocky Mountain News, have already gone under.
Quebec's newspapers have long been known for lavishing benefits on militant workers to keep labour peace, but now with newspapers bleeding red ink, management is pushing to cut back and willing to fight battles with staff.
La Presse's longtime crosstown rival - Le Journal de Montréal, owned by Quebecor Inc. - is embroiled in a bitter labour conflict, with employees who share a history of rich benefits with their counterparts at La Presse locked out since January over a similar range of issues.
That dispute came on the heels of a drawn-out conflict over the need for cost-cutting at sister paper Le Journal de Québec in Quebec City more than two years ago.
The hard-line bargaining tactics at La Presse prompted calls from opposition politicians in Quebec City for the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest to prevent the potential loss of a venerable institution and important source of public information.
La Presse spokeswoman Caroline Jamet said maintaining the status quo has simply become untenable. "We're asking people here to work like those at other newspapers in North America, who have had to make concessions," she said.
"The recession has accentuated newspapers' losses tremendously," she added.
There is a major pension deficit to fund - on the order of $80-million - and significant repayments of the pension financing, she said.
She reiterated statements made by La Presse management in June that the paper faces cumulative losses of $100-million over the next five years if a new business model is not implemented. The priority now is getting the concessions from the unions to find the remaining $13-million from the total of $26-million in cutbacks that need to made by the end of the year, she said.
Among measures already taken, La Presse killed its Sunday edition earlier this summer. (Reflecting the turmoil in the rest of Canada, the National Post, part of CanWest Global Communications Corp., ceased publishing its Monday edition for nine weeks, starting on June 29.)
In a note sent to employees, La Presse publisher Guy Crevier said the paper's existing business model "hasn't any chance of survival," according to reports yesterday.
Management has agreed to let union negotiators see some of the paper's books.
Union representative Hélène De Guise told reporters yesterday that union officials "deplore" the pressure tactics being used by management.
Union officials have insisted that the pension deficit is only one among a series of problems and that it's important that all possible solutions be explored, not just those proposed by management.
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