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A sign for the National Post outside the newspaper’s offices in Toronto.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Saying they have "no other realistic option," newsroom employees at the National Post in Ontario are working to unionize in the face of benefit-pay cuts and buyouts that they believe will threaten the quality of Postmedia Network Inc.'s national newspaper.

A union committee announced Wednesday morning that they were working to organize with CWA Canada, a division of the Communications Workers of America. Both CWA and the committee framed the move as a strange one in the conservative newspaper's 19-year history, calling it a "hell-freezes-over moment" for the National Post.

But they also describe the moment as a dire one. Earlier this year, Post staff lost a number of benefits along with other non-unionized newsrooms in Canada's largest newspaper chain; last fall, meanwhile, the company moved to cut 20 per cent of its salary costs, including through buyouts and layoffs, spreading the remaining staff thin.

The challenge for organizers will now be to encourage staff, some of whom having been happily without a union since day one, that they'll benefit from bargaining together. "We have a target on our backs if we're not organized," a member of the organizing committee told The Globe, asking to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from their employer.

Postmedia has shed hundreds of staff in recent years as it has struggled to get on stable financial footing and pay down debt in an era of steep advertising declines. Despite frequent cost-cutting initiatives and a debt restructuring last year, its long-term debt sat at $349-million at the end of May, according to its most recent quarterly report.

Another round of buyout offers was announced last week at the Post, leaving the already shrinking newsroom's staff feeling threatened. While Postmedia posted a profit in the most recent quarter, it was in part thanks to a one-time gain from slashing non-unionized employees' benefits.

This all came after a year in which Postmedia executives received nearly $2.3-million in "retention bonuses," despite three such executives leaving the company soon after.

"It's very unfair that they're giving themselves bonuses when they're taking money from our pockets in the form of these cuts," the union committee member said.

The committee also hopes that, should Postmedia seek bankruptcy protection at some point, their legal rights would be stronger.

Postmedia did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

The movement to organize the Post's first editorial union began in soon after the benefit cuts were announced in March. That included the end of parental-leave top-up pay, a move to defined-contribution pension plans, a reduction of employer pension contributions, and halting accruals in existing defined-benefit pension plans.

While it would affect each employee differently, CWA said it calculated that because of the cuts, a National Post staff member with a salary of $80,000 would lose out on an additional $80,000 over the course of 20 years.

Two National Post editorial staff told The Globe that the Postmedia chain has notable pay discrepancies both among its titles, including the Toronto Sun newsroom that shares a building with the Post, as well as among Post employees themselves.

Some newsroom staff remain reluctant to unionize even in the face of recent cuts, one staff member said. "The mood around it is pretty split. There'll be an interesting debate within the newsroom given the ideological slant of the paper," they said.

Ken Whyte, the National Post's founding editor-in-chief who left in 2003, said he was "shocked" to learn of the newsroom's union drive because of the paper's conservative slant, but was sympathetic to the employees who he said had little other choice in the face of "irresponsible" management.

Still, he was unsure of a union's effectiveness in the face of that management's willingness to make far-reaching cuts. Employees, he said, "don't have much leverage. If they were to take strike action, it would probably only make their own lives worse. So I'm not sure it's an effective way to address their concerns. At the same time, I'm not sure they have other options."

As Postmedia has navigated its many cuts, unionized and nonunionized newsrooms have had differing experiences. When the company didn't reach the 20-per-cent salary-cut goal it set last fall, layoff notices were issued throughout the chain.

But in Vancouver, where 54 layoffs were originally announced at the Sun and Province newspapers, subsequent union negotiations saved 21 of those jobs through compromises including one unpaid day off every two weeks for employees. "When a union is in place, there's negotiating room," the National Post union committee member said.

"It's not that people aren't willing to sacrifice, especially to save the company," said Martin O'Hanlon, president of CWA Canada. "But when they see [Postmedia chief executive Paul Godfrey] and his guys padding their pockets, they're not willing to sacrifice."

CWA Canada currently has 17 locals across the country, including the Ottawa Newspaper Guild – representing employees CTV Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Sun – and the Halifax Typographical Union, which represents the Chronicle Herald, whose newsroom recently ended a nearly 19-month-long strike.

In 2015, Postmedia bought Sun Media's English newspapers for $316-million. Since then, cost-cutting has ramped up across the board. In June, the company announced the Post would cease printing a Monday edition year-round, having already spent several years without Monday editions in the summertime.

The company closed the sale of its media-monitoring division, Infomart, to Meltwater News Canada Inc. for $38-million in August. The same month, it agreed to sell a Toronto printing plant to RICE Group for $30.5-million. The proceeds from both will be used to pay down Postmedia's debt.

Follow Josh O’Kane on Twitter: @joshokaneOpens in a new window

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