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A box of Now magazine can be seen across City Hall on Queen St., Toronto March 31, 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

A breakdown in bargaining between Now Magazine's ownership and its staff has thrown the future of Toronto's mainstay alternative publication into question.

Employees at the left-leaning weekly have been without a contract since December, and talks have broken down after a failed attempt at conciliation.

Company management requested a no-board report, issued Wednesday, which would put the magazine in a legal strike or lockout position after 17 days.

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The backdrop to the bargaining impasse is an environment of change and uncertainty that has, by some accounts, left the 35-year-old publication flirting with closing.

One of its co-founders, Michael Hollett, resigned his post in late July. Alice Klein, who is co-founder, editor, publisher and chief executive officer – and was formerly married to Mr. Hollett – controls the privately held business, and has allegedly signalled to staff that layoffs or even an outright shutdown could be necessary.

The no-board report pushes the company, which has more than 60 full and part-time staff, one major step closer to a work stoppage it can ill afford, raising doubts about the viability of a publication that has been a voice for progressive causes such as the environment and workers' rights.

"I think it's a very aggressive, very surprising and very disappointing move. We were willing to continue to discuss things," said Jonathan Goldsbie, a staff news writer and chair of the employee bargaining unit under Unifor local 87-M. "We would very much rather not strike. It's always on the table, but it's not something any of us are enthusiastic about."

Now Magazine is one among a dwindling set of alt-weeklies that still survive across Canada – such as The Coast in Halifax and Georgia Straight in Vancouver – and the last of its kind in Toronto, having outlasted competitor paper Eye Weekly, which went under in 2011 and was succeeded by The Grid, which in turn folded in 2014. Gay biweekly newspaper Xtra stopped circulating print copies last year and now publishes only online.

Now circulates about 100,000 print copies weekly and attracts 527,000 total readers per issue in print and online, according to Vividata. But it has suffered from an accelerating decline in advertising revenue, made worse by a federal ban on ads for sexual services introduced in late 2014. The company sold its Church Street headquarters, and needs a new home by Oct. 31.

Eight months after negotiations began, Now's bargaining team accuses the company of repeatedly moving the target for a deal – concessions the union offered to break the impasse have at times been met with new demands for further concessions, the union says.

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A bulletin sent to members on Aug. 8 said staff had been led to believe there was a real possibility the July 21 issue of Now could be its last. Since then, fears of an imminent shutdown have calmed somewhat, but the union worries the company might try to impose new terms of employment to force the issue.

In an interview, Mr. Goldsbie described the negotiating process so far as "a bizarre, labyrinthine purgatory."

Ms. Klein declined an interview request, but said in an e-mail that "We have high hopes for Now's future," adding that she believes some of the union's positions are "inaccurate."

"However, we are not going to be responding in the press as we will continue to focus all our efforts on finding a resolution to this impasse that works for the company, the union and our staff," she said.

One sign of Now's difficult predicament is the fact that severance terms have emerged as a key stumbling block. The current agreement provides a payout of up to a year's salary for the longest-serving employees, but the company suggested lowering the cap to 26 weeks, the union says.

"We want to save the business, but not at any expense," Mr. Goldsbie said. "It's unconscionable to cut severance at a time when layoffs have been promised."

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The union thought the two sides had reached a deal in April, according to Mr. Goldsbie, but the company backed away from the proposed terms. In July, a conciliator suggested a compromise that the union agreed to, but the company declined that as well, he said.

"It's not clear what happens now because the path to this point has been anything but straightforward," Mr. Goldsbie said.

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