By Jan Creaser
Calgary Herald reporter Paul Drohan provided first-hand strike knowledge for University of Calgary students Dec. 1 when he addressed a sociology class called Worker Movements and Labour Unions. The Chair of the Picketing Committee spoke honestly about the state of affairs within the Herald which prompted workers to cast strike ballots almost four weeks ago.
Drohan, who worked as Managing Editor for the Brandon Sun and former National Editor for the Herald, seems an unlikely candidate to strike, but his reasons go further than his own personal job security and into the ideological depths of journalism.
He, like other strikers, objected to the treatment of employees in the Herald. References to an editor known as the Midnight Mangler, who would drastically change the content or focus of a story without consulting the reporter, and to incidents where staff unwilling to work up to 10 days straight were shown a pile of resumés and told they were welcome to leave, emphasized his point.
"The motive is the message in journalism and the motive now is making money," he told approximately 40 students.
This message about conditions at the Herald fulfills Sociology Professor Tom Langford’s definition of the purpose of labour
unions. Once in a while, a strike comes along that is trying to change the whole nature of labour-management relations in a certain sector, said Langford, and the Herald strike fits that bill.
"I think it has national significance not only because of labour-management issues, but also because it says a lot about democracy and the role of the press in democracy," he said. "Worker movements often aren’t just trying to look after themselves, but they’ve got a broader social agenda. I think this is the case where people like [Drohan], who is not your typical socialist militant, are firmly convinced that the press has a public function and see that being blown out of the water by the actions of the Herald management."
In Nov. 1998, Herald newsroom workers unionized under the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union Banner. Alberta has no provision forcing organizations to finalize a first contract with newly certified unions within a specified time period.
Because of this, Langford suggests that if the Herald is willing to put up with financial and good will losses, the strike may fizzle out and the voters in the decertification election regarding the union will end up being replacement workers.
Given that Herald Editor-in-chief Peter Menzies described the attitude inside the Herald as "wonderful," even after four weeks of striking, Langford’s prediction may not be too far off.
"One of the great stories of Canadian journalism is unfolding inside that newsroom," said Menzies. "If the Herald was the poor employer that these people indicate it is, why would there be 60 full-time members of the Herald at work in [our] newsroom? Journalists across the country want to work for us."
However, Langford addressed the Herald management’s bravado.
"[It’s] guaranteed [that] in the meetings we don’t hear about, they [management] know exactly how many subscriptions have been cancelled, exactly what kind of flack they’re getting," he said. "And the only way this strike can be won is if the union is able mobilize more people to support them and have more economic pressure on the Herald."
Since the beginning of the strike, replacement reporters have reportedly been paid $300 a day–a sum unheard of for beat reporters.
Drohan challenged Menzies and the rest of the Herald management on the quality of workers on the picket line versus those who have crossed it.
"The Herald can replace us physically," he said. "They can replace the bodies, but they can’t replace the knowledge, community contacts and the understanding of this community that could only come from having reported on this community for 10, 15 or 20 years."
Striking reporters have one other point in their favour: only two of the numerous daily newspapers in Canada are non-union, meaning replacement workers may have a hard time finding jobs when the strike is settled.