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Tower of Babble: The Real Truth behind the book by Richard Stursberg

It’s fitting that the man who brought “Factual Entertainment” to the CBC has written a book supposedly to tell the real story of his time at the Corporation. Richard Stursberg’s book Tower of Babble is exactly that: part fact, mostly entertainment. It’s up to you to guess what’s what as you read it.

As leaders involved in one of the main conflicts of Stursberg’s time, take it from us:  the chapter about the lockout at the CBC in 2005 is so riddled with factual errors that it taints the credibility of rest of the book, which is too bad.  A solid history of the Stursberg era at the CBC would have been welcome.

The most disturbing disconnect that emerges from the book is that it appears that Stursberg, then Vice-President in charge of English TV, did not – or chose not to — understand the main issue of the dispute that led to the CBC’s decision to lock out its employees in 2005.

The main point of conflict was the CBC’s plan to create a workplace mostly made up of contract and other non-permanent workers.  Stursberg mentions this, but only in passing.   He glosses over what a sea change the CBC’s proposals would have meant. As many as 3,200 editorial, production, technical and administrative positions could eventually shift from permanent to contract if the proposal went ahead.  We arrived at that number when we pressed management’s chief negotiator, Stephen Satchell in the final hours before the lockout to list the various job categories that would be affected by CBC’s plan, so we fully understood what was at stake as we were being driven into conflict.

Could Stursberg really be so naïve to wonder in the book why the union got a strong strike vote?   Had management obtained what it wanted – a mostly non-permanent staff – employees would eventually lose their ability to effectively bargain any workplace rights.  Contract workers, without job security, would lose their ability to speak up and fight for themselves.   And in such a vulnerable climate, journalists would have a tough time exerting the professional independence that is so valuable at a public broadcaster.

Canadians knew the drive to a precarious workforce was the main issue of the lockout and so did then federal Labour Minister Joe Fontana, who publicly stated during the lockout that the government wanted “long-term permanent jobs for all our citizens.”   He told the Ottawa Citizen that Canadians should not have to sacrifice job security and job quality — “no matter the nature of their work.”

Stursberg writes that by the fifth week of the lockout “opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of the CMG.”   What he fails to recognize is that CMG wasn’t just winning a PR war.   We knew and Canadians knew that defending the idea of careers at the public broadcaster – and not just short-term contracts – was about more than us.  It was about a generation’s fight for real employment.

In his book, Stursberg never questions the collective strategy of a handful of CBC’s managers to impose the lockout, or why management thought it was necessary or even possible to dismantle the CBC’s employment model.

Like so much of Stursberg’s account of his time at CBC, the lockout was apparently a success.   “Remarkably,” Stursberg writes, “management seemed to have won all its key points.”   He claims management had to suppress news of its victory right after the settlement was reached in order to ensure the deal was ratified by union members.

Any analysis would show this is a false and outrageous claim.  On the main issue, the CBC only got what had been in place before the lockout. The number of contract employees was capped at 9.5% of the permanent staff (plus 80). That strange figure wasn’t an accident.  It was a snapshot of what existed at the time. More importantly, the deal guaranteed the primacy of the permanent workforce in writing, an important line that hadn’t been drawn before.   It was a huge win for workers, a win that’s conveniently forgotten in the book.

Another major issue by Stursberg’s account was known as “DOQ,” which refers to the qualifications a laid-off employee must have to justify bumping a colleague with less seniority.  Originally, CBC insisted that someone would have had to do the specific job for three years to claim they had qualifications to do it.  That’s where the phrase Demonstrated Occupational Qualifications (DOQ) came from. The union’s view was that there was a fairer way for a laid-off employee to demonstrate they could do another job.

Stursberg claims the issue was settled by the lockout to management’s benefit.  It wasn’t.  In fact, it was settled three years later – in a compromise between the two sides.

So no wonder management never claimed victory publicly – or privately.  Even key officials on the CBC side quietly acknowledged to the CMG bargaining team in the hours after the deal was reached that they had been beaten.

Elsewhere in the chapter, Stursberg complains about “old job classifications” that became out of date in the digital age and the need for “multi-skilling” and “cross-skilling”.   Those all had been issues – a decade earlier.   As a result of significant work by the CBC and the Guild, by 2005 rigid lines between editorial and technical work were mostly gone.

Another incident that appears to be misunderstood– deliberately or coincidentally – by Stursberg is a meeting he writes about having with the Guild’s Arnold Amber just days before the lockout.  He says Amber initiated the conversation (true) and that it was brief (true) between just the two of them (true).  However, he describes the tenor and tone of the conversation as one in which Amber threatened to take the union on strike (untrue).

What Amber told Stursberg during this conversation is that the union would not be bullied into settling on such important issues so it was willing to strike.  BUT Amber also suggested a last-ditch alternative.  He told Stursberg that our union had a history of NOT pulling the plug and working hard for settlements at the last moment and bargaining past deadlines.  In its 50-year history, CMG had never gone on strike.  Amber suggested Stursberg take control of the talks himself – which had been done by a previous Vice President, Michael McEwen, to successfully head off a work stoppage in 1996.   Stursberg declined the offer and told Amber that he had a “capable team” in place with a strong leader.  That leader, Michele Sparling, was dismissed by the CBC a mere 48 hours later and just before the lockout started.

The rest is history.   Management proceeded with the lockout, which even by Stursberg’s account, had been given Board approval months earlier.  To place any of the blame or rationale for the lockout on this brief encounter just doesn’t make sense.

And then there are a host of smaller factual errors.  It’s most important to correct those involving people.   He alleges CBC Board members Trina McQueen and Peter Herrndorf exchanged information and met with top union leaders (aka the “Central Committee”) during negotiations, thus destabilizing discussions inside the Board.   This just never happened.  Herrndorf and Amber saw one another once at an unrelated meeting early in the lockout but no information from either side was shared.   In another part, Stursberg says all members of the “Central Committee” were outside a key CBC Board meeting in Montreal during the lockout.  Guild president Lise Lareau was there, but with another group of Guild activists.

There’s an ironic end to all of this. Stursberg writes near the end of the book about the more positive relationship that developed in the years after the lockout between the union and CBC management.  That’s very true.  But he ignores and doesn’t give any credit to the person who initiated this better relationship.  That man was CBC CEO Hubert Lacroix, who fired Stursberg in August 2010.

Lise Lareau, National Vice-president, CMG
Dan Oldfield, Senior Staff Representative
Arnold Amber, former CBC Branch President

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