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Winnipeg Free Press strikers fight concessions, launch strike website

There’s something wrong when a company sends its workers on strike twice in six years.

That’s the feeling among many of the 1,100 Winnipeg Free Press employees who are again on the picket line – 11 days into a strike that began Thanksgiving Monday.

Talks were stalemated for roughly the first week of the strike but they started again on October 21, which has given us some sense of optimism. The company has dropped most of the long list of concessions that prompted the strike, but some remain, and we haven’t made any real gains or agreed on a decent wage increase.

Even though the Free Press is in Winnipeg, it’s not owned by Canwest. It’s one of Canada’s only independent big-city dailies, owned mostly by Winnipeg businessman Bob Silver and Vancouver pulp and paper magnate Ron Stern. It’s Stern who pulls the strings at contract time. Besides that, I couldn’t tell you one thing about him I didn’t learn by Googling. In more than six years at the Free Press helping him make more than $20 million a year, I have never seen his face and never heard his voice. All I know is he forced us onto a picket line in 2002 and he’s done it again now by demanding a raft of concessions, many of them petty and small-minded, from nearly everyone in the building.

Here’s the Coles Notes on the concessions: Stern wanted to cut sick pay by 40 per cent, cut the pay of night staff, such as copy editors, by five to 10 per cent and lay off roughly 40 people without offering them a fair severance package. Carriers, the folks who get up at 2 a.m. in a Winnipeg winter, would have to deliver more for less without a decent formula to compensate them for rising gas prices. Part-timers would lose some seniority and vacation rights. And, as many newspapers have done, he wants to blend job classifications in the newsroom, creating one “journalist” instead of copy editors, photographers and reporters. That means everyone can do everyone else’s job. A reporter could be covering the crime beat one day and be shuffled to the night copy desk the next. If you see a lot more typos in the paper, if the photos start to look wonky or if the quality of news coverage starts to tank, you’ll know why.

On behalf of CMG members at CBC in Winnipeg, Joe Dudych hands over a $1,000 donation to Freep strikers.

For me, the worst thing about this strike is how badly it has eroded morale. Last month, I was really proud to work at the Freep. We have a unique front page that’s all pictures and boxes that has won rave reviews. We have one of the country’s only female editors. We do a lot of advocacy journalism on everything from Manitoba’s screwed up child welfare system to pollution in Flin Flon. Our circulation is up and we’ve made incredible strides on our website in the last couple of years.

Mostly, Stern leaves us alone to do good journalism and make him big money. But all the work done to build pride in the paper comes to a crashing halt every third autumn at contract time when Stern and his rabid labour lawyer Milt Christiansen come after our contract.

As a journalist, I raise a skeptical eyebrow at overwrought union rhetoric. But I have come to accept that Stern’s goal is to erode all the gains the union has made over the last generation, gut the contract and weaken my union – Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Local 191. He does it by hitting us hard with concessions early on and then refusing to talk. There haven’t really been any mano-a-mano negotiations yet. It’s all trading paper and watching a conciliator run back and forth between meeting rooms. It’s a ridiculous and counterproductive way to treat your employees.

There’s two upsides to all this, though. In all the boredom of the picket line, I have gotten to know many of the people who work for the Freep – carriers, ad reps, classifieds telephone staff, the wild and crazy pressmen – in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s hard sometimes for a reporter to realize that the paper isn’t all about them, and I’ve learned a ton about how my own paper works. As well, we are far, far better organized this time. We had a rival news website (http://www.freepressonstrike.com) posted the moment we walked out – an idea we stole from locked-out Journal de Quebec workers and the CBC journos on the picket line three years ago. We had e-mail trees and picketline newsletters and rallies and press releases ready to go. And we learned a lot for next time. Because if Stern continues to attack his own staff, we’ll see him on the picket line again in three years.

Mary Agnes Welch is a Free Press reporter and a member of CEP Local 191. She has been on strike since Thanksgiving Monday.

The Canadian Media Guild has donated a total of $2,000 to the strikers. Click here to view the letter sent by CMG president Lise Lareau to the strikers.

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