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Innocent bystanders in a vicious lockout

The Terry Fox anniversary underscores a clash of values and the myth of “independent” productions

By Lise Lareau
CMG National President

I am marking the Terry Fox anniversary with a range of emotion, but mostly tears. Not only for the loss of a national hero but also for the loss of a national sense of knowing the difference between right and wrong.

This is a story of how two very different groups became innocent victims in a lockout that the CBC orchestrated on August 15. And how the shifting sands of public perceptions pit one against the other.

One group, the Terry Fox Foundation run by Terry’s brother Darrell Fox, had been planning to mark the 25th anniversary of Terry’s Marathon of Hope in a momentous way today, September 16. Together with the CBC, there was to be a multi-faceted national day of celebrations, involving children, teachers and community leaders — to be broadcast from coast to coast.

The other group of people involved in this are us: members of the Canadian Media Guild. We were to broadcast this occasion. Peter Mansbridge and Ian Hanomansing were to host it on television. There was going to be an immense archiving project online. Hundreds of Guild members were to work on it, in one way or another. It was going to be one of those all-day Canadian broadcast events that only the CBC can do well.

As we all know, the CBC locked out those employees nearly six weeks ago. Its senior managers chose this extreme action and they chose the timing. They decided late August/September/October were the “best” times in the year to take such drastic action because the Winter Olympics were not on and there is no election in the cards. Evidently, the Terry Fox event was not deemed to be quite as important in the CBC’s calculations.

But the CBC didn’t hand off the Terry Fox project to a network that could do it justice under the changed circumstances: it decided to do it in a shortened and underhanded way. An all-day broadcast event was scaled down to a two-hour “live-to-tape” broadcast of events across the country. The CBC contracted the same three people who were working on the project (under CMG collective agreement rules) prior to the lockout and kept them on as an “independent production company” after the lockout.

What we now know is that this production company has contracted at least five other crews across the country today to shoot and broadcast events ? in St. John’s, Ottawa, Oshawa, Regina and Victoria. Actually these are not crews ? they are scabs, or replacement workers in the polite vernacular. They are doing work CMG members would have done if their employer had not locked them out.

The producers engaged a mobile truck and operator, called TV2GO, to provide a satellite uplink of the St. John’s event. In a really wicked twist, the company actually asked CBC retirees and locked-out workers if they wanted to work on the broadcast. Oh, and they forgot to mention the “scab” thing. Some were told it was a CTV production, others were told it was for an “independent production company”. They were offered good money.

So the St. John’s location unit of the Guild set up picket lines when they saw the truck try to enter the national park at Signal Hill yesterday. Several people who were contracted to work as crew turned around at the picket line when informed it was actually a CBC production under another name. The mobile truck was blocked.

The police and CBC managers (just in case anyone mistook the production for an independent one) stayed at the scene all day.

I contacted Darrell Fox, explained that all of us were victims of a lockout and asked for his support in delaying the broadcast of the event until after the lockout. It seemed like a good solution to a lousy situation: the celebrations could go ahead as planned, and people could watch it all after the lockout ended.

But Fox has a different vision and a different set of priorities, and who can blame him. He has devoted his life to Terry’s legacy and to raising money for cancer research. And one can certainly understand his overwhelming desire to see today’s events go off as planned, albeit in a diminished broadcast.

These were difficult conversations: I wanted to ensure the events themselves were unaffected, but tried to explain that the way the CBC was broadcasting them posed serious difficulties for us, that what the CBC was doing was actually immoral and illegal. I had to defend our members whose work and livelihood has been taken away from them. He was of the view that this “dispute”, whatever it’s about, is secondary to the legacy of Terry Fox.

To most people, Fox’s view might prevail. In fact, he and the CBC are both counting on it. Until you consider the words of cancer survivor and activist Gerry Rogers, who spoke at a St. John’s news conference about the planned use of scab labour. She said Terry Fox was about more than the quest to overcome all odds and beat cancer and that life “just isn’t every man woman and child out for themselves”. When I read that quote, I realized this cancer survivor had framed our struggle in the most precise way possible.

What neither Fox or I could articulate is that we are engaged in different struggles and that the CBC has forced a situation in which those struggles are competing right now ? in the national media, in public perception. And that’s wrong. By the end of the day, Darrell Fox and I reached a compromise. The Guild will not picket the crews at any of the events today, out of respect for the events themselves. And Darrell Fox promises that the St. John’s element of the broadcast will not go ahead as planned. The children will still sing at Signal Hill, but no one will be engaged as a scab to cover it.

It’s perhaps symbolic that Darrell Fox and I could have these animated discussions and come up with an agreement at the end of the day. The CBC, on the other hand, just gets away with locking out its staff, making a million dollars a week (in Richard Stursberg’s reported words) by doing so and violating the principles of Canadian labour law by using scab workers. Somehow the Corporation doesn’t feel obliged to answer to any of it.

And what about the “independent production company”? Remember these names: Moyra Rodger, Shannon Lowry and Heather Smith. You might add Jody Vance, the host, to this list, depending on whose story of “misunderstandings” you believe. So who’s right and who’s wrong in all of this? The sad reality is that a lot of people have forgotten how to tell the difference. Except the people of St. John’s.

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