by Jeanne d’Arc Umurungi
In the six-month strike by seven radio workers at MBS Radio in Saint John, the employer has been mysteriously silent. So who is Robert Pace?
People are captivated by the story of seven radio announcers and administrative staff at three stations in Saint John who have been on strike since June seeking a fair deal from their employer, Halifax-based Maritime Broadcasting System (MBS). In close to six months on the picket line, the Saint John seven have not had one meeting with MBS owner Robert Pace.
Pace is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pace Group which owns over twenty radio stations in the Maritimes, a real estate company, environmental services companies, and others. He sits on many high-profile boards, including as a member of the Board of Directors of Canadian National Railway where he chairs the Human Resource and Compensation Committee
“We’ve heard from people from our own community and elsewhere who’ve been struck by the David and Goliath nature of this fight,” said Gary Stackhouse, president of the Guild at MBS Radio in Saint John. “For our members, it’s been tough, but it’s always been about the survival of local radio, and serving the interests of our community. It was becoming almost impossible to do what we do as broadcasters.”
So-called local news and information, including weather and traffic, are done out of market from a small newsroom in Halifax. There are no local reporters to cover local or provincial government, or the issues and events taking place in Saint John. The seven workers have also described appalling conditions, from broken equipment that was never fixed to something dying in the ventilation system and little being done about it. There is one engineer/IT specialist for all 24 MBS stations, and there has been no across-the-board wage increase for 12 years.
The concerns have resonated with Saint John residents and others across the country. Supporters have joined the picket line, advertisers have pulled their ads and union members from coast to coast have been sending donations and messages of solidarity. This Holiday Season, when the Saint John seven took a break from the picket line to run their annual fundraiser for a women’s shelter and two food banks in their community, they filled a truck and a half in 48 hours.
The only silent voice in all this is the employer, Pace.
MBS Radio is privately held and details are not easily available, but the information we do know about Pace is difficult to square with the working conditions at the Saint John radio stations or the indifference with which he has met his employees’ struggle
After all, in 1981, Pace worked as Atlantic advisor for none other than the Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau, serving three years in the office of the ‘just society’ Prime Minister. The PM was instrumental in helping end a strike by Guild members for a first agreement at The Canadian Press back in 1976 when he refused to cross the picket line.
(Fun fact: Trudeau’s son, federal Liberal leadership candidate Justin, visited the MBS picket line in June and expressed his appreciation for radio and sympathy about the conditions in private radio. He also said he couldn’t take sides in the dispute.)
Returning to his native Halifax, Pace later found success doing business in Atlantic Canada and holding director roles on the boards of prestigious organizations such as the Asia Pacific Foundation, Export Development Corporation; the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development; and Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific.
Just this spring, Saint Mary’s University awarded Pace an Honorary Doctorate of Commerce.
We do not typically associate such pedigree with an absentee landlord, which is why Pace’s approach to his radio stations in Saint John, cavalierly profiting on the talent and commitment of local employees while reinvesting very little, is frustrating.
The Saint John seven are holding up so far, but it’s tough. “Being on strike is not fun. Worrying about getting back to work, how the atmosphere will be, will you still have a job, will your colleagues still have a job, when will the strike end, will you fall behind on bills, too much to worry about. I was hoping it would never take this long,” said one of the Saint John seven
Stackhouse said the hope was that the striking members would be back to work by Christmas, but after a meeting under the auspices of a federal mediator a few weeks ago that did not get the results the bargaining group was hoping for, that’s now unlikely.
You can tune in to the striking seven at www.radiofreesaintjohn.fm
Follow Jeanne d’Arc on Twitter: @JUmurungi