In the early nineties, two TV stations (CKY\CKND) in Winnipeg, Manitoba locked out their workers. Both of these lockouts would start lengthy disputes – rare for the Canadian broadcasting industry.
The two lockouts demonstrate that while workers in the Canadian broadcasting industry face similar issues as workers in other industries (wages, benefits, working conditions), the industry itself affects tactics that labour can use. Through advertising boycott campaigns and speaking tours, media workers were able to garner increasing leverage.
Going into negotiations with Moffat Communications, owner of CKY, in April 1990, the negotiating team for the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 816 (NABET) sensed that this would be a very different bargaining process.
Union representatives and Moffat Communications had been bargaining for a new collective agreement for months, but Moffat Communications maintained that there was nothing to negotiate. In order for the company to survive, they argued that workers had to make major concessions.
Seniority rights would be lost in most areas of the agreement. On air staff would lose their grievance rights in event of dismissal, and part-time workers would have few right or benefits. Grievance rights on sexual harassment had to be conceded as well as maternity and paternity leave rights.
These concessions were more about a disdain for workers and unions than anything resembling the need to cut costs in order to survive. In fact NABET Local 816 was well aware of the challenges facing Canadian broadcasters and was willing to work with the company.
Moffat did not yield from its positions and to the surprise of many neither did the workers. The deal put on the table by Moffat communications was so extreme that even the largely conservative workforce at CKY railed around each other in order to fight for a better contract.
Moffat communications locked out their employees on Nov. 29, 1990. The lockout lasted for eight months. Victor Dobchuck, a photo supervisor at CKY before the lockout (he left on paternity leave before the lockout) was shocked that the workers at CKY showed such solidarity, because, “most people came into television at that time with their eyes wide open about rubbing shoulders with local stars and didn’t see themselves as being workers as such.”
Dobchuck credits an organizing drive earlier as the genesis of some of the worker solidarity. “It was a combination of things. Combination of their consciousness slowly being raised because of a series of events and getting such a bad offer from CKY.”
Wider support from the labour movement also played a crucial role.
Both the Manitoba Federation of Labour and Winnipeg labour council mobilized solidarity actions for the locked out CKY workers on the picket line. With the help of the Canadian Labour congress, NABET launched a nationwide speaking tour, giving the strike national attention and a advertisers across Canada refused to stop buying ads on CKY.
NABET was able to get 15 businesses to stop advertising on CKY for the duration of the lockout. Even Tory provincial government ministers refused to give interviews to scab CKY reporters during the start of the lockout, although they later changed this position.
The Manitoba NDP limited scrums to their offices so they would not have to speak to scab reporters.
Brad Jones was the vice-president of NABET Local 816 at the time of the lockout. Brad was a very vocal advocate and was arrested twice during the lockout due to incidents on the picket line.
Brad’s wife Carol Jones joked, “Sunday is a rest day for everybody else but for us Sunday was arrest day. He got arrested two Sundays in a row.”
Brad Jones explained to Rankandfile.ca that both incidents were due to people trying to run through the picket lines with vehicles, endangering people on the picket line.
“People were trying to run through the line. So I pounded on the windshield of his van and the window cracked. I figure that if that window would crack then the side window would and I could get at him,” says Jones.
After eight months on the picket line NABET Local 816 finally singed an agreement with the company. For Brad Jones, it was the end of his career in broadcasting.
“There were six or four of us who could not come back. The deal was if they singed the agreement we were not going back. If we went back the strike was going to go on.”
Jones could have fought this provision but instead decided to leave, frustrated and angry with how the company had treated him and his fellow workers.
“I didn’t like what they were doing and it made me more and more upset as they went along. It still makes me mad,” he says.
The strike against CanWest Almost a year later after the events of the CKY strike, another lengthy dispute was brewing at CKND, another local broadcaster in Winnipeg owned by Izzy Asper the builder of the CanWest media empire.
On Oct. 2, 1991 at midnight the CKND workers were locked out. The lockout at CKND, like the CKY lockout a year earlier, lasted for eight months.
Bill Nazer, now president of Unifor Media One in Winnipeg, started at CKND in 1985 as a casual employee doing studio camera work. Bill has a deep passion for his work in TV but like so many other workers in other industries, found himself walking a picket line instead of doing what he was trained to do.
“All of a sudden that comes to a screeching halt and the next you know you are putting on a chunk of cardboard and you are writing something on it and you are walking back and forth, back and forth,” says Nazer.
Negotiations between NABET Local 821 and CKND were ongoing before the lockout but no agreement could be reached. The company was demanding unprecedented concessions, like the elimination of wage scales and instating wage scales based on “merit.”
This was such an aggressive demand by the company that it galvanized workers, who rejected the company’s final offer by a 97% vote. The company offered to grandfather wage scales to the benefit of senior employees, but workers still rejected the offer. This show of solidarity was one of the key events that stuck out in Nazer’s memory.
“What made the lockout interesting is that every one of those folks that walked the line they weren’t walking it for themselves. They were walking it for the people coming into the door after them,” he says.
“They could have said I’m grandfathered so I’m ok, but no, it was such a fundamental union issue to have control over the wage scales that every one of those near seventy bargaining unit members said no we are not going to accept this.”
The nature of the broadcasting industry created challenges for organizing effective workplace actions. In a factory setting, one can stop or at least slow production enough to force the company to present a better offer. With broadcasting, its near impossible to do something similar, says Nazer.
He explains, “It’s not like you can shut down a signal from a television station.”
Nazer says, “So even though we were basically working off strike pay, which at the time with NABET was 100 bucks a week, it didn’t matter because the guy next to you? He’s got my back, I’ve got his back, and we are all there together.”
NABET Local 821 accepted the company’s final offer eight months after being locked out. The final agreement did have the loss of wage scales but there were significant wage increases and a retirement plant put in place – run by a third party company – and health benefits for part-time workers.
While NABET Locals 821 and 816 had to accept some serious concessions, such as the loss of wage scales, there are some lessons learned from the lockouts.
Firstly, it became clear that smaller units in NABET could not hope to bargain successfully with TV stations run by media conglomerates. NABET merged with the Communications, Energy, and Paper workers Union of Canada (CEP) in 1994, forming what would later on become Unifor Media One.
This allowed for amounting critically needed resources to launch a strike through a credible strike fund, and being able to bargain as one union rather than doing the bargaining piece meal, unit by unit.
Secondly, workers learned the about the special conditions facing workers In the broadcasting industry. It is near impossible to shut down a TV station and as long as advertisers still want to spend the money on ads.
Nazer believes that a strike in the broadcasting industry “has nothing to do with the picket line. It has to do with the unions ability to boycott advertisers and have advertisers withdraw their adds during the length of the dispute.”
During CanWest Global Communication’s first annual general meeting in February of 1992, NABET Local 821 distributed leaflets calling for advertisers to boycott CKND and all CanWest Global stations nationwide.
The issue of unions soliciting advertisers to boycott television stations would linger for over a decade after the lockouts at CKND and CKY.
CanWest Global added a ”No Harm” clause into the contract, making it illegal for both the local and the national union to call on advertisers to boycott CKND.
The “No Harm” clause stayed in the contract until CanWest Global tried to introduce similar language in a contact at a station in Calgary (CICT-TV). This was later overturned in a Canada Industrial Relations Board ruling in 2007. The language was removed from the contract, twelve years after the lockout at CKND.
What is the legacy of the lockouts at CKY and CKND in the early 90s?
Both lockouts demonstrate how unions and workers with little leverage through a strike can put pressure on employers through boycott campaigns or speaking tours like the one NABET co-ordinated with the help of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Are workers in the Canadian broadcasting industry better off than they were in the early 90s? In most respects, no.
Nazer puts it bluntly. “Everybody is centralizing, automating, scaling back, cutting back, pinching pennies, whatever they need to do to get the advertisers in.”
“For someone who works in the industry, it’s a scary prospect every day. Having done it for thirty years and seeing a lot of my friends be given layoff notices and going out the door, it’s only a matter of time to until you go to work every day saying, is the day that I get my chunk of paper?” reflects Nazer.
“A Dead Kennedys lyric always come to mind: machines can do a better job than you and this is what you get for asking questions.”