Journal de Montréal lockout begins

Early Saturday morning, management at the Journal de Montréal locked out 253 of its employees, mere minutes after an agreement with the union not to launch a labour dispute had ended. The lockout apparently came during the night, late enough that workers would still contribute work to the paper, but early enough that management could sneak in a note to readers about the labour disruption.

Both sides, naturally, blame the other for failing to negotiate. In reality, both sides have held firm on their demands since the contract expired on Dec. 31, and a lockout has been all but inevitable when both sides left the table this week.

Journal management plan to continue publishing during the lockout. The union is also planning a publication called Rue Frontenac, which right now just has a video of employees who are on the picket lines.

Rue Frontenac

In what has become the norm for journalist labour disruptions ever since the Journal de Québec’s incredibly successful MédiaMatinQuébec, the union launched, a website which they will use to continue working as journalists. Unlike MMQ, there are no plans for a print version of the paper. Right now the website contains a video with black-and-white pictures of locked-out employees. They’ve also started a Facebook group.

The Journal’s side

In its press release announcing the lockout (conveniently available in English), the Journal says the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal “has left the company no choice.” It says the lockout is needed because of the “urgency of the situation and the need for far-reaching changes to the Journal de Montréal’s business model”.

The company suggests there were pressure tactics that were disrupting the functioning of the newspaper, which is the first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing. Naturally, they don’t hint at what those tactics might be.

In its analysis of the current economic situation facing newspapers, it stresses the need for the Journal to have more flexibility with online operations (the reason it doesn’t have a real website is because of restrictive clauses in its union contract) and the need for employees to become more efficient. This, of course, means they want to lay off a bunch of them:

“…as it will be impossible to maintain all jobs at the paper, we have already made a commitment to offer employees who will have to leave the Journal generous separation packages accompanied by relocation support.”

The press release closes on the fact that the Journal’s workers enjoy some of the best salaries and working conditions in the Canadian media industry. This is true, and a source for much jealousy among fellow journalists like myself. But as Patrick Lagacé points out, the Journal makes no mention of not being profitable (suggesting that it is still very profitable). Any cost savings from payroll would go straight toward that bottom line.

In a two-page letter to readers in Saturday’s paper, editor Lyne Robitaille says they want to increase, not decrease, the number of journalists working for the Journal. She also says the union’s suggestion that the paper made $50 million in profits in 2008 is false, though she refuses to provide budget figures to corroborate that statement.

The union’s side

The STIJM’s press release focuses on how this lockout will affect families, which probably won’t elicit as much sympathy as they think considering (a) their working conditions are disgustingly generous and (b) they’re getting very generous strike pay (76% for two years) because of the massive fund that’s been built up since the Journal first started 45 years ago.

They declare outright that anyone who does their work (24 Heures employees, Journal de Québec employees, or those of mysterious fly-by-night news agencies) are scabs, and they call on advertisers and readers to boycott the paper.

The union says it wants the Journal de Montréal to start a website, and all their contract demands is that management negotiate it with them (translation: the union has to approve any plan). They say they want a professional site, not a carbon-copy Canoe-branded dumping ground for articles and photos (like what they’ve done with the Journal de Québec).

The issues

Most of the points of dispute are the result of management demands for changes to the existing contract that the union has refused to consider. They include:

  • Increasing the work week from 30 hours (4 days) to 37.5 hours (5 days), with no extra pay
  • Laying off 75 employees
  • 25% pay cut for classified employees
  • 20% reduction in benefits for all
  • Clauses that would give new hires fewer rights than existing employees
  • Flexibility to reassign workers to do multimedia work for the website

How this will end

This conflict could easily last for years. The Journal has plenty of sources from which it can draw “content”: The Journal de Québec (ironically), 24 Heures (where they just hired a bunch of people), Canoë, the Sun Media chain, and perhaps even TVA and LCN.

It also has plenty of freelancers (including some columnists like Richard Martineau) – and it remains to be seen which of them will balk at scabbing. Lise Payette left the Journal de Montréal for Le Devoir in 2007 because her articles were being reprinted in the Journal de Québec. Others won’t be quite so hard-core about it.

Meanwhile, the union has a vast strike fund, as this is the first labour disruption to hit the paper since its launch 45 years ago (part of the reason for that is management concession to union demands, which is why their contracts are so generous).

The Journal de Québec lockout lasted 15 months before an agreement was reached. And the two sides there were closer together than they are in Montreal.

Long labour conflicts tend to end when the union’s finances have run out, employees are demoralized, and exhausted management throw them a bone with a sweetened offer. Both sides make concessions, but the union side will make more.

Expect an end similar to what happened at the Journal de Québec. The union will agree to a longer work week, though at a salary cut much less than what Quebecor is demanding. Multimedia flexibility will be granted and the Journal will finally launch a website (though it will be of poor quality like the JdQ’s). And the Journal will gain the right to make layoffs, but with enhanced severage packages. These are all just gut feelings of mine, so take these predictions with a grain of salt.

Hear ye hear ye

One thing that might shorten this time period is the courts. A huge decision was handed down last month that decreed much of the work used for the Journal de Québec was scab labour. Though Quebecor is appealing that ruling, it severely restricts their options, No mysterious come-from-nowhere press agencies can be used to fill space, and reporters from other Quebecor-owned media can’t be assigned to do work for the primary benefit of the Journal.

There will almost certainly be disputes in court over this. If the STIJM can knock down enough of the Journal’s options, it may force them to stop publication and move fast on a new offer. If the STIJM loses enough cases (which is unlikely in a province with such strong pro-union values), their situation could become hopeless and they’d be made more willing to concede important points.

One thing is for sure, this won’t be solved over the weekend. So go ahead and cancel your subscriptions.

How this affects The Gazette

My coworkers are obviously paying a lot of attention to this development, both out of general curiosity and because we are set to vote on a management proposal for a new contract on Sunday. Hints of an impending lockout are spreading via rumour, but there’s no way to tell if this is a serious threat or not until after the vote.

The union executive is strongly encouraging employees to vote against the contract offer, as it affords little protection against the outsourcing of jobs to nonunionized Canwest employees.

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9 thoughts on “Journal de Montréal lockout begins

  1. Cecile Gladel

    Ce que j’ai écrit hier mais mon post n’a pas été enregistré….Geneviève you are right.
    Hope every freelancers will leave the Journal….But we can’t put the light on them but on Quebecor and PKP. Because some freelancers need to work…and when was the last time permanents journalist stand up for freelancers ?

  2. Ben

    Yeah, the photos are in black and white. But the people in the photos are only in white. An oversight by the folks who made the video, or an unintentional comment on the lack of diversity at the paper?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Sure. Don’t get me wrong, though, I have no sympathy for Quebecor here. They signed off on the contract that gives these conditions, and now they’re locking everyone out because they’ve changed their minds.

      But these workers aren’t going to get much sympathy from people whose jobs pay them less than half those wages, and whose work weeks are much longer than 30 hours.

  3. Bill Dunphy

    My sympathies to all concerned.
    And while journalists across the country might feel very, very jealous about the contract (30 hour week? 1.5x pay on vacations!?) we should not let that blind us to what’s going on.
    What’s going on is a seismic shift in our business models – and it has hit and is hitting newsrooms with far less generous contracts.
    The true cost of producing and distributing information (text, images) is now approaching zero, and consequently the supply of information has exploded.
    Likewise the supply of advertising has exploded – and thus the price has plummeted.
    Add to that the concentration of media holdings and the increasing ease with which one can share content and you can see where we are headed. Companies now are blending work done by a writer earning$90,000 a year with work done by a writer earning $35,000 a year; throwing a $88,000 a year photographer’s work up against the entire audience’s willingness to submit photos for free.
    We can strike (or be locked out) but the economics of this are, I think going to be unstoppable. You simply can’t have such huge disparities in cost and productivity inside a common labour pool. Things will level – and that doesn’t usually mean the lower end rising.
    Arguments, fears, pleadings about quality, won’t mean much against these business model shifts.
    This is facing all of us and we will probably be better off being proactive and involved in the decisions that are being made now, rather than trying to reverse them “sur le trottoir.”

  4. Jean Naimard

    Ah, yes, divide and rule… This is the same class of arugment as Mario Ducon vowing to cut civil servants benefits because the private sector won’t match those working conditions.

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