Journal de Montréal: The day the union died

Tech reporter Jean-François Codère has only his iPhone to comfort him

It’s hard to describe the emotions coming from Rue Frontenac’s journalists when I met them a few hours after the vote that approved a new contract between the Journal de Montréal and its workers’ union.

Sad. Angry. Indignant. Depressed. Resigned. They certainly weren’t celebrating, but they decided as a group to drink their troubles away at a local bar as they contemplated their futures. They were cooling off after a 10-hour meeting that ended badly for them (and they let the cameras know it just afterward).

This group was a minority of the 253 workers locked out of their jobs on Jan. 24, 2009. They are the Rue Frontenac faithful, the young, motivated journalists who have worked hardest to feed a website and weekly print publication that was setup primarily as a pressure tactic and a demonstration that the success of the Journal de Montréal had more to do with the workers than the company or its name.

People like Gabrielle Duchaine, Jean-François Codère, Jessica Nadeau, Dominic Fugère, David Patry, Pascale Lévesque, David Santerre, Vincent Larouche, and others. I can’t say for certain what was in their minds (or their secret ballots), but for the most part, these are people who voted against the contract, who were ready to say on the spot that they’re never going back to the Journal (“no fucking way” was how Nadeau put it when I asked, though others didn’t want to commit officially while emotions were still high), who are so low on the seniority list that they probably couldn’t come back even if they wanted to, and who are ready and eager to make a run at turning Rue Frontenac into a viable business.

Starting Monday, as the journalists who are returning to their jobs come back to work (though it won’t be in the same building, and at last report it seemed they wouldn’t even be able to fill all 42 editorial positions because only 23 have agreed to return), Rue Frontenac changes from being a union pressure tactic into an experiment with an untested business model.

While the prime focus of the anger of this group after their ratification vote was and remains Pierre Karl Péladeau, the chief executive of Quebecor who they believe has turned lockouts and union busting into a business model, a flood of criticism emerged that night against a former ally: the CSN, who they believe let their union be destroyed.

Was CSN incompetent?

The list of criticisms against CSN management and its leader Claudette Carbonneau were many: They were woefully unprepared for the type of conflict they were engaging in. They were slow to push a public campaign to boycott the Journal de Montréal (one which was obviously unsuccessful – the paper actually saw a readership increase despite the drop in original content). Their lawyers were incompetent, unable to battle on the same level of those of Quebecor. They didn’t even support the idea of Rue Frontenac when it launched. Carbonneau, who was too timid to be a union leader, bungled the PR for the union’s side of the conflict, and should have known despite her denials about an agreement shortly before the lockout that Péladeau argues could have stopped it before it started.

It’s not so much the motives of the CSN that are in question. Carbonneau says the central union gave $7 million to the local to support it and its members, and made it clear at the second anniversary of the lockout that it would continue supporting the union for as long as it takes.

But it’s clear the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal believed it knew better how to run its business, and it was the local that did most of the organizing and planning. The CSN provided money and organizational support, but the campaign – particularly Rue Frontenac – was mostly the local union’s doing.

The anticlimax

The last straw – or perhaps just the most recent example – of CSN’s perceived incompetence came during that heated Saturday union meeting at the Palais des Congrès. After the vote was counted, as the executive waited for all the members to come back into the room for the announcement, a flak for the CSN assembled a scrum of outside media to tell them the result. Those journalists instantly forwarded that information to their desks or tweeted it themselves, resulting in all sorts of breaking news alerts going out. Many of the union members sitting patiently waiting to hear the results ended up getting it not from their executive but on their smartphones from Radio-Canada or other media.

There was no harm done – the result had been counted. But it made for an incredibly anticlimactic announcement, according to some of the people who were in the room. That, they said, aside from being yet another example of the CSN screwing something up, hurt them psychologically.

“They stole that moment away from us,” explained Jessica Nadeau. That moment where the announcement is made, and people cheer, yell, cry, pat each other on the back, or otherwise react together. Instead, the ground had been softened by rumours (much like a government will leak bad news to the media before it’s announced so the impact is lessened), and there was no such release.

CSN head Claudette Carbonneau, seen here at December's protest, spent a lot of time explaining herself to the media in the past week. Union president Raynald Leblanc is on the far left.

Say it ain’t so, Carbo

After this very public airing of grievances (even Beaudet had a cartoon on the subject), and articles from people like Patrick Lagacé taking her to task (he defends his views in a blog post), Carbonneau and the CSN went on the defensive. She talked to Radio-Canada. She explained herself to Presse CanadienneShe appeared on Tout le monde en parle to explain herself to Guy A. Lepage (and got a rather nasty pancarte from Dany Turcotte saying the CSN was “so-so-so-solidement planté”). The FNC’s president wrote an op-ed in Le Devoir defending the union.

It got to the point where the STIJM’s president, Raynald Leblanc, had to issue a press release defending the CSN.

Former CSN head Gérald Larose didn’t bite when invited to by Rue Frontenac, instead saying such a long conflict is bound to cause tensions. In Le Devoir, columnist Gil Courtemanche also wrote that it’s difficult to assign blame to any one party for all of this. Though he and others make it clear that the unions came out on the losing side.

Less than two weeks after the vote, and for reasons she said had nothing to do with the Journal de Montréal, Carbonneau announced she would not seek re-election to the top post at CSN.

Fractured union

Now that the formalities are out of the way, the STIJM is no longer what it once was, if only because its membership will be only a fraction of those 253 from 2009.

The contract effectively split those members into the following groups:

  • The 62 full-time workers and one part-time worker who will be returning to the Journal de Montréal (assuming all positions offered are taken)
  • Those who will take the buyout/severance money and retire – a number that theoretically could encompass more than 100
  • Those who will work with Rue Frontenac as it tries to become a viable worker’s cooperative – one that coordinator Richard Bousquet admitted in January could realistically only include a handful
  • Those who have already found other jobs (like Fabrice de Pierrebourg), will quickly find other employment or will rely on other jobs for income, taking semi-retirement or working for less
  • Those who are not part of the above groups, who are too young or too poor to retire even with this extra cash, and whose skills aren’t transferrable to available jobs elsewhere

It is, of course, that last group that is the big worry. And we won’t know for a little while how many people are in it.

Will this end up in court?

The division between members of the STIJM heightened shortly after a followup meeting to vote on a back-to-work protocol. An email signed by photographer Claude Rivest (one of many people in the editorial department whose contributions to Rue Frontenac trailed off in the months after it launched and eventually stopped entirely) sought to round up opponents to the protocol to launch a court case arguing improper procedure in the vote. (Rivest didn’t answer a request for comment on the matter.)

The main issue was the way the union decided to disburse the $20 million severance funds. It was by seniority, with a minimum and maximum. Rivest argued that setting a maximum unfairly hurt those who worked at the paper before 1985 by making those years not count.

Rivest’s email launched a heated back-and-forth over email among STIJM members, most of whom were strongly opposed to Rivest’s move, calling it “cheap” “disgusting” and “absurd”. The discussion died down quickly, and not much has been heard since.

Lessons

Everyone and their grandmother tried to analyze the Journal de Montréal conflict to find some sense in it:

Most agree that this is a union defeat, that the Journal proved one could operate a newspaper legally and successfully during a lockout, and that the readers who could have made a difference by refusing to read the Journal chose to continue reading, rendering the union virtually powerless.

Frankly, I think both the union and the paper have been crippled. Sadly, both look like they’re what Pierre Karl Péladeau wanted. (He disagrees, of course, during an interview with Paul Arcand)

Now what?

As some employees return to work, the rest try to forget about the Journal de Montréal, either trying to figure out how they can begin their retirement, finding another job or trying to work out a viable business model for Rue Frontenac.

Union president Raynald Leblanc is not among those returning to the Journal, and still deciding on his future. So what’s left of the crippled union needs a new leader.

As far as the public is concerned, the campaign is over. That hoopla about changes to Quebec’s anti-scab law is all but gone now, even though nothing about the agreement prevents another company in a similar situation locking out its workers in the future. The Journal de Montréal was a heavily mediatized conflict (some would argue it was overexposed in the media), and the end of the conflict has made this issue less important in everyone’s minds, no matter what efforts the CSN may put behind promoting it.

Nothing changed outside of the Journal itself, to the point where people may forget about this conflict entirely in a few years.

Rue Frontenac may be the exception to this. It’s still trying to figure out what it can be and how it can make money. (I, for one, would suggest less focus on things everyone else is covering, like Canadiens games and Tout le monde en parle episodes.) Even the most optimistic would admit its chances aren’t that good. But everyone hopes it can survive and prove that good-quality original journalism is a viable business model.

If Rue Frontenac survives in the long term, it may be the only real lasting evidence that there ever was a lockout here, and a reminder of what the Journal de Montréal used to be.

Because whether you’re on the side of the union or the employer, you have to admit that the Journal de Montréal won’t ever be the quality it was when those 253 employees were working there.

Hell, it’s even given up Frontenac St. itself.

12 thoughts on “Journal de Montréal: The day the union died

  1. Alex H

    Over the last 20 or so years, the issues that face the CSN have moved so much, that they really don’t appear to know what to do. Unions were created to fight for worker rights, to get them a reasonable pay, reasonable conditions, and so on. But the law (in Quebec) caught up with the Unions on many of these issues, with plenty of laws, rules, and (the Quebec solution to everything) regies and boards to look out over the job market. The average joe non-unionized worker has pretty much the rights that Unions would have had to fight for in the old days. Now it’s just there, without needing to pay a union a dime to get it.

    Unions also appear unable to easily accept technology and new ideas. Technology brings efficiencies and productivity, but Unions are often more about keeping people employed than worrying about moving forward. Newspapers are a great example area, as things have turned digital, as printing presses became easier to operate, as the editing process became easier, the number of people required to put out a decent looking paper has dropped significantly.

    CSN doesn’t appear to want to understand a fundamental shift in the way people get their news and information. For all the hating on Quebecor, it is clear that they are at least partially getting it, realizing that people want their news and information often right now, in various ways. It is incredibly wasteful for their various properties to compete with each other, so the true solution (businesswise) is to set up structures that don’t compete, but compliment. The QMI service is a great way for a company to be able to produce a large amount of news content, which can be used by all of it’s properties. It is the same logic that made wire services work originally, so that papers didn’t have to have reporters all over the world to cover stories, they can pick and choose where they want to send their people.

    The internet, the on demand, surf now lifestyle doesn’t match up with the idea of trying to keep 253 people in jobs (and to give them even better salaries and working conditions). CSN (and the union members) apparently didn’t get it 2 – 3 years ago when this started, and perhaps only learned the lesson after the fact with Rue Frontenac. The public is doing things differently, and staffing (and methods) have to change to suit the times. The CSN (and most unions, sadly) aren’t about progress, they are about entrenched rights, job security, assured staffing levels, and all that stuff, all of which goes against a changing media universe.

    What the Gazette workers (I am assuming it includes you Steve) agreed to is a small step in a big process. Giving reported video camera to work with is a big step, it means that many press conference type things can be handled without an extra photographer. If the video is even passable, it could also be used / resold to others for use. It might allow the gazette website to have more video content as well (appealing to readers), and so on. The writing is on the wall for the photographers, when the contract ends in 2014 it is very likely that they are the next ones to face significant cutbacks.

    What Quebecor did is hand the CSN a stunning defeat, and they have shown already that their “new” model works just fine. They just don’t need as many people as they one did to produce the paper, which is more popular than ever. What the CSN wanted no longer meets up with reality, that is just how it goes.

    We don’t have to go far to remember that the Gazette is Montreal’s only english daily because the Montreal Star went under, after a long strike regarding the number of pressmen required to print the paper. The Gazoo was only number 2 in the market place, but ending up not only being the only player in the city, but even took over the Star’s building and presses.

    Remember too, all of this isn’t new, consider:

    http://www.generalstrike.ca/_Canada/_Quebec/PowerCorrupts.stm

    Just replace La Presse with JDM and Power Corp with Quebecor, and you pretty much end up at the same place, 40 years later.

    Reply
  2. wkh

    That was fucking depressing.
    I still think the major unions should get together and fund RF. Yes, they have the money. Trust me.

    Reply
  3. Chris E

    I’m not sure what J de M you were reading but I don’t remember it ever being a particularly good newspaper.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I’m not sure what J de M you were reading but I don’t remember it ever being a particularly good newspaper.

      The Journal de Montréal was always a populist, sensationalistic newspaper, and unapologetically so. But it also broke stories. Before the lockout, sentences that start “the Journal de Montréal reported yesterday that…” were common in the media. Since then, they’re rare (though not entirely absent), like references to reporting from 24 Heures or Métro.

      Reply
      1. sco100

        The Journal never stopped breaking stories. What are you talking about?

        Truth is most of those locked-out youngsters were absolute strangers before the lock-out. They were unknown, non-entities. They made a name for themselves thanks to that lock-out. No regular reader of the JdeM actually missed them.

        It’s now up to them to build themselves a reputation based on actual achievements rather than fictitious oppression.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          The Journal never stopped breaking stories. What are you talking about?

          Its output went way down during the lockout. It “broke” lots of stories, but not many important ones, with the exception of some polls and some Quebec celebrity news. Rue Frontenac was referenced far more than the Journal by other media.

          Reply
          1. sco100

            But then, one could argue that “important” stories are merely the ones that win you readers. In the end, it’s for readers to decide what your actual scorecard is, not competing media outlets. In that sense, the sheer size of their (ever-increasing) readership speaks volumes.

            Reply
      2. sco100

        Also, you might want to consider that the drop in cross-referencing you mention may have more to do with other unionised workers willingly boycotting the Journal when quoting stories than with an objective drop in quality.

        Frankly, I’d love to tell you othersise, but I just can’t : Journal de Montréal never faltered, from a reader’s perspective anyways. They really managed to deliver an impeccable product from beginning to end (keeping in mind its intended segment, of course).

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Also, you might want to consider that the drop in cross-referencing you mention may have more to do with other unionised workers willingly boycotting the Journal when quoting stories than with an objective drop in quality.

          That’s possible, and certainly a lot of journalists were sympathetic to Rue Frontenac, but there was enough referencing of the Journal and failure to cite Rue Frontenac to make me doubt that this was some conspiracy to black out the Journal. It’s a simple factor of numbers: Rue Frontenac had dozens of journalists, while the Journal de Montréal relied mostly on wire copy. Whether you agree with this as a business model or not, it’s clear that the union was doing more original journalism.

          Reply
          1. sco100

            No argument from me there. Rue Frontenac’s team took chances and displayed more audacity, true, true and true. But then, they also never really bothered with defining a coherent readership; they did as they pleased, regardless of their readers’ or ad-buying clients’ expectations. That was made possible only by the fact that readership stats and advertising revenues had no relevance for a union-backed paper that never had to worry about making ends meet.

            My guess is they’ll have to become a tad more business savvy and learn to tame that wonderful freedom (and seriously downsize that newsroom) in the next few months if they want Rue Frontenac to stay afloat. A couple of weeks ago, they had an article on some discrimination lawsuit at Desjardins despite the fact that Desjardins was one of only five non-union clients advertising in that issue. That did not seem to have a negative impact since Desjardins are still around, but all clients are not that forgiving, and, whether you like it or not, you have to find a balance somehow.

            Reply
  4. Jimmy Jack

    For the people going back to work at the Journal it must be a humbling depressing thing to have to do after all that has been said and done. For that I offer my support, I doubt I could do it.

    How they got to this point, well…

    Reply
  5. Pingback: The Journal de Montréal lockout, five years later | Fagstein

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