Should journalist associations take sides in union issues?

Next weekend, the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec is holding its annual conference in Sherbrooke. Most journalists will be there for the seminars and workshops and other opportunities for training and networking that such a conference can provide. But these incentives are also a way for the FPJQ to get its members to show up to its annual meeting on Sunday to take care of the internal bureaucratic stuff, like electing a board of directors.

Normally that part is pretty boring, but this year, for the first time in longer than anyone can remember, the presidency of the association is being contested by more than one candidate.

On one side if Martin Bisaillon, a locked-out journalist with, who would become the first FPJQ president locked out from his job as a journalist. He’s running on an unofficial slate that includes Brian Myles of Le Devoir, Isabelle Richer of Radio-Canada, André Noël of La Presse and Michel Corbeil of Le Soleil.

On the other side is François Cardinal, a columnist at La Presse. He’s not running with a team, but his candidacy was encouraged by current president François Bourque, who isn’t running again.

Though technically nominations are open until Saturday at 1 p.m., these are the only two expected candidates, and their platforms have been posted on the FPJQ’s website.

One issue

Bisaillon admits that his candidacy stems from a decision made by Bourque to criticize a proposed boycott by members of the National Assembly against journalists for the locked-out Journal de Montréal. Bourque said it would set a bad precedent for MNAs to dictate which journalists they would talk to and which they wouldn’t, and that such a boycott would go against the principles of freedom of the press that the FPJQ defends.

Bisaillon, who as a member of the locked-out Journal de Montréal staff has a clear vested interest in this debate, was harshly critical of that statement, which he interpreted as the FPJQ taking a stand against the union:

La Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec a suscité beaucoup de mécontentement ces derniers mois parmi ses membres, notamment en raison de la prise de position du président sortant sur le conflit de travail au Journal de Montréal. En janvier dernier, François Bourque s’était insurgé contre les députés qui disaient ne plus vouloir donner d’entrevue au Journal de Montréal en raison du lock-out décrété par Quebecor le 24 janvier.

Par cette prise de position, M. Bourque a rompu avec la tradition de neutralité de la FPJQ. Pis encore, son intervention a fait en sorte que les partis politiques à Québec se sont sentis libres de collaborer avec le Journal de Montréal en lock-out, alimentant ainsi un média privé de ses artisans. M. Bourque aurait du s’en tenir au principe de neutralité de la FPJQ dans ce dossier.

Les journalistes qui se présentent avec moi entendent maintenir cette neutralité comme valeur absolue. En revanche, nous ne pouvons pas ignorer la réalité qui nous heurte. Cette réalité est sombre : salles de presse atrophiées, lock-out ou menaces de lock-out, multiplication des blogueurs et autres «journalistes citoyens», banalisation de l’information au point d’en faire un objet de consommation.

Cardinal, while he doesn’t name Bisaillon in his platform directly, makes it clear that he doesn’t want the FPJQ getting involved in these issues and potentially alienating managers and media owners:

Imaginons maintenant une FPJQ plus radicale, une FPJQ qui se jette dans la mêlée, bref une FPJQ détournée de ses valeurs fondatrices. Aurait-elle la crédibilité nécessaire pour asseoir à une même table des groupes de presse aux intérêts divergents? Évidemment pas.

Certes, il y a du mécontentement au sein de la Fédération, avec raison. Appelée à réagir à chaud sur des dossiers extrêmement complexes et délicats, la FPJQ marche constamment sur des œufs, et en casse parfois. Ayant un large membership, elle déplaît à l’occasion à certains de ses membres, qui hélas s’y retrouvent moins.

What does neutral mean?

Both candidates say they want the FPJQ to be neutral in labour conflicts, but their interpretations of neutrality clearly differ. Bisaillon, a militant union man, thinks the association should sit quietly when the interests of unions and the interests of journalists are at odds (he does, however, think they should speak out against convergence, outsourcing and other issues that affect unions negatively). Cardinal apparently believes the association should ignore whether unions are at issue and focus on journalism and journalists first. (UPDATE: Cardinal clarifies his position via Twitter: “FPJQ doit s’impliquer lorsque la liberté de presse est menacée et que les journalistes ne peuvent plus travailler dans des conditions adéquates”)

The debate here is whether the FPJQ should support the interests of journalism or the interests of its members (most of whom are unionized). The answer isn’t obvious.

One insider emailed me this week to express concern about Bisaillon’s candidacy, worrying that union members would vote en masse for him and the association would be an extension of the unions, especially powerful ones like the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal.

On the federal level, the FPJQ’s best equivalent is the Canadian Association of Journalists, which frequently takes public stands on issues affecting media. In some cases, such as condemning job cuts at CTV and CBC, those could be seen as pro-union, but other issues it has stayed silent on, including the lockout at the Journal de Montréal.

There’s an instinctual force sometimes among unionized journalists (such as myself) to think that every union issue is also an issue of freedom of the press, that any dispute between employer and employee is a dispute between the good journalist trying to do a professional job and an evil media empire bent on cutting corners in order to make a quick buck.

Whether journalists actually agree with that stance, well, we’ll find out on Sunday.

See also: Cent Papiers also discusses this issue.

8 thoughts on “Should journalist associations take sides in union issues?

  1. I. Muvrini

    How pathetic – journalists afraid of unions. Jesus….i guess it explains the sad state of the press in Quebec.

  2. Jean Naimard

    Of course! Journalist association should take sides! They should side with the employers; after all, they’re those who pay them… (roll eyes)

    Geee, the things we hear nowadays…

  3. Jim J.

    This argument is somewhat reminiscent of teachers’ unions, – especially here in New York, but I think this works elsewhere also – who like to couch their arguments as being good for education and learning and ultimately benefitting students.

    This is pure dishonesty. Teachers’ unions are interested in looking out for the interests of their membership. That some of what they propose or support may coincidentally be to the benefit of students, is immaterial.

    Making the analogy to this specific case, the FPJQ could display a little intellectual honesty and admit that they couldn’t care less about a free press, as long as they get pleasant and generous union contracts. One has very little to do with the other, and most of the connection is incidental, at best.

    Unions are primarily interested in getting improvements (raises, better fringe benefits, more agreeable working horus, more generous time & leave policies, etc.) for their existing membership; secondarily, expanding their membership; third, in the face of cutbacks, preserving employment levels and existing contract provisions; and fourthly, and only after the first three conditions have been satisfied, then the union will start getting into niceties such as “education” and “a free press” and other abstract social policy goals.

  4. emdx

    Élection 2009 à la présidence de la Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec : Un candidat s’en prend à la «multiplication des blogueurs et autres «journalistes citoyens»

    What pomposity! What elitism!
    Only those who are anointed knights of the information should be able to write publicly!!!!
    It’s funny, but I noticed one thing with journalists: they are absolutely the very extreme best experts in whatever they are talking about, except for the things I know best: computers, railroading and SCUBA diving… Strange, eh?

    1. Jim J.

      “Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge.” – Attributed to Erwin Knoll, former editor of The Progressive.

      This is funny, because on occasion, you do come across a story about which you have first-hand knowledge, and you’ll find something incorrect in there. It might be inconsequential, or trivial, or a specific detail that doesn’t really doesn’t matter that much to the story…but then when you extrapolate that out, if the newspapers can’t even get the small stuff correct, how are we suppose to have any faith that they actually get “the big stuff” right?

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