Looking at both sides

Bob Wakeham
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Watching that wildcat skirmish develop at Long Harbour this past week, I couldn't help but think about the very subjective and biased perspective that inevitably takes place in these sorts of matters.

I know from my own history, one in which I've viewed the world of unions and employers "from both sides, now" (to channel Joni Mitchell), that labour/management rackets are invariably complicated, but that your take is less about accuracy and more about which side of the table, literally and metaphorically, you happen to be sitting at the time.

Back in the late '70s, I was all union - "you won't get me, I'm part of the union," "we shall not be moved," were my kind of theme songs.

And I became heavily involved in organizing reporters and photographers in The (Evening) Telegram newsroom.

I was prompted to head in that direction in large part because of a conversation about income I'd had with a CBC reporter, a good friend, while the two of us were covering a provincial election campaign.

When I told him what I was making (which, at the time, was apparently the highest pay among the paper's reporters), he told me, not in a bragging but in a matter of fact way, that he had made more just in overtime than I had in salary. Since we were both professionals, both doing the same job, the inequity was baffling. A union, I believed, was the answer. And, to this day, I believe I was right.

Not long after we were organized, the unionized newsroom employees took part in a strike at The Telegram that was bitter and lengthy, and provided me with an up-close and personal take on life on a picket line.

There were times during that strike, especially as it progressed and I became more and more frustrated, when I blocked Telegram readers from crossing the line to place the most innocuous of ads, or, for that matter, a death notice.

I would have probably prevented a little old lady, or even my mother from entering the building (she was not living here, thank God; it wouldn't have been pretty; I'd have been grounded forever).

But it was all cut and dried for me on a picket line. There was no middle ground. And there was no one who could have convinced me that what I was doing was unjust or undemocratic, or that I was violating anyone's basic rights. You crossed my line at your own peril.

Turn the clock ahead a dozen years or so, and I was executive producer of several shows at the CBC, the most significant and demanding being "Here and Now," a time when I was forced to deal (from my managerial point of view) with contractual union language that occasionally made it more difficult to carry out our public broadcasting mandate, or to do basic, fundamental journalism. (For the most part, it wasn't the employees, the vast majority of whom were hard- working and dedicated; it was just that some aspects of the working agreements could impede the natural flow of a workplace, or wreak havoc on the budget).

The union/management agreements have changed in the years since, but the contracts back then came about, as a high-ranking CBC manager in Toronto once admitted to me, "when we were fat and lazy and decided to give the unions whatever they wanted."

Not every day, and not every month, but just enough times to drive me crazy, management would be forced to jump through hoops to do what we had been mandated to do. I was involved in circumventing contractual language and had to deal with frustrating grievances or threats of grievances. You would have been hard-pressed to get me to belt out a version of "Solidarity Forever" during those years.

In both the '70s and the '90s, though, I thought I was absolutely on the right side. The manager in 1992 was just as stubborn and self-righteous as the rabble-rouser of 1979.

What does all this have to do with the wildcat at Long Harbour? Well, I'd be willing to bet, based on my experience, that there's as much self-promotional and unobjective spin taking place here as you'd get in a political leaders' debate.

Every single crane operator involved in the wildcat will claim it was legitimate and that his hand was forced, that the contract wasn't being lived up to by the employer. From their perspective, they're right.

Most of those workers who refused to cross the line will argue that a picket line is a picket line. Period. It's sacred territory. And from their perspective, they're right.

And management spokesmen will argue that it's black and white: there's a contract the union members have signed, that they have a moral and legal obligation to live up to that document, that it's costing the company millions of bucks. From their perspective, they're right as well.

The truth, of course, in all probability, lies somewhere in between.

About the only unusual aspect of this particular wildcat was the way in which Gus Doyle, president of the organization representing all of the unions at Long Harbour, handled himself.

I'm not sure when I've witnessed a labour official come down with the hammer on his or her own members the way in which Doyle did. He sounded at times as if he was a spokesman for Vale.

Usually, reacting to a wildcat, members of a union hierarchy will declare that they don't condone the action, words they're forced to use because of the strike's illegality.

But the objection is usually for show.

But Doyle went way beyond that. What he said was rather extraordinary. I don't think he'll have an easy chore when election time rolls around.

But that's s just my take.

And I'm not sure whether it's the union rabble-rouser or the manager talking.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.


Organizations: CBC, The Telegram

Geographic location: Long Harbour, Toronto, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Useless Unions
    July 21, 2012 - 12:17

    Wow. Wakeham actually made sense for once. Except, "when we (the CBC) were fat and lazy (wasting money)" should not be in the past tense.

    • a business man
      July 22, 2012 - 10:38

      This article is a great summary of why I invest in Asia, Mexico and right to work US States. I don't want to operate where a worker can restrict access to the premises. i don't want workers who have the right to control my hiring of cheaper workers. And I don't want a to operate in a system where the law protects the right of the worker to impede the operation of a business. I love this country, but it is better for me to offshore my companies, hire cheaper foreigners, and then declare the income and pay the CRA accordingly. And the end of the day, I still come out with more than I would if I operated in Canada.