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Bob Wakeham: Business and labour — never the twain shall meet

Business and labour have rarely seen eye to eye in this province.
Business and labour have rarely seen eye to eye in this province. — 123RF Stock Photo

As far back as I remember, allowing union and business types to chew each other to pieces was as easy as encouraging a hungry dog to gorge on a steak.

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham

In fact, I realized very early in the reporting business that you could practically write the accusations and the responses even before contacting the appropriate representatives on each side of the labour/management battle du jour.

And the public rarely got the true, objective facts of the issue, or issues, from the participants; they each had a mandate to represent their shareholders, or their membership, and unabashedly performed the spin-doctoring act with four star aplomb.

Even politicians, experts in spinning a yarn to suit their cause, had to be, have to be, envious of the inventive extent the two sides in any kind of labour racket go to win the public relations battle.

I got to thinking about these matters when NAPE and the St. John’s Board of Trade started to hammer each other over the tentative agreement reached between the public service union and the government.

The irony is that union and management types are usually preaching to their own choirs — the constituents, the parishioners — who pay them for their tongue-wagging in the first place. And even those in the public forum not directly involved in this or that labour/corporation racket have their minds largely made up anyway: the more sympathetic someone happens to be towards the labour movement generally, the much better chance they’ll embrace whatever it is a union spokesperson has to say in the midst of a fight; the more aligned ideologically someone happens to be with the corporate world, the more inclined they are to nod their head in agreement with whatever the business leader trots out in that same fight.

I’m sure many observers of such events actually believe they listen to all the facts, and then determine their own, objective adjudication in a labour-management dispute. But I’d suggest it’s the exceptional person who is not already leaning in one direction or another in these union/corporate brawls. Most have reached a conclusion before the first volley is even fired.

So, it was my philosophy over the years, especially while working in radio and television, to try and get the two conflicting sides together in a studio and let them have at each other. There was always the danger that such “debates” would turn into a schoolyard shout-down (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with letting participants show their true colours), but I always found that a strong journalist can maintain control over such exchanges, aware of when to intervene, when to let the two sides trade verbal haymakers, and when to ring the bell to end the bout.

(A CBC executive producer I knew in Western Canada once experimented with putting two people with opposing views in the studio with no moderator, no anchor, no reporter, and letting the combatants regulate and referee themselves; it didn’t really work out all that well, from what I saw, but, damn it all, the production was highly entertaining, and I gave my colleague high marks for at least attempting an unconventional approach to confrontational journalism).

The traditional setup, with an anchor and two antagonists, doesn’t seem much in vogue any more, at least locally, the journalistic powers that be having decided, I can only assume, that it’s kinda messy, and they like their products neat and tidy, slicked down with run-of-the-mill polish.

Well, when both sides are entrenched, and you have the bulk of the audience already predisposed to support one group over another, as in most labour matters, why not put front men or women under the same roof, with cameras rolling, and let the public have a gander at how each handles the conflict, how one sales job stacks up against another?

Saints preserve us, there might actually be some public edification, certainly more than might emerge from the structured setting, one in which a spokesperson can browbeat an interviewer or perform the baffle-with-bullshit routine.

I got to thinking about these matters when NAPE and the St. John’s Board of Trade started to hammer each other over the tentative agreement reached between the public service union and the government.

The corporate types believe the agreement stinks to the high heaven, especially the promise of no layoffs, and even imported a heavy hitter from the mainland to help with its selling job; the union, of course, is delighted it was able to a bring about such a far-reaching clause and is threatening a boycott of Board of Trade businesses because of what it obviously considers to be the board’s declaration of war.

Both have a myopic, self-serving view, the board wanting to ensure its clients can make tons of money, NAPE wanting to ensure its members have to never, ever collect unemployment stamps, under any circumstances, the union bosses not willing to give even a passing thought to any notion the civil service might be overstaffed.

So I say stick them in chairs in a television and/or radio studio and let them engage in a public pissing contest.

They deserve each other.

Thus ends this cynical epistle.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com

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