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Bob Wakeham: My take on scabbing

Locked out workers from DJ Composites in Gander rallied at Confederation Building in St. John's Tuesday.
A rally at Confederation Building in St. John's by locked out workers from DJ Composites in Gander. - File photoJoe Gibbons

Social media wasn’t around when I was engaged in what today’s vernacular would describe as scab-shaming. There was no availability back then — nearly 40 years ago — to technology that could spread the word instantly to thousands about the unscrupulous actions of others.

But if that sort of messaging option had been on hand (as it obviously was recently to the union representing employees at Gander’s D-J Composites, where the workers have been on strike for 21 months and forced to tolerate the influx of scab labour), I have no doubt it would have been a tool I would have used to embarrass and humiliate anyone attempting to take my job.

Because I have, in the past. The name of the actual scab in my case has long departed from what now passes for memory, a pseudo-journalist always operating just on the periphery of the small and intimate world of Newfoundland communications.

I still vividly recall the circumstances.

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We, the reporters and photographers employed by The Evening Telegram, had managed to form a union, the first in the newsroom in the paper’s long history, a successful campaign that had originated in clandestine gatherings in homes and apartments in St. John’s (including my own den of decadence).

It was a bold move to organize the newsroom, one whose permanent status we felt could only be validated by a first contract, and prompted us to join the paper’s production workers (who had been unionized for years) on the picket line in the late summer of 1979.

The production workers were fighting for a better wage; we were fighting, first and foremost, for recognition, and secondly, for respect in tangible ways that would reflect the conscientious and hard-working way in which we felt we had been carrying out our journalistic responsibilities.

(A slice of context here: my passion for a union was provoked, at least in part, by a conversation I had had with CBC reporter Bill Gillespie while we were covering an election campaign; I had shared candidly the details of my salary at The Telegram and Bill informed me that he had earned shockingly more money in overtime alone at the Mother Corp in the previous year than I had earned in straight pay.)

The strike lasted for several months, and it was an acrimonious affair, a war of words that escalated to constant picket-line incidents and, eventually, arrests one morning during a demonstration that prevented, at least temporarily, delivery trucks from picking up that day’s edition of the paper.

It was also a time of immense camaraderie among the news-gathering brigade and an occasion to bond with the production workers, most of whom we hadn’t known all that well — they thought of us, I believe, with some justification, as the newsroom snobs — and such attachments helped precipitate the proud formation of our own newspaper called “The Signal.”

Needless to say, we ate, drank and slept the strike, and were desperate to see a successful and honourable solution.

The newspaper’s owners at the time, the Thomson Corporation, imported scab labour from The Mainland to do work ordinarily performed by the production staff, and there was little we could do (at least legally) to prevent them from slipping in and out of the premises in the wee hours of the night.

Initially, the jobs of the reporters and photographers were handled by middle management and non-unionized personnel (most of whom were friends of ours), and it was impossible to challenge or condemn their obedience; after all, it was either do what they were told, or be fired, and that was not an outcome we sought for anyone employed with the paper at that time.

Wick Collins, a highly respected columnist and editorial writer, was fired, in fact, for refusing to handle a reportorial assignment, the only real casualty of the strike. The tremendous fondness all of us already had for Wick obviously grew as a result of his actions, but we all wished he hadn’t put his job on the line.

As you can probably tell from these Saturday words all these years later, it was an incredibly emotional time for the strikers, and that was the backdrop when I got wind of the fact that this local, out of work journalist had “applied” for a job at the strike-bound paper, and began work as a “reporter.”

He was a pure, unadulterated scab, and I let the world know — or at least the world that existed on a stretch of Duckworth Street between The Evening Telegram building and the court house — each and every time this loathsome soul walked the couple of hundred yards to the cover the legal news of the day.

I would walk cheek by jowl alongside him, waving my picket sign, and loudly shouting and repeatedly: “This is a scab, ladies and gentlemen, a scab who has hired himself out to do the work of striking reporters at The Telegram!” My vitriol, accompanied, I am sure, by an abundance of profanity, would continue unabated until he entered the provincial court.

Eventually, perhaps as a result of my harassment, he quit, as far as I can recall.

So, there you have it: my take on scabbing.

No philosophizing, no pontificating, just an anecdote about an individual taking the job of another individual involved in a legitimate, legal strike.

Scabbing, deemed to be breaking the law in Quebec and British Columbia.

Not so in Newfoundland.

It’s just classless and immoral here.

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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