Fearing a Montreal Gazette workers strike, CanWest News Service attempted to recruit freelancers and Concordia journalism students last week in what opponents are calling a blatant instance of scab labour.
Should Gazette editorial, advertising, and sales employees exercise their new strike mandate – they have been without contract since June and are fighting to reverse the decision to outsource jobs to an office in Hamilton – preparations by Gazette holding company CanWest could be viewed as scabbing, according to Irwin Block, Vice President of the Montreal Newspaper Guild and a senior Gazette writer.
“We see this as a sleazy attempt to possibly break Quebec’s anti-scab law,” Block said. “They kind of skulked around getting numbers and addresses of students.”
Quebec’s Labour Code explicitly prohibits scabbing. However, since students were approached not by the Gazette but indirectly by CanWest News Service, and were asked to fill the roles of freelance writers as opposed to staff positions, the legality is debatable.
Phyllise Gelfand, director of communications for CanWest Media, explained that the company’s actions were exaggerated, citing that CanWest was simply seeking greater coverage of Montreal news.
“This was our newswire service, based in Ottawa with a Quebec desk, reaching out for freelancers – some of whom were former or current students of Concordia University – in anticipation of a greater need for news coming out of Canada’s second largest city,” Gelfand said. “This is really just trying to make a bigger story out of things than it really is.”
However, according to Mike Gasher, Director of Concordia’s School of Journalism, CanWest still violated protocol by going directly to students and not contacting his office for hiring recommendations.
“CanWest has tried to put students in really what is an awkward position,” said Gasher. “My position is if someone’s in contract negotiations, you stay the hell out of it.”
Gasher sent an email to his students warning them that if they should accept, they would likely be perceived as scabs and ostracized by fellow journalists.
It is still unclear how many students were contacted, and whether any have accepted positions with CanWest, but Concordia student newspaper The Link reported that “on October 8, three graduate students got offers to work in the event of a strike.”
Should CanWest’s recent actions affect negotiations at the Gazette, pushing workers into a strike situation, Block indicated that student or freelance recruits would be perceived negatively.
“We certainly would not look kindly on anybody seeking to act as scabs by replacing us should we be on strike,” said Block.
Gasher, however, faulted CanWest for creating a situation that could harm the reputation of new journalists.
“To me, it’s the principle of the thing,” he said. “That’s not how you start out your career as a journalist.”