Search 4545 Rue Frontenac on Google Street View and you will see picketing workers on the sidewalk outside of the Journal de Montréal head office. Although the image is from last October, 253 unionized employees – journalists, photographers, editors, and office workers – have been on the pavement since January 2009.
But it’s not picket lines or protests that have garnered media attention for the union – it’s ruefrontenac.com, the online newspaper that the locked out journalists started in 2009 in order to continue covering local news.
The Quebec Superior court recently overturned a labour board ruling criticizing the paper’s parent company, Quebecor Media, for the illegal use of replacement workers during the lockout.
The Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal (STIJM) and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) are currently appealing the decision.
The Quebec Labour Code stipulates that companies cannot hire new employees to work in the establishment during a strike, though the law – dating from the 1970s – does not clearly elucidate what the “establishment” is.
Newspapers use this ambiguity to continue to produce content through remotely performed labour, which undermines the spirit of the Labour Code, according to Darin Barney, an associate professor in the department of art history and communication studies at McGill who also serves as the Canada Research Chair in Technology and Citizenship.
“The Labour Code exists to protect workers and their work, not workplaces. That the employer in this case would claim that work performed remotely, and submitted or gathered online, does not violate anti-strikebreaking provisions of the Labour Code is disingenuous at best,” said Barney in an email to The Daily.
The lockout began with a failure to reach a new collective agreement when the Journal de Montréal workers’ contract expired on December 31, 2008.
The STIJM and CSN have launched a campaign involving a web petition denouncing Quebecor’s behaviour, asking the provincial government to use all available means to bring parties to the negotiating table.
“The more the public knows about the issues, the more they are outraged,” said Pascal Filotto, secretary general of the STIJM. “The average [Journal de Montréal] reader doesn’t get the full picture. We have seen massive support from students and others who are getting their news online.”
Media conglomerates have been restructuring in response to new media sources, real-time information, and declining revenue from classifieds and advertising.
Quebecor has claimed that they have offered union employees “the best [pay] in the industry” and generous severance packages.
The union, however, refuses to accept Quebecor’s deal, which includes the layoffs of 75 employees, a 20 per cent reduction in benefits, a 25 per cent pay cut for classified workers, fewer rights for new hires, and the employer’s freedom to reassign employees to produce online or multimedia content without pay.
Quebecor also wants to expand the 30-hour work week to a 37.5-hour week. With a four-day work week being typical for most francophone dailies, this would mean an unpaid fifth workday.
Filotto said that more than just pay is at stake. “This is a fight worth having – not only for us, but also for the public and the integrity and quality of journalism as a profession,” he said.
Filotto expressed fears about Quebecor’s new business model, which has seen the newsroom and publicity department uncomfortably close.
The first edition of a new Quebecor weekly, L’Écho de la Rive Nord, ran an article positing the health benefits of tanning beds. The only source cited was the owner of four tanning salons, who had also bought an ad on the first page.
Rue Frontenac has enjoyed considerable investigative and editorial freedom. In September 2009, the web site broke a corruption scandal involving municipal politician Benoît Labonté, which led to his resignation as leader of the official opposition party, Vision Montréal.
“It’s been a very interesting journalism laboratory. We’re able to do things we weren’t able to before,” said Filotto.
Rue Frontenac isn’t the first union in Quebec to publish independently. After being locked out in April 2007, Journal de Québec workers launched Média Matin Québec (MMQ), a print daily they distributed for free during the 15-month labour dispute. The venture cost their union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, $5 million.
Despite having considerably more editorial and investigative latitude than at the Quebecor-owned papers, independent models like MMQ or Rue Frontenac lack reliable streams of revenue, and are not viable in the long term.
“I think what the [Journal de Montréal] workers are facing is an economic and technological situation in which it is becoming easier than ever to be a journalist, but also increasingly more difficult to make a living as one,” said Barney.