La Presse threatens to go out of print

Newspaper hemorrhaging as recession squeezes revenues

Published September 25 2009

Management at Montreal’s largest broadsheet French newspaper has announced that it will go out of print unless its workers accept a new contract by December 1.

La Presse’s unionized workers issued a public statement “deploring” the publisher’s hard-line tactics after the announcement was made on September 3, but the two sides have since commenced negotiations toward a new contract which Gesca Ltée – the paper’s parent corpoation – hopes will be $13-million less than the current one.

Like dozens of other daily newspapers across North America squeezed by declining ad revenues amid the current recession, La Presse has sought to cut its costs wherever possible. After announcing last June that the paper will be running a deficit of over $200-million by 2013 unless it radically restructures, management has sought to decrease its expenses by $26-million annually.

Having already decreased the physical size of the newspaper and discontinued its Sunday edition, Guy Crevier, the president of Gesca Ltée, is demanding that the remaining cuts must come from the unions – namely, that the 600 unionized employees there start to work five days a week, as opposed to four, and accept a six per cent cut in pay.

In a press release issued last Friday, La Presse announced that while negotiations are ongoing, representatives of Gesca Ltée and La Presse’s unions would not make comments to the media.

In recent months, labour relations have deteriorated much more dramatically at one of La Presse’s rival publications, the daily tabloid Le Journal de Montréal. After the contract of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal (STIJM) expired on December 31, the union and management were unable to agree upon a new contract, and the STIJM’s 253 employees have been locked out ever since.

Pascal Filotto, the Secretary General of the STIJM, said that the problems workers at the La Presse currently face are similar to those of his own union.

“We thought that we had offered them a lot of concessions, but they really haven’t budged much from their initial position,” he said. “They want to essentially outsource accounting, and a lot of the classified ads workers they want to get rid of. That’s more than a third of our membership.”

Filotto added that negotiations at La Presse are likely to fare better than they have at Le Journal because Gesca will be forced to disclose its financial accounts during the course of its discussions with the union. Le Journal’s parent company, Quebecor, on the other hand, has kept its numbers hidden.

“If you have real numbers then you can talk seriously,” Filotto said. “[Management] is asking us to make concessions that really are not in proportion with the actual crisis and the way it’s affecting our paper.”

STIJM’s previous contract included stipulations designed to keep corporate interference out of the newsroom. Filotto said that the union intends to maintain such agreements in its next contract, despite management’s intentions to omit them.

The Montreal Gazette, Montreal’s most popular English daily, also switched to a smaller-sized paper last spring as a result of the financial pressures it has been facing.

Gazette columnist Henry Aubin stated that workers at his paper have “backed off from pressure tactics” as the financial problems facing the paper, and its parent corporation CanWest Global, have come to light.

“I think everyone’s going to have to reduce their expectations. French news has had four-day papers, and I think it’s very naive to think that’s going to continue,” said Aubin, adding that workers at La Presse typically make more than those at The Gazette.