“We lost everything,” said Pascal Filotto, the Secretary General of the Syndicat des travailleurs de l’information du Journal de Montréal (STIJM) and former journalist with the Journal de Montréal. His sentiment is shared by many of the workers affected by the lockout at the Journal de Montréal. The two year strike finally came to a close last Saturday, when the 253 locked out employees voted 64.1 per cent in favour of the latest deal proposed by Quebecor Media Inc., the corporation that owns the Journal.
The lockout began January 24, 2009, making it the longest media labour dispute in Canadian history. Many have blamed the length of the conflict on Quebec’s anti-strike-breaker law.
The conditions of the negotiations state that 62 jobs will be restored, 42 of which will be in the newsroom. Those whose jobs are not restored will receive a severance package worth a collective total of $20 million. It is expected that the final details of the back-to-work policy will take several weeks to sort out.
In the final stages of negotiation, Quebecor agreed to withdraw a demand prohibiting employees from working for competing publications for six months following the closure of the deal. A demand for the discontinuation of Rue Frontenac, the newspaper started by the locked-out journalists, was also withdrawn.
Many union members, like Filotto, remain unimpressed with the negotiation process. Further anger was sparked when news that the deal had been accepted appeared on Twitter before it was officially announced to union members.
“I think it’s a horrible deal,” said Filotto. “I voted against it. I’m really sorry we had to cave like this at the end. I thought we were finally putting a dent in Quebecor’s resolve and I thought there were still things we could do before we gave up. But I also understand the despair and how hard it was for a lot of people.”
Filotto spoke to the variety of people who were involved in the lockout besides reporters. “A lot of these people were close to retirement, so they were never going back to the Journal. They supported us because there were some principals involved.” He added, “It was a lot to ask of people close to retirement to postpone it to protect certain things that we thought we needed to protect.”
Filotto continued by saying he “respected the decision” of those who voted for the deal.
“I can understand both sides,” said Rue Frontenac coordinator, Jean-François Codère. “We’ve been fighting for a long time and we’re tired.”
Others such as André Forté, an adviser at the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), the parent union of STIJM, feel that while the settlement is disappointing, there was simply no other way.
“We’ve been to trying to fight them for two years and trying to have more force towards the negotiations, but it was never going to happen,” said Forté.
Quebecor, a media conglomerate that owns Vidéotron and Sun Media Corporation, is one of the largest newspaper publishers in Canada.
Despite their credentials, the corporation cited financial concerns as the motivation for their decision to lay off 75 office workers at the Journal, the decision that initially sparked the conflict leading to the lockout.
“As far as I know, Quebecor initially wanted to fire 75 people. Now about 190 have lost their jobs,” said Codère.
Filotto described how Quebecor wanted to cut costs and began to target office workers since “you can’t just get rid of entire departments” in which other employees worked. He explained how reporters supported their colleagues and Quebecor management took advantage of that.
“They were never having financial problems. They foresaw possible problems in the future and they overplayed that to try to get us to cooperate.”
“Quebecor got what they wanted. It’s a huge loss for us,” said Filotto.
Obstacles to lockout solidarity
“Even during the boycott campaign, the readership didn’t go down. They never lost any money; they actually made even more money,” said Forté. “We had no hope against such an adversary. They could have continued in a conflict like this for years.”
“Quebecor is a huge machine,” said Filotto. “The habit of reading that paper was so strong.”
J.Serge Sasseville, Quebecor’s Vice-President of Corporate and Institutional Affairs commented on the agreement via email.
“We do not intend to give interviews following last Saturday night’s vote,” wrote Sasseville. “We limit our comments to the following declarations: We are pleased with the results of the vote by the members of the union STIJM; we accept the recommendation made by the mediator Jean Poirier; we will be sitting down with the union soon to discuss the terms and conditions of the back-to-work protocol. We do not wish to make further comments at the present time.”
Quebecor has become known for its model of convergence, where content from QMI Agency, their newswire service, is available to all of their publications. By using wire content from QMI, Quebecor was able to continue the publication of the Journal during the lockout. QMI was created shortly before the lockout began.
“The anti-scab law…allows the publication of content which comes from other sources and allows newspapers to be filled with articles that come from all over the place,” Forté explained. “[Quebecor] were able to fill the newspaper with articles that came from all kinds of other papers.”
Union members also expressed concerns with Quebecor’s business model, and claimed that its corporate interests were compromising their professional morals. “There were some principals we did not agree with, such as the convergence of media sources and the increased corporate presence in the newsroom,” said Filotto. He described how reporters had begun to feel “more and more like mercenaries.”
Editor-in-chief of the Journal, Lyne Robitaille, is also the executive Vice-President of Operations Eastern Canada and Sun Media Corporation – both owned by Quebecor. During the lockout, Robitaille spoke on radio saying, “We no longer talk about journalists now. We are talking about producers of multimedia content.”
Filotto disagreed. “Nobody really knows what the media landscape is going to be,” he said. “A bunch of models have been coming up…but I’m sure that reporters running around with video cameras trying to make bad TV is not the way. The solution is to showcase what journalists do best – writing and taking pictures – in the best possible way. That’s what we hope to do with Rue Frontenac.”
Rue Frontenac moving forward
Although attempts by the STIJM to boycott the Journal during the lockout were largely unsuccessful, both Codère and Filotto have high hopes for the future of Rue Frontenac.
With ninety days to dissociate itself from the STIJM and the Journal, Rue Frontenac is currently seeking investors willing to support the paper as a workers’ co-op.
“There are a lot of people who seem interested,” Filotto said. “During the lockout, Rue Frontenac eventually stopped being seen by the public as ‘the newspaper of the locked out journalists’ and began to be seen as simply another news source. … They appreciate that Rue Frontenac is offering a newer, fresher voice.”
“I have enormous hopes that it will work,” said Forté. “We’ve already had such a good response from many people. It would be phenomenal to have a media source that could continue independently like that with quality workers.”