CBC workers locked out
TORONTO (CP) – Documentaries, world news from Britain and reruns of Antiques Roadshow dominated the CBC airwaves Monday as locked-out workers took to the picket lines in what was billed as the largest labour dispute in the national public broadcaster’s history.
Shortly after midnight Sunday night, some 5,500 workers across the country, members of the Canadian Media Guild, found themselves locked out of their offices in a dispute over the network’s desire to hire more contract workers.
Viewers who switched on the CBC’s main network, Newsworld or CBC Radio were greeted by documentaries, reruns and BBC World News broadcasts, separated by brief newscasts that were delivered by decidedly unfamiliar voices and faces.
Football fans won’t be pleased to hear they will likely see a pared-down broadcast of a CFL game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos on Saturday night.
“I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like yet,” said Chris McCracken, the CFL’s director of broadcasting. “But at this point we’re yet to be satisfied by the CBC and their plan to ensure our broadcast is not compromised in any way.”
He said the game may be aired without play-by-play or colour commentary – which would be a CFL first.
Dozens of CBC workers marched outside the iconic Canadian Broadcasting Centre in downtown Toronto, many sporting signs that read Locked Out.
“There’s no reason we’re out on the street today,” said Arnold Amber, president of the CBC arm of the guild, which now represents between 80 and 90 per cent of the broadcaster’s workers after technical staff opted to join the union in 2004.
CBC Radio host Anna Maria Tremonti called it “heartbreaking” to be kept off Canada’s airwaves as she paced the sidewalk beneath the corporation’s distinctive logo. Others fretted about how to pay their bills amid speculation the lockout could be a long one.
Christian Bailey, an associate producer with the CBC, said the worst part for him and many others was really just not getting to do a job they love.
“I think a lot of people are bewildered,” Bailey said. “They just want to be working.”
Local radio morning shows were replaced by a single national broadcast, while TV newscasts were dramatically pared down. Workers with the broadcaster’s French-language operations, Radio-Canada and Radio-Canada International, were also locked out, except in Quebec and Moncton, N.B., where staff belong to a different union.
That gave a decidedly Quebecois flavour to much of the CBC programming in other parts of the country throughout the day.
Some of the CBC’s most prominent personalities are members of the guild and remained locked out of their offices Monday, including Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the broadcaster’s flagship national newscast, The National.
The main issue at stake is job security; the broadcaster wants more freedom to designate new employees as either permanent employees, contract workers with set starting and ending dates, or temporary workers, who are called in to fill openings as needed.
Arthur Lewis, executive director of the lobby group Our Public Airwaves, placed blame for the dispute squarely at the feet of the federal government.
“The insistence by CBC on the need to be able to hire more temporary workers can be traced directly to the corporation’s serious funding shortfall,” Lewis said in a statement.
“This lockout is a direct result of the underfunding of CBC by the federal government – creating a situation where CBC managers feel forced to take desperate but, in our view, short-sighted measures to try to best utilize limited resources.”
The corporation currently consists of 70 per cent permanent workers, 20 per cent temporary workers and five per cent contractors.
The dispute centres on what kind of changes would be made to that formula, one Amber said is fairly standard in the broadcasting industry.
Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president of CBC Television, said management wants the ability to classify employees based on the needs of the corporation at any given point. In many cases, contract employees are hired strictly for a specific program, event or project, and the CBC wants those contracts to better reflect the project’s schedule, he said.
“I think it’s very healthy for an organization to be able to bring some people, small numbers, into an organization with their ideas and whatnot, and have them leave and bring in new people,” said Jane Chalmers, vice-president of CBC Radio.
“I don’t think it’s uncommon in work life in Canada, in the broadcast industry or out.”
Workers aren’t opposed to contract work, but merely want some criteria put in place to ensure that they are used only under specific circumstances, Amber said.
Management’s assurances that no one who currently holds a permanent job will end up as a contractor doesn’t help when young employees are always asking the union to help them find permanent positions, he added.
“We are talking about the next generation of the CBC,” Amber said. “We are a family, and the family goes from generation to generation.”
Much of the dispute is rooted in long-standing questions about whether the government-funded CBC should operate like a private business, one that can make – and lose – money.
Amber said the CBC is a special institution in Canada because it’s a Crown corporation.
“This is not a fast-food restaurant,” he said. “The CBC is not a cable company, it isn’t speciality programming – it’s the national broadcaster.”
CBC producers, newsroom staff and technicians have been without a contract for more than a year. Last month, guild members voted 87.3 per cent in favour of a strike mandate.
Amber said the Canadian public is in for a shock for the duration of the lockout, which marks the first time a labour dispute has left enough people off the job to dramatically impact the broadcaster’s public face.
“Up until today, nobody knew what it meant to miss the CBC,” he said.
CBC workers locked out