Lockout worth it, CBC boss says
OTTAWA (CP) – The eight-week lockout of CBC employees didn’t save any money, hurt market share and damaged employee relations – but was still worth it, says the president of the public broadcaster.
Under close questioning by skeptical MPs, Robert Rabinovitch said Thursday the lockout was essential to head off a strike later in the fall which would have disrupted new programming as well as NHL broadcasts.
He not only blamed the union for provoking the lockout but suggested Parliament, by cutting CBC funding over past decades, also helped push the corporation into a financial corner.
“People have asked whether the lockout was worth it and my answer was yes,” Rabinovitch told MPs on the all-party heritage committee, who peppered him with questions about low employee morale and future labour relations.
Rabinovitch said he feared that if he didn’t bring matters to a head with the mid-August lockout, the 5,500 Canadian Media Guild employees would strike in late fall and disrupt important television programming.
The choice was either “wait and let the union strike at a time of their choosing . . . or bring negotiations to a head at a relatively quiet time of the year,” he said.
Actually, a strike in late fall was impossible since the union’s strike mandate expired Sept. 6, an angry Arnold Amber – chief negotiator for the union – said outside the committee room.
“He is lying . . . what we got today is a lot of spin,” said Amber.
“If there was a vote of confidence held amongst staff today, Mr. Rabinovitch and his entire group of senior managers would go.”
The committee postponed a vote on its own motion of non-confidence in Rabinovitch from New Democrat MP Charlie Angus.
But MPs made their feelings clear.
“There is no confidence in you around this table,” said Bloc Quebecois MP Carole Lavallee, who accused Rabinovitch of seriously undermining employee relations.
“The members who are here have no compliments to pay you.”
Journalists, technicians and clerical staff were locked out of the public broadcaster from Aug. 15 to early October when a contract, which runs to March 2009, was finally reached to end the dispute.
Amber also disputed claims by Richard Stursberg, executive vice-president of English television, that the lockout saved CBC no money.
The extra costs of security during the lockout, higher management expenses to keep CBC radio and TV on the air and loss of advertising revenues offset eight weeks’ worth of savings on employee wages and benefits, Stursberg told the committee.
“We’ve ended up, basically, zero. There is no savings to the corporation.”
Actually, says the union, CBC probably saved about $50 million on employee costs but doesn’t want to admit it.
“We should get an auditor in there,” said Amber.
Liberal Marlene Catterral, chair of the heritage committee, also sounded skeptical of CBC’s figures: “Management, when it works overtime, doesn’t usually get paid overtime.”
The hearing started badly for Rabinovitch, who doused himself with water and crashed to the highly polished committee room floor after his chair slipped out from under him just before the session began.
He reminded MPs several times how government funding for CBC has dropped even as inflation and rising production costs have steadily pushed up costs.
At the same time, questions are being raised about English language TV programming and market share has also been falling at Newsworld – especially since the revamped CTV Newsnet channel emerged, he said.
Rabinovitch also insisted CBC’s board of directors was kept informed of management’s strategy to lock out workers before they could strike.
But while the board was aware of the lockout plan, it didn’t exactly endorse it, said Guy Fournier, a newcomer to the CBC board, who closely watched the committee hearing.
“If you asked the board was there a formal vote (on approving the lockout) no – I can’t lie to you,” Fournier said later.
He stopped short of calling the lockout a mistake but added: “If we had to re-live the whole thing, we would surely call for a formal vote before a lockout.”
Fournier has previously said the board would have appreciated more information from management before the lockout began.
Lockout worth it, CBC boss says