Bitter Black taste

Conrad Black pulls out of Canada, but unions too busy fighting each other to celebrate

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How much did Hollinger’s massive $3.5-billion sell-off to CanWest this week have to do with the financial bleeding of the former Conrad Black newspaper chain during the eight-month Calgary Herald strike?

Honchos at the Communications Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union that led the organizing effort are taking some credit.

But then, these days CEP higher-ups are looking for a little solace wherever they can find it.

The fallout and infighting resulting from the failed first-contract strike has not been pretty. In Toronto, the president of the CEP-affiliated Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild (SONG), John Deverell, issued a two-page bulletin to air his grievances about CEP’s handling of the strike.

Among other things, Deverell took issue with the “very dumb bargaining strategy” of sending 140 workers out on strike against “a big global corporation… with a big financial reach” — and in labour-unfriendly Alberta, to boot.

Deverell had some choice words, too, for CEP vice-president Gail Lem, who — at least according to one e-mail (from Graphic Communications International Union rep Alan Tate) that’s been making the rounds — opined that the CEP would have had its collective agreement with the Herald if the GCIU, whose Herald employees were also on strike, had stayed out longer.

The GCIU represents Herald press and mailroom workers, among others. The union’s units went on strike with the CEP. One returned to work after a month on the picket line. The other returned with its own deal two weeks before CEP abandoned its strike effort.

So what of Deverell’s very public rebuke of Lem? Deverell’s known for ruffling feathers. He acquired a taste for it while he was a reporter at the Star. When reached at SONG’s Queen East offices, it’s clear he hasn’t lost his penchant for rocking the boat.

He calls the Herald strike an organizational disaster.

And says the CEP leadership seriously miscalculated the Herald’s resolve to buck its unionizing efforts.

He thinks the strike should have been called off when it became clear that other CEP union friends in the Hollinger chain weren’t eager to join the fight.

Yes, union politics can be a bitter business. Now comes news that Peter Murdoch, a CEP national rep, will be challenging Lem for the CEP vice-presidency next month at the union’s convention in Montreal.

In the male-dominated, bare-knuckle game of union politics — there are only two women on the 16-member CEP full-time executive — Lem’s been taking on the big boys for a long time.

Is she now being made a target, a convenient scapegoat? She’s not saying publicly. Over the phone from her Ottawa office, she takes a deep breath before weighing in on what she describes as Deverell’s “somewhat intemperate” bulletin.

Some difficulty

So what is this talk about her blaming the GCIU for the CEP’s failure in Calgary?

“There’s no question that toward the end of the strike we experienced some difficulty.”

But “I’m not under any circumstances going to get into a public or private mudslinging match. Certainly, I never said that the only reason we didn’t get a collective agreement was because of the GCIU.

“What is clear now that was not clear when we first organized the Herald is that Conrad Black would personalize that strike to the point where he could not back down.”

Some, among them John Webster of the GCIU, say the strike became a personal matter for the CEP VP, who, he says, staked her reputation on whipping the baddest anti-union boy of them all, Black himself.

Somewhere along the way, Webster says, the strike stopped being about workers’ rights for those pounding the bricks on the picket line and answering the phones at strike headquarters.

How personal did the strike become? There were mornings when Lem would arrive at her office to find sharply worded letters faxed by his Blackness.

At one point, Hollinger filed a $12-million libel suit against Lem (she says it’s been withdrawn) over statements she made about editorial integrity at the Herald.

Says Webster, “I think she staked her career on this strike, and certainly she has to justify to her membership why they spent so much money and lost.”

Lem responds: “Let me set the record straight. This was the newspaper at which the term ‘drive-by editing’ was coined. There was an overwhelming concern that people would be subject to discipline and even dismissal if they were to fight to defend their stories. A climate of fear had descended. The strike wasn’t about me. It was, to a large degree, about Conrad Black and his ugly agenda for the media in Canada.”

Sounds curious

Enter Peter Murdoch, the CEP national rep who’ll be vying for Lem’s post next month.

He says the CEP will need to create bargaining alliances big enough to deal with media mega-corporations — especially given CanWest’s purchase of Hollinger this week.

Sounds curiously like what Lem has been saying the last four years.

But Murdoch isn’t eager to wade into the fallout over the Herald strike — although he has plenty to say about it in his campaign literature. Hmm.

enzom@nowtoronto.comProportion of English-language circulation controlled by independently owned dailies

in 1970: 40 per cent

in 1980: 26 per cent

in 2000: 3.4 per cent

Source: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom

— compiled by Geoffrey Chan

— compiled by Geoffrey Chan

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