you have to sigh with relief when the Toronto Star rags the Tories over healthcare or homelessness. As campaigners for just causes from universal social services to racial tolerance, the paper founded by striking printers is fastidiously virtuous.
But in this era of newspaper wars, crashing ad revenues and soaring paper prices, it's proving harder for the daily to put its money where its mouth is. From its petulant campaign against carriers trying to form a union, and its plans to contract out their work, to the firing of a labour-organizer journalist at sister publication the Chinese-language daily Sing Tao, the Star is demonstrating that a social conscience goes only so far in business.
The intense competition that has already forced Conrad Black to sell off half his controlling interest in the National Post to the owners of Global TV, and has pushed the Globe to join forces with BCE, is taking its toll on the Star. It boasts the largest readership in Canada, and last week its parent, Torstar, announced that the paper's fourth-quarter earnings this year topped $18.5 million. But the paper is still suffering from lower than expected advertising revenues and a 30-per-cent increase in the price of newsprint.
Torstar has so far resisted selling any part of its flagship newspaper operation. But how will it weather the revenue scramble, and can it afford the luxury of holding onto ownership of its prized mouthpiece?
Is the paper's new bellicose attitude toward labour the first signal that Star management is attempting to make the paper more attractive to a potential buyer or ownership partner?
Certainly, management played uncharacteristic hardball against the organizing drive of its door-to-door delivery workers -- a battle that took more than 16 months and 22 days of hearings at the labour board. And just two days before the board certified the union, management announced this shocker: they would be contracting out home delivery service and cutting 200 admin jobs, saving $6 million a year.
SONG president John Deverell, a longtime Star staffer, says that while the company's making money, "there's obviously pressure on management to make more." Contracting out home delivery is just one way.
"You can't take Toronto Star liberalism and concern for the downtrodden at face value," Deverell says. "It's a marketing ploy, and that has never been more apparent than now."
The carriers, says Gail Lem, national vice-president of SONG parent the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union, are "the most exploited workers in the industry.' Work usually begins at 2:30 am, when they have to be at their pickup points. Here they'll line up to receive their papers, usually about 180, for the day. They'll be paid 19 cents per weekday paper, 60 cents per paper on Saturday and 41 cents per paper on Sunday, after a recent rate increase.
The papers must be delivered before 5:30 am in the suburbs and no later than 6 am downtown.
They deliver seven days a week, are entitled to three sick days a year and earn, on average, about $16,000.
There are no benefits. No overtime. No extra stipend for fuel costs. Now the paper will be contracting out the work, leaving carriers' jobs insecure and the union's status unclear.
"They make money selling our commitment,' says Brad Drake, a carrier and chair of the bargaining committee. "Seventy per cent of their circulation is home-delivered. That's the kind of numbers they go to advertisers with and say, "Hey, there are 500,000 Saturday Stars. They're not sitting on shelves waiting to be sold. They're being dropped at somebody's door.'"
For SONG reps, the contracting out looks a lot like an attempt to undermine the union, and they have filed for an injunction to stop the project.
But Catherine Yates, manager of communications and media relations for Torstar, counters that the carriers are the highest-paid in the land, earning on average $13 an hour. She says the Star has doled out three rate increases to carriers since 96 -- although SONG says there were no increases between 87 and 93.
And while 200 administrative staff will be laid off with full severance packages in the course of contracting out, she says every effort will be made to ensure that the Star's carriers continue their delivery contracts with the new bosses.
Why is the paper anxious to divest itself of these workers? "I don't think any newspaper could sit back and do nothing about a situation that was putting us at a competitive disadvantage,' Yates says.
"We are very sensitive to the competitive pressures in the marketplace. Every weekday in this city, 1.3 million newspapers are out there competing for readers. It's an extraordinary time."
Ryerson journalism prof John Miller says the Star's contracting out has to be seen as part of an overall trend taking hold in the industry. The Globe has contracted out both printing and distribution, and Conrad Black read the economic indicators months ago when he sold off half the Post.
"The Star obviously cares about the newspaper. It's the centrepiece of their empire," says Miller. "But they, too, are now reading the economic indicators and cutting costs wherever they can."
While the contracting out is expected to be in place by August 31, Star carriers and management are in the process of bargaining for a first contract. Some 1,400 carriers signed a petition asking for the rate increase last spring and requested a meeting with Star publisher John Honderich.
The Star, though, has refused to boost rates to compensate carriers for the steep rise in fuel costs.
Judging by the signals, a strike by the 2,000 carriers in the GTA seems probable.
Torstar seems to be readying itself. According to company statements, the paper is setting aside some $26 million it says will be used to cover "restructuring" costs.
The union thinks the bulk will be used to hire scabs and ride out a strike. And there are rumours that Sun and Globe carriers are being recruited to do Star routes in case of a work stoppage.
Yates is not saying what contingency plans are being put in place, except to say that the paper will continue to publish in the event of a strike. And the $26 million the workers fear will be used for strikebreaking? Seems like a lot of money to cover the severance packages of 200 employees who'll be losing their jobs, I offer.
"I can't comment on that,' she says. "It is what it is.'
Across town, meanwhile, more than 100 employees at the Torstar-owned Chinese-language daily Sing Tao are also poised to hit the bricks.
It was with some fanfare that the Star announced its purchase of Sing Tao back in 98. The purchase came just before the debut of the National Post, at a time when Toronto's major dailies were either jettisoning their newspaper holdings to boost the bottom line or acquiring as many newspapers as possible to insulate themselves against a financial downturn.
The Star played the Sing Tao purchase as a bit of a coup, the beginning of the its foray into the untapped and burgeoning ethnic press. The paper, which operates out of a low-rise on Power Street near Queen and Parliament and boasts affiliate dailies in Vancouver and Calgary, was, in any event, financially successful.
For 100 or so employees at the paper used to long hours, six-day weeks and low wages, the Star purchase was greeted with open arms for a different reason. Now, they thought, they had an employer who would be willing to deal with longstanding complaints.
Ka Hung Wong, a senior reporter at the paper, was one of those who'd long expressed concerns about working conditions, in particular a cut in year-end bonuses.
Wong met with Andrew Go, the Star's president of new ventures, who was recently made chair of the board at Sing Tao. There were promises made about conditions improving,
But once word began floating around the newsroom that Wong and another worker were talking about organizing a union, Wong was fired. The letter of termination gave no reasons.
SONG took Wong's case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, which ordered him reinstated and compensated with interest for losses arising from his "unlawful termination." Wong has declined to comment on the matter. The board, however, was critical of Sing Tao's behaviour in a nine-page decision released in January.
"None of the reasons given in the response for terminating Wong held up to the slightest scrutiny,' the decision written by board vice-chair Laura Trachuk says. "Wong must have been terminated for unlawful reasons since the company had found it necessary to manufacture false ones.'
The decision goes on to say that "by terminating Wong, the company interfered in the trade union's lawful activities and sought to intimidate employees," and that the company "acted with anti-union animus."
No higher-ups in the company took responsibility for Wong's firing. Instead, they pointed fingers at each other. Go, the Star's new man in charge at Sing Tao, didn't emerge unscathed. Tony Ku, the paper's editor-in-chief, testified that it was Go who gave the ultimate go-ahead to axe Wong.
The company and its 100 workers are now embroiled in first-contract talks, and on Tuesday the employees staged an information picket outside the Star's Yonge Street office tower. SONG rep Howard Law says a strike looks "imminent."
Wages seems to be the main issue. The company is offering a 3-per-cent increase and giving others way down the pay scale larger increases to correct historic differences.
The union, however, says the increases will still only bring a reporter with four years' seniority at Sing Tao to earnings of just over $600 a week. That's almost $100 less than a four-year reporter at the Star's smaller Metroland papers earns. The union wants 17 per cent over two years. Law says the Star is treating Sing Tao "like a sweatshop operation," not like a paper that belongs to the largest daily in the country.
The company, he says, also wants to cut sick pay and vacation pay and to alternate between five- and six-day weeks. SONG says the paper is also planning to lay off about 15 per cent of its staff as it becomes more automated.
Go calls the company's offer "fair," and says it's unreasonable to compare Sing Tao to papers outside the Chinese-language media. Compared to those competitors, he says, Sing Tao staffers are in a better financial situation.
SONG is "comparing apples and oranges,' he says. "We're competing in the Chinese market, and our advertisers tell us what our market can bear. It's like (the difference between) eating at a neighbourhood restaurant and a Chinese restaurant.
"The question that was asked was, Was there any technological change that could in the future impact on people? The company has no plan at the moment," Go says, "but there could be some people displaced.'
All Go will say about the Wong firing and subsequent kerfuffle is that "it had nothing to do with the union' -- despite the board's decision to the contrary. Sing Tao, Go says, will not appeal.
But Law sees the situation in other terms. "The problem Go has is that he's also in charge of Today (the Star's subway paper), which lost $4.6 million last year ($2 million in the last quarter alone). I guess when he goes into the (Star) boardroom he likes to have a little bit of good news, so he's jealously guarding the profits at Sing Tao." *