Crucial ‘catch-up’ round of contract talks under way at CBC

2018.11.16 | CWA Canada Local 30213 - Canadian Media Guild

The Canadian Media Guild is the main union at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (Photo: Marta Iwanek)

LISE LAREAU | Canadian Media Guild

[~] To understand the contract talks that are now under way between the Canadian Media Guild and the CBC, you have to go back 10 years.

That’s when both union and management jointly used what has been dubbed the ‘Port Credit process’ for negotiating. The model was developed by the most senior CBC executives and CMG representatives to rescue a relationship that had been destroyed by the decision by the CBC to lock out its workers in 2005.

Negotiators are still using the model — so named because talks are held at a hotel in Port Credit, just west of Toronto, where the two sides agreed to work on an interest-based method, away from the distractions of the Broadcasting Centre. CMG (CWA Canada Local 30213) is the main union at the CBC, representing staff across the country with the exception of Quebec and Moncton, N.B.

Most members of the CMG side will tell you that this round is also about addressing some key issues that have been set aside or ignored during the past decade, too.

As Harry Mesh, the one member of this year’s CMG team who was there in 2008 put it, “this is a bit of a catch-up deal.”

Mesh is a transmitter technician in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland and Labrador. “A lot of the issues have not been discussed in a real way for a long time. After the lockout and then through several rounds of budget cuts, people just put their heads down and worked, feeling grateful that there was work. But now there’s this sense that we’ve gone backward in the workplace. There’s this feeling of being more overwhelmed and overburdened than a decade ago.”

“We know there’s a lot of expectation,” says Pauline Pemik, a producer, reporter and host of CBC Nunavut’s daily news program. Like many CBC employees, her work involves doing more. She works in two languages (English and Inuktitut) and does it on all platforms.

The feelings of falling behind while the work intensifies are borne out by the bargaining survey CMG did in late spring. Results revealed that compensation is one of the two top issues. A record 1,200 members filled it out — likely an indication of intense interest after a long dormant period (the current five-year contract expires March 31, 2019, which followed another five-year deal) and a campaign by the CMG to involve members in this round.

When it comes to pay, “people are treading water,” says Karen Wirsig, one of two CMG staff assigned to the talks. “This is the tenth year of 1.5-per-cent pay increases. When you factor in that people are paying more in pension costs and their benefits have been static, they are falling behind — especially those who’ve reached the top of their scale.”

The other issue equally important with members is the escalating number of non-permanent employees and the way they’re treated. “Everyone is concerned about precariousness and a sense of growing precariousness,” Wirsig says.

“It’s an issue near and dear to my heart,” says Sujata Berry, a Toronto-based producer who has worked on shows from the National to CBC Radio’s White Coat Black Art. “All these people starting out aren’t being given the same opportunities as we once were. But they are the future of this great institution. If they feel disenfranchised now, there’s not much of a future.”

At any given time, about one-third of the staff at CBC are non-permanent, says Jonathan Spence, the Guild’s CBC branch president. “This is a major issue for us and interestingly it’s a strong issue for the CBC side, too. They invest a lot in temporary employees. There’s a recognition that they are important to the work CBC does and that there needs to be a path for them.”

“At the same time, they (CBC management) want good permanent staff, but they also want flexibility. Things in our industry are changing really fast. They want to be able to respond to the changing media environment.”

It’s not surprising the permanent/non-permanent issue is high on the agenda. It has been the key to most recent settlements — and disputes — at the CBC over the past 20 years. It was the central issue in the 2005 lockout when CBC originally demanded a limitless number of contract employees. After forcing employees out for eight weeks over the issue, the end result was a 9.5-per-cent (plus 80 positions) cap on contract employees, and what was designed to be an automatic process of turning temporaries into permanent staff after 18 months. That process has turned out to be filled with loopholes.

The issue dominated contract talks in Quebec earlier this year. A first tentative agreement between Radio-Canada and the Syndicat des communications de Radio-Canada (SCRC) was rejected when a group of temporary employees asked tough questions about whether there was enough in the proposed deal for them. Negotiators went back to the table and a new deal was approved in early fall. It places a cap on contract workers; they cannot be more than 20 per cent of total payroll.

There are dozens more issues in what is a very big and complex contract between the CBC and its 4,500 employees outside Quebec and Moncton, N.B. That’s reflected in the chosen style of bargaining.

The management and union teams meet directly for a full week at a time, followed by a week back at their regular jobs, with some committee work by phone or online where they work on smaller issues. It’s all done by interest-based bargaining, where both sides jointly discuss the facts of an issue and consider potential options.

“We call it solutions-focused bargaining,” Spence says.

The talks are held together by mediator Warren Edmondson, a former assistant deputy labour minister and former chair of the Canada Industrial Labour Board. He was one of the referees and designers of the Port Credit process back in 2007-08. It’s his third round in that role.

Having a knowledgeable mediator — from the start — who is committed to the process is unusual and an extra expense borne by both sides.

“It’s really helpful if you get into a rut. He helps both sides think through pitfalls,” says Wirsig.

Pemik says the Port Credit process is similar to the way Inuit in Nunavut resolve issues — by working them out through a discussion of principles.

At the end, she hopes “we will improve the well-being of members’ lives, give them the feeling of having work that is continuous, in a place they are valued. We want people to be happy.”

The rest of CMG’s bargaining team include: Carolyn Dunn, senior reporter based in Calgary; Stéphany Laperrière, Toronto-based Radio-Canada reporter; Pierre Millette, Ottawa-based senior broadcast technician; Naomi Robinson, Toronto-based TV editor; and Olivier Desharnais-Roy, CMG staff representative.

(Lise Lareau is a former national president of the Canadian Media Guild (2000-2010) and a member of the union’s bargaining team in the 1994-96 round of negotiations.)

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