CWA Canada is working with other unions, publishers, and journalism advocates to step up pressure on the federal government to do more to save critically endangered media outlets that are providing essential news on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The media union co-sponsored a large ad in daily newspapers across the country on Saturday by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, warning that, within weeks, many media outlets could fail.
Unifor and News Media Canada, a publishers association, were the other co-sponsors of the ad, which noted that 2,000 media workers “have been silenced” since March 15.
Friends’ Save Our Media campaign, which urges people to send letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, calls professional, fact-checked journalism “democracy’s immune system. We cannot let it fail.”
CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon said he’s urging Ottawa to speed up the delivery of aid and lower the 30-per-cent revenue-loss bar that determines eligibility for the 75-per-cent wage subsidy.
Funds from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which are intended to prevent layoffs or support worker recalls, might not reach some businesses for several weeks. The subsidy, of up to $847 a week, is retroactive to March 15 and expected to be in place for at least 12 weeks.
“Many media companies were losing money or barely breaking even before the pandemic hit,” O’Hanlon said. “They’re not like large corporations that have enjoyed big profits that will sustain them. They need cash within a couple of weeks or there will be more cuts and layoffs.”
There is growing concern for The Canadian Press (CP), which is providing a vital service to English and French media across the country during the pandemic. The news agency, at which the union has 168 members, has seen a sharp drop in revenues, but it is not currently eligible for government assistance. The same goes for the company’s commercial division, Pagemasters North America, where the union has 73 members.
Other news operations at which CWA Canada represents staff have taken a variety of measures to reduce costs, from salary or workweek reductions and work-sharing to outright layoffs. The union, which has members at 10 of Postmedia’s 15 daily newspapers, is still awaiting word from the company on its plans.
O’Hanlon said he understands how dire the financial situation is and the union is trying to work in co-operation with employers. He noted that some Locals like Victoria and Red Deer have already agreed to temporary work-sharing arrangements, cutting hours and pay to avert layoffs.
“It’s a great example of how we can work together to make the best of a bad situation for both the company and workers rather than butting heads.”
Unfortunately, some employers like Saltwire have chosen not to work with the union and have instituted layoffs and cuts with no notice or severance pay, in violation of collective agreements.
“In such cases, it is our legal and moral responsibility to ensure that our members are protected and we have launched grievances,” O’Hanlon said. “We once again urge employers to work with us to come up with solutions rather than acting arrogantly, unilaterally and illegally, which will end up costing them financially in the long run.”
The Victoria-Vancouver Island Newspaper Guild (Local 30223) has managed to negotiate work-sharing arrangements with two employers.
At the Victoria Times Colonist, where Glacier Media was proposing to lay off 32 workers, the Guild agreed on March 19 to open the contract and worked with the company to reach a temporary solution that will see all 90 members retained, but with reduced hours.
Under the Employment Insurance Work-Share program, hours will be reduced by 20 to 60 per cent, depending on type of job, with lost income partially made up by EI payments. All 24 editorial staff, the majority of whom are working from home, will be reduced by 30 per cent.
The EI program has also been put in place and avoided layoffs for the Local’s five members who work at The Cowichan Valley Citizen. It is one of about 80 publications in British Columbia owned by Black Press, which has laid off staff chain-wide and reduced publishing schedules.
The Media & Communications Workers of Alberta (Local 30400) has 22 members at the Red Deer Advocate (owned by Black Press) and 30 at the Medicine Hat News (owned by Alberta Newspapers Group).
The union has agreed to the EI work-share program at the Advocate, which will include all six reporters in editorial, but is grieving the March 20 layoff of five members because they did not receive severance, vacation owed or notice.
In Medicine Hat, a total of seven people were laid off, most as of April 13. Hours of all full-time and part-time staff were reduced as of March 23.
Several outlets at which workers are represented by CWA Canada’s largest Local, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), have instituted cost-saving measures:
Buzzfeed News: No layoffs, but salary reductions of between five and 10 per cent, depending on wages.
VICE Canada: Six CMG members, who are among the top 50 per cent of wage earners, could voluntarily opt-in to a 20-per-cent reduction in weekly hours for 90 days.
National Observer: Two of six reporters have been moved into positions that are funded differently.