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An Unsettling Settlement


Jax Rerun

Why CBC workers aren't smiling

I took my first steps into Canada’s vast arts and culture sector with a summer job at The Works Art & Design Festival in Edmonton. Over the years, I was privileged to meet Canadian artists and critics like Sylvain Voyer - acclaimed Alberta painter; Iain Baxter - Governor Award-winning installation artist; and Colin MacLean - CBC's own "Dean of the Arts." Colin MacLean made the greatest impression on me; he was an enthusiastic, white haired man that scribbled notes next to me at Workshop West's play premieres, directed camera crews around me at Canadian furniture design exhibitions, and broadcasted lively national art reviews into my living room almost nightly. MacLean was the first television personality to ever appear on the CBC network; he hosted their opening concert on October 1, 1961. For over forty years, Maclean worked for the CBC (writing, hosting, narrating, producing, and directing) -- if anyone's job was safe, it was his.

On March 18, 2004, Maclean worked his last day for the CBC and began looking for employment elsewhere. He had not been fired. He had not quit. After years of loyal service, the CBC had chosen to simply not renew his contract. During the weeks following his release, dozens of petitions to rehire MacLean circulated the country. The coast-to-coast pleas from arts appreciators were ignored. Since Maclean was a contractor, not as staff member, he was forced to accept the termination of his position. This was a terrible wake-up call, not only for the dozens of arts and entertainment contractors serving the CBC, but also for the many long-term contractors employed in its other divisions.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was founded in 1936 with one of its main tenants being to preserve and promote the Canadian identity through the presentation of Canadian news and entertainment via radio (and later television and internet). Funded through tax-payer dollars and corporate advertising, the CBC is largely regarded as an independent, bias-free forum for Canadians to express their views on Canadian issues and culture. In 2004, the CBC employed almost 5,500 people -- many of whom were on contract rather than permanent staff. In May 2004, Canadian Media Guild representatives and CBC management began negotiating a new contract for the CBC employees with a agreement deadline fifteen months away. But management and the Guild could not come to an agreement.

The major point of contention was the use of contract workers at the CBC. The Guild wanted the number of contracted positions capped at 6% of the workforce and management wanted the freedom to hire staff and contractors at their own discretion, even though they maintained that their current hiring practices had less than 6% contractors. On August 15, 2005, for the first time in the history of the CBC, management locked out every single employee. News anchors, camera operators, radio technicians, and script writers soon found themselves trudging around CBC buildings hoisting placards in the air.

An eight week long stand-off ensued between employees and management. Management broadcasted without their staff: reruns and movies were shown, BBC news reports were aired, and untrained managers read live Canadian news reports. The CBC ratings plummeted. Management finally made concessions on capping the number of contract workers: only 9.5% of the total workforce may be on contract, anyone who has been on contract for four or more years will be allowed to convert to staff if they wish, and art & entertainment contractors cannot be terminated without just cause.

These changes came too late for Colin MacLean, but for hundreds of CBC workers these changes mean job security, access to health insurance, and the right to take sick leave and maternity leave without losing their income. It seems that the CBC workforce has, in the end, got its justice. But why are many CBC workers still upset? Hasn't the CBC recognized the value of their employees with this new contract? Can't fences be mended and a new future of cooperation begin? Or is there injustice in this justice?

If, as the CBC management claimed, less that 6% of the current workforce was contractors and the Guild was willing to negotiate their position up to 9.5%, why did the settlement require fifteen months of negotiations and an eight week long lock-out? Money. According to the Guild, the total weekly salary of the locked-out workers was $4.8 million per week. Even after the settlement's signing bonuses for every worker, the CBC saved well over $20 million; coincidentally, this is also how much money the CBC lost in advertising revenue due to the 2004/05 NHL lockout. In testimony to the House of Commons, CBC president Robert Rabinovich said that the NHL lock-out would mean a minimum $20 million loss for the corporation. The CBC lock-out recuperated these losses, and then management settled with the Guild just in time for Hockey Night in Canada to return to the airwaves. Don Cherry and Ron MacLean took their seats at the Hockey Night desk and drew over 1.6 million viewers. Molson, GM, MasterCard, and the many other multi-million dollar advertisers must have be very happy to see the CBC lock-out end.

CBC management claims that the NHL advertising money was not a contributing factor to their decision to settle with the Guild. Management contends that Hockey Night in Canada would have been aired without commentary just as the CFL was aired earlier in the year. But, football is a slower game that the average fan can follow without commentary, CFL announcers are virtual unknowns, and advertisers aren‘t willing to pay big bucks for CFL commercials. In contrast, hockey is a fast game for which play-by-play commentary adds enjoyment for the fans, Don Cherry is an internationally recognized celebrity, and NHL advertisers pay millions of dollars for air-time.

It is true that hockey games aired without Don Cherry’s commentary would still have advertisements. However, they would not have been worth the millions of dollars that they are worth when Cherry is at the helm. The big-money advertising deals cut for NHL games operate under a system of "make-good," which simply means that the commercial must be seen by an audience of a pre-determined size. If CBC fails to meet their audience quota they must "make-good" on the deal by reshowing the ad for free until the audience requirement is met. How many GM truck ads would have to air between Da Vinci's Inquest and The National in order to reach one million Canadians? All that extra air time equals a lot of lost revenue for the CBC. They needed to get Hockey Night in Canada operating at full capacity as soon as possible.

The money-motive behind CBC management's decision to lock-out thousands of its employees is particularly disturbing when you consider that they are supposed to be a not-for-profit corporation that reflects the Canadian identity. Is this what Canada has become? Are we a nation willing to throw thousands of people into the street in order to balance the books? It is wrong to lock-out skilled employees, who are willing to work and are in no way responsible for the corporation’s revenue-loss, in order to save some money. Knowing that it was hockey and its big-money advertisers that finally drove management to do the right thing and accept their Guild's deal is cold comfort for CBC employees who struggled to make ends meet for nearly two months. For CBC to play with their employee's payroll like it was some sort of stock market game is unconscionable. Those were not abstract dollars they were saving -- it was their employee's mortgage payments, grocery bills, heating cost! s, insurance payments, and electricity bills. For eight weeks CBC forced its employees to live off of $200 a week (provided by the Guild). I know families with teenaged children who eat that much in one week. And while their employees were marching outside for this pittance, CBC management continued cashing the government cheques; upwards of $17 million per week in government operating grants continued to flow into the CBC coffers throughout the lock-out.

The CBC was in the wrong when it locked-out its employees, and this injustice should not be forgotten by the public. Yes, in the end the workers got what they needed from the settlement, but the unnecessarily long negotiations and lock-out were a cold, unjustified means for the CBC to recuperated funds. Once we allow such large-scale cash-grabs to go unchecked by a tax-funded identity, we open the door for further indiscretions. The importance of advertising revenue generated by NHL broadcasts cannot dictate how the CBC does business. Broadcasters that are driven by the profit-motive can become biased in their programming. If a corporation is giving them $10 million in advertising revenue, it becomes tempting to squash negative news stories about that corporation in order maintain positive relations.

During this lock-out, CBC management demonstrated its willingness to choose money over people. That brings into question the integrity of the entire network. Can we trust the CBC to remain unbiased and independent when faced with money-making opportunities in the future? If they are willing to commit an injustice upon the people they work with everyday, what will stop them from committing injustices against the public with whom they have very little direct contact? With the integrity of the entire network in question, the employees of CBC now return to work. Is it any surprise they aren’t smiling?

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