IN my last blog I touched on the dilemma of the working man in face of the decline in unions. It may seem puzzling as to why unions, the very bedrock of the advancement of the condition of working people, should have declined.
Where I grew to adulthood, in New Zealand, the Labour government of 1935-49 had passed legislation making it compulsory for anyone who had a job to join a union. Thus, when I left school to work in the local newspaper, I joined the New Zealand Journalists’ Union, and was covered by the provisions of the nationally-negotiated contract covering all newspapers in New Zealand.
I grew up to be proud of this union membership, even though, with hindsight, it could be argued that such a system did lead to the creation of some unions that were, as the saying goes, deadwood, whose executives were not really imbued with the principles of unionism, and were inactive in the defence of the rights of their members.
At the time the politics of the general society in which the Cold War was settling in, interfered with the running of unions to a certain extent. In the antipodes, in particular, as on the West Coast of the United States, the wharfies, as they were called, workers on the nation’s wharves, tended to be led by members of the Communist party, which at the time, though small in number were large in influence, because of their concentration on the welfare of working people, especially in the unions. There, as in Canada, which had is own Communist-led Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU), the leaders of the more orthodox union collectives were firmly set against the Communist unions, and since it was mainly the Communist-led unions that caused industrial strife, such collectives --- the AFL-CIO in the United States, for example, the Federation of Labour in New Zealand, the Canadian Labour Congress in Canada ---- gradually began to act more or less in lockstep with their governments. My sympathies at the time were with the more militant unions, which not only were strong in defence of their members, but also had no hesitation in using their influence in support of foreign workers. For example, it was not at all unusual for the Australian wharfies to refuse to handle ships for political reasons, such as in support of anti-imperialist struggles being fought in various parts of the world, and I firmly supported these actions. With the enthusiastic backing of the media, governments were easily able to portray these actions as being stimulated by Communist affiliations with the Soviet Union.
It is undeniable, of course, that western Communist parties lost all hope they may have had of broad public support when they first opposed the Second World War because of the pact between the Soviet Union and the Germans, and then, when Germany attacked Russia in 1941, they changed their minds on a dime, and became effective fighters against the Nazis.
Thus, immediately after the war, it was easy for non-Communist Western governments to use the Communist stick to beat the trades unions with, and they didn't hesitate to do it. In the United States unions became tainted with corruption and gangsterism, but this was not enough for the employers, who frankly set out to denigrate unions and used every trick in the book to undermine them. Years later I worked on finishing a small film made at the NFB called Who Needs Unions? which followed the career of a man whose business it was to propagate the anti-union case, something he and others of his ilk did with sensational success.
When I left New Zealand in 1950, and a year later was hoping to get a job in England, I ran into the problem of jurisdictions that was altogether avoided in New Zealand by its system of mandatory unionism. Many English unions were what was known as “closed shops.” That is, you could only join them by getting a job; but to get a job you needed to be a union member. Some were simply “union shops”, that is, once you got a job, you had to join the union. And then, of course, there were jobs that were non-unionized. Although I eventually succeeded in getting a job for a small weekly in Coventry,Warwickshire, I really cannot remember that I was ever required to join the union, although I am fairly sure the journalists on the local evening newspaper --- which owned the little weekly for which I worked --- were union members.
It was not until I came to Canada in 1954 that I ran into the non-union shop, and that with a vengeance. My first port of call was Toronto, where I was told I needed Canadian experience to be hired by a Canadian newspaper --- if one were to describe this in the jurisdictional terms outlined above, I suppose this could be called the “Canadian shop” or the Canadian version of the English “union shop” --- “you can get Canadian experience only by working in a Canadian newspaper, but to get a job in a Canadian newspaper, you need Canadian experience.”
When I was hired to work on the Northern Daily News in Kirkland Lake, I ran into the Thomson newspaper chain, Roy Thomson’s infamous creation, a chain of small-town newspapers built on the firm principle of paying the lowest wages possible consistent with keeping unions at bay. Here I discovered an entirely new instrument in my experience, an electronic tape that could be attached to a linotype machine and do the work that hitherto had been done by a linotype operator. The sole purpose of this was to avoid hiring the skilled staffers who were always the most likely to be unionized. The tape was sent out from headquarters in Toronto, containing news dispatches from around the country and the world, and even editorials, pre-written in Toronto. The editorial staff was run by two members, an editor and chief sub-editor (a recovering drunk, who was down on his luck from a ruined career in the metropolitan centres) who might be considered full-time workers, while the reporting staff was made up of people like myself, experienced journalists, most of us, from England (a descendant of the poet Wordsworth), South Africa, Jamaica, Latvia and New Zealand who had drifted into the country from abroad, and were willing to accept whatever wage was offered. We were expected to work at any time of the day or night, any day of the week, and whatever we wrote was set in type by the sole linotype operator needed to keep the system moving.
Although two of us on that staff later received the Order of Canada (Fred Bruemmer, later a famed Arctic photographer and myself), the newspaper that resulted from our efforts was a poor thing, indeed as were all of the other newspapers in Thomson’s chain. Roy Thomson had been an itinerant businessman whose efforts to get going all proved fruitless until he tried to sell radios in Northern Ontario, and decided to set up a radio station to encourage sales. This had caught on until he was able to buy his first small local newspaper in Timmins, and the rest is history. Thomson Newspapers became one of the mightiest businesses in the entire world of journalism, operating in several countries, and buying the man himself a peerage in the British realm. His first quality newspaper, as they are called, was the well-regarded and long-established Scotsman. Next he was able to establish the first Scottish TV station, which, he said, in a famous quote, was “like a permit to print money.”
I lasted only three months on the $45 a week he paid me, and soon moved on to the Winnipeg Free Press, another low-paying non-union paper but one with a solid reputation that rested on the fact that its editor for more than 40 years, J.W. Dafoe, had such political influence that his turgid editorials were said to be capable of toppling governments. I used to whisper in the editorial room that the newspaper was “regarded as a great newspaper by more people who had never read it, than any other in history.”
When I moved on after two years to Montreal, I found myself in a very strange newspaper situation. This was 1957, and although the tranquil revolution had not yet arrived, French-language journalists had managed to get themselves unionized. Through a stroke of good fortune I became friendly with many of them and they introduced me to a side of Quebec life ---modern, radical, anti-clerical, pro-union and alive to the outside world --- which seemed to be unknown to those running the English-language newspaper for which I worked. On our side of the town, we were employed by a steadfastly anti-union boss, who nevertheless had sense enough to peg his wage structure at just below the higher wages won by the French journalists through their union.
I remember after I had been there a couple of years, someone arrived from the American Newspaper Guild in the United States who had the intention of perhaps organizing Montreal’s English-language journalists. He asked me what sort of support he could expect from the journalists on our staff, so one evening I ran through the list of some 130 editorial staffers with him, and came up with four whom I considered might be relied upon in a union organizing drive. He went away.
In fact, the behaviour of the French journalists at that time was a revelation to me. While we were mere creatures of the editors and management, without any leverage to control our work, the French journalists were extremely active at the level or professionalism, and did not hesitate to strike when they felt they had good cause. On one strike at La Presse they had not been content just with picketing, but had managed to produce every day a miniature version of the newspaper which they called La Presse Ouvriere that became a considerable weapon in their armoury. That strike ended with the overthrow of the administration of the newspaper and its replacement with a new editor, with some of the more vigorous and radical younger journalists promoted to management positions. A result like this could not even be dreamed of on the English-language side.
I had never been impressed with the management of The Montreal Star, an immensely profitable newspaper that continued rolling on thanks to its guaranteed huge classified advertising every day. After I left the newspaper the proprietorial McConnell family wanted money more than they wanted a newspaper, and sold the paper to a chain organized by the Winnipeg Free Press. They were finally unionized in the 1970s. But on neither side did they have experience of negotiating, and when in 1979 negotiations seized to a halt with a strike, the conflict was allowed --- in my view through stupid management --- to drag on for so long that when the strike was settled the newspaper had lost its formerly unchallenged circulation.
So, a deal --- a dirty deal, if I may coin a phrase --- was made between the Free Press outfit and the Southam’s chain that owned The Gazette, the only remaining English-language newspaper. The Southam paper in Winnipeg would be closed, leaving the field to the Free Press, and simultaneously the Star in Montreal would also be closed leaving the field to the Gazette.
I suppose these are the kinds of deals one has to expect from capitalism, where money and profits are the only criteria of success. But since I returned to Montreal I have mentioned from time to time that I had worked on The Montreal Star and have been surprised at an almost unanimous reaction: oh yes, the Star was such a good newspaper, we miss the Star, we read the Star every day.
I am not sure the Star ever deserved such accolades. But certainly its loss has been an immense one to Montreal as a city, much greater than those of us who wrote for it could ever have imagined in the years leading up to the tranquil revolution.