How media unions are making strides to improve working conditions

Carleton University journalism professor emeritus Catherine McKercher co-received the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication award for professional freedom and responsibility earlier this year.

In her speech at the award reception in Montreal, McKercher drew on her experience as a teacher, researcher and journalist to outline the challenges media workers currently face, and how they can be met through collective power. Here is an excerpt.

My career in journalism began in 1970, at the start of a period of huge upheaval in the newspaper production process centred around computers and the move to cold type. When I joined the faculty of the School of Journalism at Carleton University in 1987, I decided that I wanted to learn more about what this rapidly changing digital technology would mean to news workers, especially to journalists.

One of my first big projects was writing a reporting textbook, The Canadian Reporter, which came out in 1993. Believe it or not, no one had written a text for Canadian reporters until then, so it required a lot of original research. My co-author Carman Cumming and I interviewed dozens of reporters, from general assignment to politics to sports reporters, about how they did their work. I always asked about technology. I was surprised—and a bit disappointed—to find that almost none of them had thought much about it. They saw technology as gadgets or tools, but little more. They knew that computerized production had threatened the jobs of blue-collar news workers, but they saw no threat to journalists. In hindsight, I think they believed that their work was so important to democratic society that somehow, they would be protected.

I realized that I would have to dig deeper, working on my own and with my partner, Vincent Mosco. Two sets of ideas helped me make sense of what the digital world would mean for journalists.

The first comes from Raymond Williams and his followers: the idea that technology represents congealed social relations. Technology does not “evolve” independently. Rather, it embodies the goals, needs and desires of the people who make it and the people who use it. In other words, it reflects the political, economic, social and cultural forces of the society in which it’s developed. The second set comes from Harry Braverman, the American student of capital. Braverman argued that in the industrial revolution, capital took apart the labour process as a process controlled by workers and turned it into a process controlled by managers. This meant that management could rationalize and centralize the work and develop machinery that could replicate what the workers had been doing. Drawing on Marx, he argued that these machines embodied “dead labour,” or the skills of workers the machines would replace. Braverman added two very insightful ideas. Management’s ultimate goal, he wrote, was to replace as many “living workers” as possible with “dead labour.” In addition, this trend would extend up the job ladder.

Both sets of ideas are clearly at play in the news business today. News is a social relation, a manufactured product, produced on a predictable schedule and in a predictable package, delivering audiences to advertisers and information to audiences. And with the aid of digitization, the project of rationalizing, centralizing and expanding the pool of “dead labour” has accelerated at an alarming rate.

I’m going to discuss newspapers here, though the same could be said of radio, television or magazines. In the early days, digitization happened mainly in-house, with the production departments. With the development of the Internet, the corporations that control multiple outlets found new ways to centralize and rationalize just about everything else.

As we all know, newspaper newsroom employment has dropped. In the U.S., it went from a peak of 57,000 roughly 25 years ago to below 38,000 now. We’ve seen similar declines in Canada. The conventional view is that these cuts are in response to declines in advertising. But that is only partly true: between 1990 and 2000, ad revenue went way up while total newspaper employment went down.

The thinking behind these cuts reflects a single-minded pursuit of profit. Why does every paper in a chain need its own movie critic? Wouldn’t one do? Why should each newspaper have a reporter in the capital when two or three can serve them all? Why do we have one reporter per beat? The health reporter doesn’t write every day, and neither does the education reporter. Couldn’t one reporter cover both? Or, do we need beats at all? We have digital cameras now, so we don’t need photo technicians, but what about photographers? Couldn’t we just have reporters use their smartphone cameras?

This rationalization of the labour process has affected pretty well every aspect of the newsroom. One of the latest targets is copy editing and page production. Postmedia, one of our biggest newspaper chains in Canada, has a shop in Hamilton that produces national and international pages for all its papers. The big savings are in labour costs—fewer editors handling more pages. The Canadian Press (CP), my old employer, has gone one step further. In 2009 it opened a subsidiary called Pagemasters North America that offers copy editing, design and layout packages to papers on both sides of the border. Significantly, pay rates for editors at these shops tend to be below the rate for the workers they replace.

This spring, the Toronto Star—Canada’s biggest newspaper and one of the new owners of a recently privatized CP—announced a set of changes that are typical of what’s going on in the business. First, it laid off 11 well-paid, full-time page editors, sending the work to Pagemasters. Second, it announced plans to hire a bunch of people, called digital reporters and digital producers, who would work exclusively on thestar.com. This would be a new class of worker, outside the collective agreement. The Star proposed paying them what it called “market rates”—again, well below union scale at the paper. The rationale was that print advertising revenue outpaces online revenue by nine to one, so the rates of pay for online workers should reflect that.

It’s important to recognize that and the move online and mobile has created some new jobs in traditional newsrooms, like those jobs at the Toronto Star, designed to enhance the paper’s digital presence. There have been other new jobs too: data journalists, social media journalists, multimedia journalists, people who create charticles and so on. But overall newsroom employment has dropped by a third with no end in sight. This shows, I think, the power of Braverman’s analysis.

Which brings me back to Raymond Williams’s idea of technology as congealed social relations. Social relations, as we all know, are complicated and contested. They evolve dialectically, with contradictions and counter-forces, with competition as well as co-operation, and with unanticipated consequences. Who could imagine, for instance, that the Internet would bring us cat videos? So many cat videos. I can just picture the architects of the Internet, back in the 1980s, in a top secret meeting: “Yes, we must develop this network so that millions of people all over the world can watch that little kitten act surprised. Excellent.”

Unanticipated consequences indeed. Certainly, the newspaper business did a miserable job of anticipating either the opportunities it could reap from the Internet or the negative impact online technology could have on its business model. After ignoring, and in fact, denigrating the online world in a single-minded obsession with quarterly profits, the newspaper business is scrambling to catch up. Meanwhile, online-only media are on the rise. Today, digital-only outlets—sites like HuffPo, Vice, Gawker, Buzzfeed and so on—have created close to 5,000 editorial jobs, according to the latest Pew state of the news media study.

Where you have contradictions, you have room for resistance, including resistance from workers and the organizations that represent them. And studying that kind of bottom-up resistance has been what’s charged my batteries for the last many years. I want to highlight three developments on the labour front that I think are especially significant for those of us who work in journalism and communication studies.

The first comes from traditional organized labour. It’s the rise of converged trade unions. Vincent Mosco and I have described the Communications Workers of America (CWA) as the model of labour convergence in the communications and information sector. The CWA started life as a phone workers’ union, survived the Bell breakup and now includes communications workers of all sorts, from technical to creative, from content providers (like The Newspaper Guild, which merged with it some years ago) to IT providers. The CWA has survived and thrived despite the ravages of right-to-work laws and a concentrated effort by politicians, conservative policy makers and media to portray unions as crooked, out-of-date, out-of-touch and yesterday’s news. With 700,000 members, it is one of the ten biggest trade unions in the U.S. In Canada, we’ve seen the creation of a new union just last year, the result of a merger between the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union and the Canadian Auto Workers union. Called Unifor, it has 300,000 members and is Canada’s biggest private sector union. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA have finally, after years of struggle, joined to create one union. This new union has just racked up an astounding achievement: a new master film and TV contract that will prevent studios from playing one side of the union off against the other. I mention these three unions because they are the unions that represent English-language news workers in North America, in print, broadcast or both. So at the very least, the labour picture within the newsroom is vastly different than it was just a few years ago.

Does this matter? Well, I think it does, for a couple of reasons. At the most basic level, these unions have big memberships and substantial financial resources, both of which are useful for organizing and collective bargaining. Beyond that, though, these unions bring attention to the fact that their members, regardless of where they work, have things in common. The same political, economic and cultural forces that affect auto workers also affect news workers, IT workers and broadcasters. The same forces that affect workers in Canada and the U.S. also affect workers in Europe and India, and the CWA has worked with unions in both regions.

At a broader level, these unions make a huge difference in the lived experience of their members. We all know that there’s a union wage differential, and that it’s especially significant for women workers. But earlier I mentioned Pagemasters North America. It is, now, a CWA shop with a collective agreement. The wages are low, true, but it’s a start. As the business expands, the wages will rise. And as for the Toronto Star, Unifor dug in its heels over the new classification of digital reporter. It has negotiated a compromise that allows the Star to hire these reporters as temps rather than permanent workers, and to hire them under the terms and conditions of its existing contract. Small steps, admittedly, but significant nonetheless. Beyond wages and working conditions, these unions have fought for the professional integrity of journalists even as employers have sought to downgrade it. In contract talks this year, The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, proposed new language that would require journalists to write branded content, articles that would be vetted by the advertiser sponsoring them. I don’t know a single journalist who thinks this is a good idea. It became a key issue in the negotiations. And the union won. Here’s how the chair of the Globe unit of Unifor put it: “Our success in fending off The Globe’s advertorial proposal protects the integrity and reputation of our journalists and of The Globe and Mail itself.” Interesting that this comes from the trade union, isn’t it?

Trade unions aren’t the only ones resisting digital job degradation or loss. We are also seeing the rise of what we might think of as social movement worker organizations, operating outside traditional collective bargaining though sometimes with the support of traditional unions. Freelancers organizations are one example. But the one I want to talk about today is the movement to resist unpaid internships.

I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that it’s useful for people who want to join a profession to get some real-world experience while they are students. But corporate exploitation of unpaid interns has gotten way out of hand. It is especially flagrant in the communications and cultural industries. We all know young people who, two or three years after graduation, are still bouncing from unpaid internship to unpaid internship, some of them lasting six months or more. A lengthy ProPublica investigation found that between 500,000 and 1 million people are interning for free every year. According to Ross Perlin’s 2011 book Intern Nation, unpaid interns account for $2 billion in lost wages in the U.S., even if the interns were paid strictly minimum wage. Illegal internships—those that clearly contravene U.S. labour law—account for a $600 million gift to U.S. employers.

Well, the interns are fighting back, and they’ve made some remarkable progress. We’ve seen a welter of lawsuits against the magazine and entertainment industries. We’ve seen the creation of very active organizations fighting on behalf of interns, in Canada, the U.S., Britain and Europe. And we’ve seen enforcement. Not a lot, admittedly, but enough to make employers think. In Ontario, the government has cracked down on some high-profile magazine internships. In the U.S., New York City has given illegal interns the right to sue. And universities are beginning to rethink and in some cases tighten up their own practices. This is a remarkable thing. Think about it: young workers face chronically high rates of unemployment. Young people with no actual jobs are probably the last group you can imagine making a difference. But they are, and how they have done so is worth investigating.

The final development I want to raise comes from within the academic community itself. It’s this: there’s a growing awareness that labour is a legitimate area for communications scholars to study and teach, and indeed, that it should be central to the field. Journalism and communication studies have tended to focus on messages, meanings and audiences. But the conditions under which people make those messages matter. We should not—and we cannot—ignore them. A growing number of young scholars are working very hard to bring labour in from the fringes of the discipline. They are studying, in depth, what communications work means for technical and creative labour, as well as for people who work in the supply chains of the knowledge industries. This is a significant change, and I welcome it.

Certainly, when I started studying labour I ran into a lot of head-scratching and occasional hostility from colleagues. Some years ago I gave a talk at an American university about how The Newspaper Guild decided to join the CWA. When I finished, the very first question came from a senior professor who asked, why are you studying trade unionists? Unions were made up of “crooks and bums,” he argued, and studying them was a waste of time. This was, by the way, a university with a faculty union. Go figure. Another time, as I neared the end of delivering a paper at a scholarly conference, I asked, should knowledge workers of the world unite? An audible voice from the audience called out, “God, I hope not.”

Thankfully, that attitude is changing. If you are lucky enough to have a graduate student or a young colleague who wants to study digital labour, I hope you will encourage them. If you are even luckier and have a tenure-track job open, I hope you will welcome them to apply. All of us, as citizens, scholars and knowledge workers who need to understand our world better, will be better off for their labour.

mckercher headshotCatherine McKercher is professor emeritus of journalism and communication at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of a number of books on labour in the communication industries. Her co-authored reporting text, The Canadian Reporter, is in its third edition. She received the AEJMC award jointly with her husband and research partner, Vincent Mosco, professor emeritus of sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

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