Monday, November 24, 2008

Saskatoon StarPhoenix resorts to historical revisionism in latest attack on labour groups

Premier Brad Wall addresses the Saskatchewan Party
convention in Saskatoon on Nov. 15, 2008 (Photo: Greg Pender/SP)

Upset at the prospect of union leaders being proven right about the anti-labour legislation introduced by the Saskatchewan Party government in Dec. 2007, The StarPhoenix has resorted to revisionist history in what seems to be an attempt to head off any feelings of sympathy the public might develop for workers.

In the editorial Health employers over-reaching only helps unions (StarPhoenix, Nov. 20, 2008), The StarPhoenix laments the Wall government’s “ridiculous” and seemingly “self-destructive behaviour” in letting government-side negotiators representing the regional health districts as they prepare for contract talks with three health sector unions to designate as essential nearly every member of the unions involved, including such professionals as music therapists and librarians.

The newspaper says the “obstinate stance taken by the health districts is counterproductive” and will “only lend credence to the claims by labour leaders that the legislation contravenes their members’ charter right to free collective bargaining.”

Labour Minister Rob Norris “is doing himself and the government no favours when he seems to be advocating that the matter be hauled before the Labour Relations Board rather than caution the two sides to try to work out an amicable solution that will help talks progress toward a settlement in the public interest,” the editorial said.

The StarPhoenix, in an attack against labour, managed to rewrite the history of four separate issues in a single paragraph stating: “When the Saskatchewan Party government delivered on its campaign promise by introducing essential services legislation, the move that was welcomed by a citizenry that was tired of such bargaining tactics as unions pulling snowplow operators off the highways in the midst of a snowstorm and limiting crucial treatments provided at the cancer clinic.”

First, there is absolutely no mention of introducing essential services legislation in the Saskatchewan Party’s Securing the Future 2007 Election Platform. Pages 19 and 20 of the platform merely said: “A Saskatchewan Party government will establish a fair and balanced labour environment in Saskatchewan that respects the rights of workers and employers by: Protecting public safety by working together with the province’s public sector unions to ensure essential services are in place in the event of a strike or labour action.”

Regina Leader-Post political columnist Murray Mandryk blew the myth apart in his Dec. 7, 2007, column Sask. Party rewrites election script.

Mandryk said that prior to the 2007 provincial election Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall and MLAs Elwin Hermanson and Don McMorris gave “repeated assurances…that the Saskatchewan Party saw no reason to legislate essential services and that the unions and governments could work this out at contract time.”

Mandryk said that Wall and now Labour Minister Rob Norris “simply aren’t being honest with the voters” on the issue.

At best they “were deliberately unclear leading up to the election” and at worst “still choosing to be duplicitous in their revisionism that the Saskatchewan Party made it clear all along that it might legislate essential services (even if it didn’t bother mentioning it was doing so in its platform).”

Mandryk backed up his claim stating: “McMorris told the Leader-Post in a June 28 story, after the Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan (HSAS) strike, that an agreement around essential services should be forged between the parties without having to legislate the matter. Former leader Elwin Hermanson, in a July 12 Leader-Post story in the aftermath of HSAS, also stressed that essential service services agreements could be negotiated at contract time and didn’t require legislation.

“Wall himself even said the same thing in a Sept. 22 story: “There’s some common sense at play here that simply says, before collective bargaining begins, before the expiration of a contract, both sides (should) sit down and agree to providing essential services,” Wall said.

“He, too, went so far as to say legislation wouldn’t necessarily be required to set out essential services.”

Second, The StarPhoenix states that the essential services legislation “was welcomed by a citizenry that was tired” of union bargaining tactics. On the contrary, it was the business community that was demanding changes to labour legislation.

In his Dec. 21, 2007, column Not the worst – nor the best, Mandryk said what the government and business lobby groups weren’t willing to admit and that is the Saskatchewan Party government’s Trade Union Act amendments and the Public Service Essential Services Act legislation weren’t “designed to be… legislation aimed at creating a “fair and balanced work environment.”

“Especially when it comes to the amendments to the Trade Union Act, it really seems this so-called “fair and balanced” legislation really benefits private-sector employers more than anyone. Make no mistake that this is a right-wing government throwing a bone to the only people demanding the change -- its friends and political donors in the business community who have patiently waited for the past 16 years for the labour pendulum to swing back in their favour,” Mandryk said.

Third, unions did not pull “snowplow operators off the highways in the midst of a snowstorm,” in reference to the blizzard that hit parts of Saskatchewan in Jan. 2007.

News reports at the time show that snow plow operators, as part of a strike action by the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU), were temporarily off the job from midnight on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007, to Tuesday afternoon on Jan. 9, 2007.

In Blizzard blasts Saskatoon (Leader-Post, Jan. 11, 2007) the StarPhoenix’s Darren Bernhardt reported that the “blizzard began around midnight Jan. 10” and lasted 26 hours, so workers were indeed back on the job well before the storm hit. Ironically, conditions that day forced provincial highways workers and snowplow drivers to shut down.

“It was a difficult day. The biggest problem was the visibility,” said Highways Department spokesperson Doug Wakabayashi.

Department policy states no plow is allowed to set out once visibility falls below 200 metres. At 100 m they are instructed to return.

“Given the stopping distances of our trucks, that’s effectively zero visibility,” said Wakabayashi. [Storm challenged emergency crews: Snowplow operators worked throughout night in Saskatoon (StarPhoenix, Jan. 12, 2007)]

A search of historical records at shows that the total precipitation from Jan. 7-9, 2007, was 2.0mm. In fact, from Jan. 1-9, 2007, there was just 3.0mm of precipitation recorded at Saskatoon airport. Blowing snow, as well as clear and cloudy skies, was reported on some of these days as well.

Fourth, unions did not limit “crucial treatments provided at the cancer clinic.”

On Sept. 18 and 19, 2007, the SGEU, which represents cancer agency employees, conducted a strike vote. [Cancer agency employees plan strike vote (StarPhoenix, Sept. 6, 2007)]

On Sept. 20, 2007, it was announced that employees of the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency had voted in favour of strike action. Bob Bymoen, president of SGEU said workers had served 48 hours strike notice. [Cancer staff may strike (StarPhoenix, Sept. 21, 2007)]

On Sept. 24, 2007, it was reported that the 485 employees of the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency were told to go to work as usual, despite being in a legal strike position.

Cheryl Mogg, a spokesperson for the SGEU, said on Sept. 23 that the affected employees - - including registered nurses, social workers, clinical research associates and support staff at Saskatchewan's two cancer centres – won’t be out on the picket lines.

“It’s work as usual as far as SGEU members are concerned,” she said. [Cancer agency workers delay strike action (StarPhoenix, Sept. 24, 2007)]

Contract talks between the SGEU and the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO) resumed on Sept. 24, 2007, and were scheduled to continue on Sept. 25, 2007. [Union, SAHO resume talks (StarPhoenix, Sept. 25, 2007)]

On Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2007, the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency and its unionized workers reached a tentative three-year deal.

“We are happy to say that this agreement was reached within the normal bargaining processes and the parties had a chance to work hard at addressing the issues that were at the table,” SGEU president Bob Bymoen told reporters the following day.

“We look forward to providing a good service to the people of the province for years to come.”

The deal was brokered after three days of intense negotiations by the union and SAHO, which represents the cancer agency.

“The collective bargaining process worked,” Bymoen said. [Cancer staff, SAHO reach tentative deal (StarPhoenix, Sept. 28, 2007)]

There was no strike and there was no limiting of treatments as The StarPhoenix alleges.

Incidentally, it was during this dispute that Saskatchewan Party Leader Brad Wall told Leader-Post reporter Angela Hall that legislation wouldn’t necessarily be required to set out essential services. [Strike threat reopens essential services debate (StarPhoenix, Sept. 22, 2007)]

The StarPhoenix is also being hypocritical. In May 2007, it lambasted the Harper Conservatives for the very thing it’s shamelessly doing to labour groups today: “Despite the Conservatives’ best efforts at historical revisionism, there’s absolutely no doubt that their promise to Saskatchewan voters was to drop non-renewable resource revenues from calculating equalization payments to the province under the constitutionally mandated program.” [MPs shameless in addressing broken pledge (StarPhoenix, May 30, 2007)]

In its Nov. 20 editorial The StarPhoenix accuse Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) delegates of “deplorable conduct” toward labour Minister Rob Norris, whom they had invited to speak at their annual convention on Oct. 23, 2008, at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina.

What really is deplorable, however, is the print media’s bias when the coverage the SFL convention is compared to attention paid to the annual meetings held by the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce on May 8 & 9, 2008, in Humboldt and the Saskatchewan Party in Saskatoon from Nov. 14-16, 2008.

The StarPhoenix and Leader-Post joined forces to publish a total of eight mostly negative stories, including two nasty editorials, on the SFL convention. Some were written by people that didn’t even attend the event, but still had an opinion on the proceedings anyway. In stark contrast were the seven positive, upbeat articles, and no hysterical editorials, covering the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and Saskatchewan Party annual meetings.

What’s also deplorable is that union workers booing a cabinet minister during a speech is considered more news worthy than the premier’s equalization betrayal that will cost the province billions of dollars in lost resource revenue.

On July 10, 2008, Premier Brad Wall bowed to pressure from Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and withdrew the province’s legal challenge on equalization. There were no editorials of outrage or shame. In fact, there was no editorials period. This was despite the fact that prior to the 2007 provincial election Wall had promised the people of Saskatchewan that a Saskatchewan Party government would fight the federal government on the issue no matter who was in power. After winning the election, however, Wall and his promise disappeared into the nearest gopher hole.

While the Leader-Post is unionized, it appears The StarPhoenix is not. Both, however, are owned by CanWest Publishing Inc., a subsidiary of CanWest Global Communications Inc., a corporation that does not appear to be very fond of organized labour.

According to CanWest’s 2007 Annual Information Form unions are “risk factors” that “investors and others should carefully consider” when reviewing the company’s forward-looking statements.

“We may be adversely affected by strikes and other labor protests,” CanWest states.

“Any strikes, lock-outs and other form of labor protests could disrupt operations and could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial conditions or results of operations.”

The company notes that approximately 49% of its Canadian publishing employees are employed under a total of 42 collective bargaining agreements. Eighteen of these collective agreements expire in fiscal 2008. In general, the collective agreements cover operations at individual publications or business locations, rather than multiple locations.

“We may not be able to renew these collective agreements on satisfactory terms or at all, and we may experience strikes, lockouts and other forms of labor protests in the future,” the report states.

On Oct. 9, 2008, blogger Martin Patriquin reported that CanWest News Service Editor-In-Chief Gerry Nott was trying to recruit Concordia University journalism students as scab reporters in the event of a strike at The Gazette in Montreal.

Concordia Department of Journalism Director Mike Gasher, wasn’t very pleased and told students that accepting such an offer could harm their reputation and the reputation of his department within the journalistic community. [CanWest gets scabby with it (, Oct. 9, 2008)]

Meanwhile, on Feb. 8, 2008, Canadian Media Guild (CMG) president Lise Lareau and Freelance Branch president Don Genova sent a letter to Graham Green, the executive editor of the Ottawa Citizen, with concerns over the Citizen’s proposed “new boilerplate contract to freelancers – a contract that makes exaggerated demands upon writers who seek to earn a living from their work.”

“The most troubling demand is that freelance authors waive their moral rights in the work they provide. Moral rights give the author creative ownership over their work and ensure they get credit when that work is used or re-used. It is the most fundamental right a writer has, and it is simply unacceptable to expect freelancers to surrender it outright. A media organization does not need to hold moral rights to be able to subject a piece to the normal editing process. In our view, the only reason a company would need to hold the moral rights would be to have the unfettered right to modify an item beyond its original meaning. Surely this is not the Citizen’s aim,” the CMG said.

Green’s Feb. 15, 2008, response to the CMG was silent on the issue of moral rights for creators.

According to the CMG a similar contract has been used in Montreal at The Gazette.

Finally, it is worth noting that The StarPhoenix and Leader-Post each donated $10,000 to the Saskatchewan Party in 2000. In 2007, CanWest Global president and CEO Leonard Asper contributed $5,000 to the party as did another subsidiary, CanWest MediaWorks Inc. What does that tell you?


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