Monday, October 27, 2008


Since Thanksgiving Monday, October 13 staff at the 'Winnipeg Free Press', represented by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union have been on strike. The workers are due to vote on the latest offer from management tomorrow.

One of the interesting things about this dispute is that the workers involved have set up their own news website to continue serving the people of Winnipeg for the duration. You can see it here at FreePressOn Strike.Com. There is also a Facebook group for the strikers and their supporters. More on the meaning of these tactics later, but first the facts of the strike, as presented by the workers involved.
The Free Press Strike FAQ:
What’s the strike about?
Free Press co-owner Ron Stern demanded concessions from nearly all 1,000 people who create the newspaper every day – from the carriers who deliver the paper to the pressmen who print it to the reporters who fill it with news.

He wanted to eliminate scores of jobs, weaken the pension plan, cut the pay of night shift workers and make carriers do more for less.

More than a week into a strike that is costing the paper at least $250,000 a day, Stern has backed away from most - not all - of those concessions. But we’re still far apart on wages, a fair deal for carriers and a small list of demands union members have. Remember, Free Press workers went into this with their own wish list - reasonable things like better vision care and vacation pay for part-timers. We haven’t even really talked about those things yet.
Are there talks?
Yes. Bargaining started over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, even though Free Press employees have been begging to negotiate for months. It then turned into a stalemate late last week. Talks started again Tuesday and are ongoing.
Why should I care?
The Free Press has been a Manitoba institution for 136 years.All Free Press staff — from columnists to circulation managers — are proud of our ability to provide innovative, in-depth and independent news coverage.We can’t let Stern erode all that. We want to maintain the quality of the newspaper you get every morning and the quality of life of the people who make it.
What are you doing in the mean time?
Until the strike ends, our reporters, photographers, web experts and editors will continue to cover the news in Winnipeg for this site.We’re committed to keeping you informed, just like we have for generations.Thanks for your support.
And also from the same site.
An open letter to our readers from Free Press workers on strike:
Dear Readers,
Free Press Publisher Bob Cox recently accused striking employees of putting “misleading and outright false information” on the record about the strike, which began Oct. 13.

We believe Bob Cox to be a reasonable person. If Bob Cox was negotiating the contract for the Free Press, we’d probably all be back at work.

But he isn’t – Vancouver-based owner Ron Stern and his hired pitbull of a negotiator, Milt Christiansen, are pulling all the strings. And what they’re engaged in is anything but a negotiation. After refusing to bargain for nearly three months, Christiansen almost immediately started delivering ultimatums in the form of what he called his “last, best and FINAL” offer that left no room for discussion or compromise.But it wasn’t a final offer at all. The offer was so riddled with mistakes that the company was forced to offer “clarifications” via e-mail. Those clarifications left the union even more confused. On Friday evening, the company put those clarifications in a revised final offer that came in after 6:30 p.m. and bypassed the conciliator. That revised offer was posted on the CEP website as soon as possible.The union has made it clear the offer is unacceptable. If it’s truly a final offer, our only logical response is “NO.” Talks will not get going again until the company moves off its offer

Here are some more clarifications:
The wage offer
The union’s five-year wage offer was contingent upon the company agreeing to withdraw all concessions and give laid-off workers and proper severance. It was part of a package. In an attempt to paint the union as greedy and obstructionist, Cox has plucked one part of that package offer out of the deal. That offer is now off the table.
Free Press pay
This is an old canard Stern always hauls out at contract time – that Free Press workers are radically overpaid. It’s true a veteran journalist tops out at about $70,000 a year and an experienced pressman makes about the same. But there are hundreds of people at the Free Press who don’t make anywhere near that . The average carrier makes between $12,000 and $14,000 a year. A mailroom insert controller makes just over $30,000. Have a look at our last contract – it’s posted online at – and you’ll see many, many job classifications that pay $8 to $14 an hour. Those are hardly luxury wages. Meanwhile, the company’s latest wage offer would give telephone service reps a salary that falls below minimum wage.
As many as 40 workers, most of them pressmen, are facing layoff. While the severance money offered by the company is good, we are insisting that it be subject to a binding dispute resolution process, preferably through the grievance procedures that are already part of the contract. The company is refusing. If we accept the final offer, we would be asking our members to trust Ron Stern. We are not prepared to do that.

Finally, the bargaining committee has been almost uniquely transparent. Proposals and counter-proposals from both sides are posted on the union’s website – The union’s position on the final-final offer is also posted.

This comes down to who you trust – the bargaining committee, which is made up of rank-and-file Free Press workers who have no reason to mislead members or readers? Or Ron Stern, who has repeatedly attacked his workers by demanding concessions and then refusing to bargain.
This is an emotional time, and we respect the company’s right to spin. But cherry-picking facts and torquing them to suit a multi-millionaire owner does nothing to solve this dispute.

CEP Local 191


Molly has to note that what the Free Press workers are doing via their "alternative news site" during the course of this strike is hardly unique. During the strike at Le Journal de Québec in Québec City from April 2007 to August 2008 the people involved, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), not only set up a news website but also brought out a printed tabloid, Media-Matin, to serve as a community news source during the duration.

Now CUPE, of course, has far deeper pockets than the CEPU, and it would be unrealistic to expect the people here in Winnipeg to go as far as they did in Québec. Still, the Free Press workers have to be commended for trying out this novel tactic to both keep solidarity within the strikers and to gather public sympathy. One of the readers of their site suggested in a letter published there that they make their website permanent, under the heading of a producers' cooperative. That would be fine, but there is still a great need and place for actual printed papers, a need that the internet cannot yet fill.

There is also the fact that few of the people involved in the strike would likely have the ambition to do away with their boss at this time. Even in the Journal de Québec strike the people involved eventually settled and went back to work for their previous employer, and one can certainly say that they were further down the road to doing away with the boss than is the case now. The idea of actually running workplaces democratically under self-management without bosses will only become popular as the results of a long ideological struggle to make this goal seem desirable to ordinary people.

In the absence of wide acceptance of the idea the tactic of providing alternative services and/or of resuming production without the bosses as a pressure tactic still has great value. To mention a few previously discussed on this blog...It was done in the Alcan smelter in Jonquiere, Québec in February of 2004. The Journal de Québec strike has already been mentioned. The 'Strike Bike' in Nordhausen, Germany last year is another example. The largest movement of this nature in recent years has been the factory takeovers in Argentina where something of an "alternative market" has been set up to distribute the products of some of the workplaces involved.

What is the biggest limitation of such recent efforts ? They are hardly ever undertaken except in "crisis" situations where massive layoffs or even workplace closures are imminent. This means that the workers involved start with an obvious handicap- the enterprises are close to terminal, and it takes considerable ingenuity to get them running well and to sell the product. This limitation also means that the people involved are often quite happy to receive a slightly better offer from the previous managers, and the occupation ends. It also means that there is a lot of temptation to listen to this or that social democratic or leftist party who take advantage of the situation to sell the illusion that government takeover of the enterprise involved would be an improvement. It may be in that the workplace would keep running-maybe- but at the cost of exchanging one boss for a much larger and more powerful one.

All that being said the idea of resuming production in occupied workplaces or of providing alternative services is a great tool for labour to win its due, and the spread of the idea should be encouraged as much as possible. It is obviously more applicable to some workplaces than others, and how it could work depends upon the imagination of the people involved. The final point, however, is that it is a very limited tool as long as the majority don't see the desirability of removing bosses entirely. If they do the tool would be used in other than crisis situations and would be much more effective.

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