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Broadcast blues.

THE SCENE ON THE TWO-MONTH-OLD PICKET LINE OUTSIDE CKY-TV LAST FEBRUARY WAS GRAPHIC AND GRIM.

A limp little rag doll, labelled "Randy Moffat," the station's owner, was torched by a striking CKY-TV employee.

As the flames engulfed the doll emotions on the picket line exploded into cheers. An adolescent act of defiance, but it underlined the frustration of television workers whose employer was attempting to virtually rewrite their long established contract agreement with the station negotiated by the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET).

The union maintains that the company wanted to declare all workers "part-time" and without benefits. Seniority would not be recognized and the creative performance of employees would be adjudicated by the management. Job security was no longer assured for anyone.

The strike/lockout sent employees' salaries tumbling to $100 a week strike pay from a wage range of $18,000 to $37,000. At least one couple, both on strike with two children to support, were adopted by a CBC local in Edmonton, which paid their basic bills, including their mortgage. Even star news anchors Sylvia Kuzyk and Stu Fawcett joined the picket line leaving their salaries at their desks. Kuzyk, at $42,000 and Fawcett at $50,000-plus, were the highest-paid on the news staff, according to a source. CBC Winnipeg's TV news anchor Sandra Lewis reportedly earns near $90,000 annually.

The strike is messy and a blot on the station's labor and customer relations because the union is handing out leaflets to the station's advertising customers. But NABET's position is that the station's general manager, Ken Clark, formerly in the television business at Atlantic Television in Halifax, was brought in to weaken the union at the station. This has been denied by Clark, who says he has no problem with unions.

For its part, NABET says neither salaries nor technolgoical change -- such as robotics, which chopped many studio jobs at Vancouver's BCTV -- are the issue. Employees are angry at CKY's perceived attempt to restore its financial health by eliminating full-time employees and replacing them with many part-time and freelance workers. The union says the company could bow out of employee benefit packages, saving money. This would cheer up Moffat's minority shareholders.

Randy Moffat's Alamo-like stand against falling profits and rising wages has made him a pariah in the local journalistic community. The CKY strike was news before it started. CBC-TV went live with the story. As high-priced CKY news personalities Fawcett and Kuzyk grimly marched with their fellow union members, public interest grew. What was often overlooked in the coverage of the strikers' plight was the fact that Randy Moffat may very well be setting the standard for negotiations by television across Canada.

Moffat refused to be interviewed for this story and would not discuss the operations of CKY-TV with Manitoba BUSINESS. He said he had nothing to do with that aspect of the Winnipeg-based station. He referred all questions to CKY general manager Ken Clark, a 31-year veteran of the television industry who arrived at the station two years ago.

Moffat's bunker mentality doesn't sit well with striking CKY employees. Local NABET president John Schneider, a 17-year veteran of the station, says Moffat still calls the shots.

"If Randy Moffat told Ken Clark to negotiate, by the end of the day he'd negotiate," says news photographer Schneider. "Ken works for Randy. And he doesn't do anything that Randy doesn't tell him to do."

Clark wouldn't discuss or dispute his interpersonal skills. He will discuss Manitoba's economy, the business of television and the difficulty of operating a union shop.

"What this economy means is you have fewer financial tools that you can use to get the job done," says Clark, who readily admits CKY's ad revenues are down "very significantly."

Clark denies persistent rumors that CKY dropped their ad rates during the strike. "To lower rates simply predetermines you lower revenues," he says.

Cathy Treloar, account director for McKim Advertising, agrees. She says that while the entire television market has lowered its rates recently, the CKY strike had nothing to do with the drop.

Says Treloar, "What we have seen is a change in general from television being the fat cat to reverse. The clients know that. But I've dealt with people who have said, 'I'll be able to get all sorts of deals on television.' That's just not true. There's a bottom line, a point where you can't keep on turning on the lights and handing out the cheques."

Moffat Communications has endured some tough times recently. In January, the company suspended dividend payments on its shares, a move that enraged some shareholders. Its profit in the first quarter of fiscal 1991 (which ended last November 30) was $584,000 or 12 cents a share. This was a 62 per cent decline from the same period a year ago. At the January annual meeting, Randy Moffat, who with his sister is the majority shareholder, confirmed company profits had fallen for five consecutive years, with little change expected for fiscal 1991.

Moffat's falling profits can be partly blamed on CKY being one of four major stations in Winnipeg's relatively small market, a unique situation in Canada. This has spelled tight times for all the stations. The CKY strike seemed almost inevitable.

Clark says some union demands are simply impossible to meet.

"We are a business. It is difficult to remain at acceptable profit levels when there are unacceptable demands by a union," he says. "I have no problem with our people being represented by a union. What's important to me is excellence."

NABET's John Schneider says that's nothing more than happy talk. "We're not trying to break the company. They may be trying to break the union but we're not trying to break them," he says.

Schneider says the key issue during the CKY strike was job security. But industry analysts say that guaranteed full-time employment for television employees may have to be re-examined.

George Frajkor, television professor at Carleton University's School of Journalism, says stations are increasingly taking a hard line with their employees and the unions representing them.

"In the industry, it's just not a good time right now. Advertising is sort of a discretionary expense, isn't it? If times are tough, people will put an ad in their little weekly newspaper. They won't spend it on television," says Frajkor. "It's pretty obvious what's happening. With all the cable choices, people aren't loyal. Any one station can no longer dominate a market. People channel flip. Times have really changed."

A strike will not cripple a television station and may only affect it slightly, says Frajkor.

"News is so easy to keep on the air. You just have to ignore your local market or read the headlines from the morning newspaper. Your method of delivery simply cannot be cut off unless you blow up the transmitter." Frajkor's point is well-illustrated at CKY. Inexperienced, unknown replacement workers managed to stand in for the station's talent. They might have appeared choppy, but they were on the air. But a mid-winter ratings period showed CKY's NewsHour had lost 50% of its audience compaared to 1990.

Shirley Muir, national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (an association devoted to promoting excellence in journalism), says those employed in the media have long been concerned about the effect of budget cuts on the quality of news reporting.

"In this day and age, labor issues have a lot to do with the quality of journalism," says Muir, who is also a Winnipeg-based CBC-TV reporter. "It's pretty basic. If you cut back on people, you can't cover as many stories."

Drew Craig, general manager of Portage la Prairie-based TV station MTN, says the entire television industry is changing so quickly that everyone is scrambling to keep up.

"We're running a very tight ship here. A lot of the problems you hear about across the country stem from the fact that stations were used to making huge profits 10 years ago," says Craig. "I think for years, everyone sort of had the idea that television is an industry that reaps huge benefits and millions of dollars. But television is not ever going to be the way it was 10 years ago. The unions aren't willing to move, to accept that. Times have changed. I think part of NABET's problem is they're not changing with the broadcast industry."

MTN is now in first contract negotiations with NABET. The station is also reeling from a recent CRTC ruling that it could not solicit advertising in Winnipeg, an expensive defeat.

Says Craig, "The CRTC is giving CKY and CKND protection they don't need. Whenever you talk to CKY and CKND, they blame everything on us. Frankly, we're sick of their whining and complaining."

CKND president Peter Liba blames the economy, not MTN, for a tighter market.

"It's affecting the business quite badly. We've been feeling it here for a year now," says Liba. "A number of national advertisers have reduced their buys or eliminated them completely. But we're not sitting on our antenna and worrying about it. We're aggressively trying to do things."

Labor problems are a fact of life, says Liba, who says he suspects CKND is in for some "hard times" in their present negotiations with NABET.

But John Schneider maintains the stations are simply using the recession as a bargaining chip, attempting to bully unions into signing contracts that don't meet workers' demands.

"I think they assumed everyone would take what they could get. This is usually when unions are giving up everything. They didn't think we would fight."

But they did. The question will always remain, who wins? And at what price? In February, Ken Clark sent John Schneider a letter that suggested CKY would be forced to close down the station if it continued to lose money. The union would have to be more flexible, it read. It wasn't a threat Schneider took seriously. There are those in the industry who suggest the strike was already lost at that point, that NABET should have accepted a deal, any deal, and returned to work.

John Schneider would disagree. But he didn't expect to spend months on the picket line -- any more than Randy Moffat expected to be burned in effigy.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Winnipeg, Manitoba television unions on strike
Author:Reynolds, Lindor
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Words:1713
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