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CKY-TV - media wars, 'take one.' (television broadcasting in Canada)

Massive concessions were what Moffat Communications demanded from the National Association of Broadcast and Electronics Technicians (NABET) when negotiations started last April 1990.

NABET Local 816 represents over 100 workers at CKY-TV, CKY Radio, and CITI-FM in Winnipeg. Union leadership knew the recession and falling profits were hurting Moffat Communications and the Canadian TV Broadcasting Industry. But the company always came to the bargaining table crying poverty and demanding concessions. Since their collective agreement was already below industry standards, the union anticipated demands for concessions would be withdrawn in a repeat of past bargaining rituals. There would be hard bargaining, conciliation, a strike vote and a predictable last minuste wage offer. The membership would end up accepting a status quo contract with cosmetic language changes and a nominal wage increase.

Aggresively anti-union, Moffat always got its way with Local 816 at the bargaining table. The company benefited from the fact that many people entering private broadcasting are highly individualistic, and more content to rub shoulders with high profile media stars than work with their unions for decent wages and working conditions.

After a few sessions at the bargaining table the union knew these negotiations were different. Moffat negotiators said there was nothiing to negotiate. Because economic conditions in Canadian broadcasting had changed, the company needed massive concessions to survive. NABET offered to disucss CKY's problems offered to discuss CKY's problems but the company refused.

Union leadership began to prepare the membership for the possibility of a strike.

Gutting the contract

That's when the membership became seriously interested in negotiations and took time to read Moffat's contract proposals. They were stunned to discover the company sought to strip away their basic rights and break the union.

Seniority rights would be lost in most areas of the agreement. On-air staff would be lost their grievance rights in the event of dismissal.

New provisions would result in a workforce staffed primarily by part times with few rights and benefits.

Employees would lose monetary benefits resulting from working through meal breaks and working overtime. Workers displaced by technological change would have no seniority rights and lose their right to the grievance procedure.

In the last collective agreement the company had forced the union to concede grievance rights on sexual harassment.

Now they were demanding the same regarding maternity and paternity rights.

Fruitless non-negotiations

On August 28, after three months of fruitless negotiations the membership rejected the company's offer by a 91 per cent vote and voted 94 per cent to support job action.

The company seemed convinced that membership would eventually cave in to their demands.

Fruitless non-negotiations continued for another three months. On November 28, the membership again rejected the same company offer by a 90 per cent vote.

Only then did the company begin serious negotiations. After 16 hours, union president John Schneider says there was an agreement on the table. Then after a short caucus company managers withdrew what they had agreed to and again demanded concessions.

In shock, union negotiators walked out. They called for a study session at 4:00 pm the next day. When employees returned at 6:00 pm they were confronted by locked doors and security guards. Thus began one of the longest labour disputes in NABET'S history.

Why did Moffat Communications want to humilate their employees, force them to sign a medieval collective agreement, and break their union to boot? And how did a relatively conservative union membership maintain the solidarity required to spend an entire winter on a below-zero picketline?

The Canadian TV business

The answers lie in the profound changes that have swept Canadian TV broadcasting, and in the response to these changes of Randy Moffat, principal owner of Moffat Communications.

In 1971, when the Moffat family bought CJAY and changed its name to CKY-TV, CBC was the only competition in Winnipeg. This soon changed. Everywhere in Canada, the CRTC came under business pressure for an expansion of broadcasting outlets. Moffat's competition grew.

Then, in the early 1980s, the CRTC licensed cable TV in Canada. Viewing audiences were further fragmented. The CTV Network, of which CKY-TV is a part, went from a 29 point share of the national audience in 1985 to a 23 point share in 1989.

Advertisers reacted to a fragmentation of the viewing audience by moving advertising dollars into more cost effective media, and TV stations lost revenue. At the same time their operating costs, especially the cost of American programming, were rising dramatically.

Some broadcasters responded to this squeeze on their profits by acquiring more stations.

Now most conventional TV broadcasting is owned by a few media conglomerates. Can-West Broadcasting, controlled by Izzy Asper, owns stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Regina Winnipeg and Montreal. Western International Communications owns BCTV and CHEK-TV on the west coast, CFAC in Calgary and stations in Kelowna and Hamilton, among others. Baton Broadcasting, controlled by the Bassets and the Eatons, owns the CTV flagship station CFTO in Toronto and numerous other stations across the country.

These media giants spread the cost of buying American programming, and share the cost of the token Canadian production they are forced to do by the CRTC. Their size gives them clout with the CRTC and within their networks, CTV and Global.

Moffat's response

What was Moffat Communications' response to these changes in Canadian broadcasting? He pretended they weren't happening.

When CKY-TV was making large profits in the 70s and early 80s, Moffat added to his collection of Canadian radio stations, and invested in American cable companies. In Winnipeg he set up VIDEON, a lucrative cable station.

But he invested relatively little in making CKY-TV a productive station, and he did not take the route of other broadcasters and expand his holdings in Canadian TV.

What was once a cash cow has now dried up. Now he tells CKY employees that they must pay with their rights, that they must pay with their rights, living standards, and jobs to keep his TV station financially viable.

Technological change

The dramatic changes in broadcast ownership have been matched by technological changes in the broadcast workplace. New technology has meant hundreds of jobs lost in the past five years. Robot cameras, automated playback systems, and other labour-saving devices mean TV stations will soon be run by a few computer operators, on-air personnel and engineers.

CRTC changes policies

In response to pressure from financially strapped broadcasters the CRTC is reducing their licence requirements. New CRTC policies are changing the face of broadcasting and reducing the broadcast workforce.

Commencing September 1991, new CRTC regulations will allow private broadcasters to meet local content requirements "with new and flexible arrangements." Already broadcasters are laying off regular staff and using freelancers.

There is pressure on the CRTC to eliminate local news as a laicense requirement. Many stations are still committed to local news because it gives them community profile. But to get advertising money from local news, it has to be done well and that's expensive.

Social contract

In return for a regulated market and a good return on investment, private broadcasters were supposed to help build a Canadian TV production industry capable of supplying our domestic market with quality programming. Instead they spent their massive profits of the early years (during the late 70s CTV network stations made up to 55 per cent before tax profit on their investment) on acquisitions, mergers and buying American programs.

Their notion of quality Canadian programming, with some notable exceptions, was cheap sports and entertainment specials of questionable quality. Broadcasters argued that the production of good Canadian drama and documentary was just too expensive and risky.

Hundreds of channels

Today, because Canada does not have a TV production industry, and despite the consolidation of ownership, private broadcasters are not in a position to deal with the threat of new TV distribution technologies. With the Direct Broadcast Satellite system (DBS), Canadian households will be able to receive present programming plus hundreds of new channels for the cost of a relatively cheap mini-satellite dish. Many viewers will cancel their cable and this will further reduce the audience available for conventional broadcasters.

Other new technologies, such as compressed video signals, digitalization, and fiber optics may affect how and what we watch in the future.

But as important determining what TV Canadians watch in the future is the power of the American entertainment industry and the free market ideology of the Tory government.

For the United States, earnings from the export of television and film are second only to export earnings from the defense industry. For years Americans have pushed for greater access to the Canadian entertainment market. Now, with the Tory agenda of letting Canadian industry live or die according to the free market, they will get their way. The Canadian TV industry will not survive open competition with Americans.

This is the context in which the membership of NABET Local 816 were locked out CKY November 29, 1990. Canadian broadcasting is in trouble, CKY is in bigger trouble, and its owner is determined that the employees should make the sacrifices to bail him out.

Randy Moffat decided this was the time to smash NABET Local 816 once and for all.

NABET flexibility and


Local president John Scheneider says NABET recognized the problems facing Moffat and the Canadian broadcasting industry. He offered Moffat a contract that gave him the flexibility to cut costs and make adjustments to his operation, but it was also a contract which maintained the basic rights and dignity of the workforce. Moffat refused it.

Schneider says that if the dispute was about money and flexibility it could have been easily settled. He insists the dispute is rooted in Moffat's 19th century belief that employees have no rights, and in his hatred of unions which advocate workers' rights.

NABET's success in keeping its conservative membership together during the lock-out was partly due to the resentment generated by the company's general disregard for the rights and personal lives of its employees. As one TV newsroom employee put it:

"If Moffat had any idea how little it would take to keep this workforce happy we could call him a manager."

So when Randy Moffat locked out his TV and radio employees, he tapped a deep well of resentment. These emotions helped sustain NABET members as they walked the picket line this long, cold winter.

Broad public support

Public support for the locked-out workers was high. People showed up on the picketline with coffee and donuts, made donations and walked with the picketers.

The union capitalized on the media smarts of its newsroom members and did an effective job informing the public of their cause. They successfully used secondary picketing of public events and businesses to inform the public about the lockout. They convinced about 15 small businesses to stop advertising on CKY for the duration of the lock-out.

Locked out newsroom employees characterized the scab run CKY TV news cast as embarrassing, and the ratings indicated the public felt the same way, with almost 50 per cent of it's suppertime audience turning to other channels.

NABET officials say they could not have survived the lockout and waged their campaigns without labour's support.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour and the Winnipeg Labour Council, headed by Susan Hart-Kulbaba and Heather Grant respectively, played a key role as did Canadian Labour Congress representative Mike McIssac, WLC strike support chair Bob Sample, and MFL Coordinator Rob Hilliard. With representatives from larger unions, they coordinated labour's efforts in demonstrations, fundraising and strike support. Most unions in Manitoba and many across Canada provided support in some form.

The lock-out gained national prominence when NABET held a cross-county speaking tour and the CLC supported a national boycott of advertisers who refused to stop advertising on CKY-TV.

Other community based groups supported NABET. "Choices: A Coalition For Social Justice" (See Canadian Dimension, June 1991) organized demonstrations, including one directed at the anti-women nature of Moffat's contract proposal, confronted scabs at public events, and worked on specific actions like advertising boycotts.

The Aboriginal Cultural Society, which was organizing an International Pow Wow for June, turned down a financial contribution from CKY and warned Moffat that CKY and CTV would not get media credentials while Moffat was engaged in a labour dispute with its workers.

Even provincial Tory government ministers refused to be interviewed by CKY scab workers early in the lockout, though they later reneged on their position. The NDP restricted its scrums to NDP offices so it would not have to speak to scab workers.

NABET considers mergers

Even worse than a poor settlement would be for the local to cave in before putting up a good fight. NABET, therefore, pumped a lot of money and support into Local 816. Strike pay was above average -- some locked-out radio employees received more in strike pay than they earned working in Moffat's radio ghetto.

NABET'S local officers made sure no one lacked basic necessities. NABET locals across Canada gave special support to families where both partners were locked out.

NABET represents about 7500 public and private broadcast employees across Canada. It is presently dealing with many issues in addition to the dispute at CKY. It is still making the transition from being a union most of whose members are relatively high income CBC employees, to a union most of whose members are lower paid private broadcast employees. But, the resentment that the CBC old guard feels towards the needs of their new brothers and sisters is giving way to solidarity as the CBC comes under attack by the Tories.

Within NABET there are two contending survival philosophies. Some NABET officials argue that the future depends upon organizing employees from small stations. Others want to ignore the needs of the small fish and concentrate resources on the big condoing battles. NABET leadership is doing both. Recognizing that membership is being lost through layoffs, they are initiating freelance NABET locals across Canada to represent these laid off workers.

NABET is also battling for its existence within the CBC. The Canadian Labour Relations Board is presently holding hearings to reduce the number of unions representing CBC employees.

NABET, the Wire Services Guild, and the Producers are proposing to their respective memberships an "umbrella union" to deals as one group with CBC management, but represent their memberships separately. Depending upon the wishes of the members of those unions and the final ruling of the CLRB, NABET could gain members, lose members, or disappear from the CBC altogether.

On another front NABET is exploring mergers with other unions to strengthen its position when dealing with aggressive employers. A merger with the Communications Workers of Canada is a possibility.

Shaky future

CKY employees will not be the last broadcast workers caught in the restructuring of the Canadian industry.

Many broadcasters watched the CKY/NABET dispute to see how far they can push their NABET employees. Presently BCTV in Vancouver has 68 concession demands on the table. NABET is having trouble getting a first contract for new locals in Lethbridge, Brandon, and Saskatoon. In Winnipeg, Izzy Asper is demanding concessions similar to those Moffat demanded from Local 816.

Although battered, NABET feels it made a point -- private broadcasters can expect a protracted fight if they fail to take the rights of its members into consideration.

In addition, NABET broke some new ground in its fight with Moffat, proving that unions can take their fight beyond the picket line. In future labour disputes companies can expect boycotts, sophisticated public relations, and the cultivation of community support.

The CKY/NABET dispute was another chance for unions and community groups to work together, an experience that could be useful in taking on Mulroney's corporate agenda.

But even with its new contract Moffat's future is not assured, because the future of the entire Canadian TV broadcasting industry is in question.

When Canadian governments and the private broadcasters had the opportunity to build an indigenous TV production industry, they chose to rely on American programming. Today they can't supply our domestic market, can't over production costs through export sales, and consequently can't compete with the flood of American programs.

While the Tories pay lip service to our cultural identity, it appears their solution to the impending threat of US-based globalized TV signals is to add more American channels to the present cable system. Apparently, this will keep Canadians from rushing out to purchase a DBS dish long enough for the CRTC to figure out how to salvage the private broadcasters.

As in other sectors that are being decimated by the forces unleashed by free trade, Canadians will be relegated to providing programs for niche markets -- perhaps specialized programs for survival in the north.

Today's broadcast employees will be tomorrow's freelancers, specializing in corporate videoconferencing and sports coverage.

Our TV screens will be filled with American programs, reflecting the American way of life. How could it be any different, as this fate complements many other economic and social processes that are integrating us into the great level playing field to the south.

Victor Dobchuk is an independent producer/director in Winnipeg. Previously, he worked with CKY-TV news for 8 years as a photo supervisor in the TV news department. He was a member of the NABET Local 816 executive for some of that time.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Dobchuk, Victor
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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