This is one of a series of posts about working at CBC Radio back in the day.
(Here’s some more).
For my first few years at CBC Radio it was easy to forget that I was in a union. A series of unions, actually—three of them from the time I joined the CBC in 1988 until I became a manager in 2007.
At first, I was only dimly aware of the existence of these unions. They would collect their pound of flesh from my paychecks and that would be it. Every now and then, though, they would make their presence felt in other ways.
One day, for example, the CBC asked me to be present at a recording session at Manta Sound. Not because they needed me to do any actual work, but to honour their collective agreement with NABET (the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians).
The radio show Sunday Morning was recording a new theme package of music for their show. According to the collective agreement, the CBC was supposed to use one of their own recording engineers (there were many experienced, talented engineers to choose from), but either the people doing the sessions preferred someone else, or none of our recording engineers were available. I was working as a Group 4 general technician at this time, so I was not qualified to do the work (it would be several more years before I became a recording engineer).
Because the collective agreement required that someone from NABET be present, and it didn’t matter who, they sent me. Outside the context of the collective agreement, it was kind of dumb. My job was simply to be there. All I did the entire session was watch. I didn’t mind—it was a fascinating session. The guy leading the session was from the Canadian Jazz Fusion group Manteca. Matt Zimbel, I believe.
There was a bit of drama during the session. One of the session players wasn’t quite delivering the goods. Apparently she was playing a bit out of tune. I couldn’t hear it myself, but it was a big deal to the professionals in the room. Zimbel was doing his best to get what he needed without making her explicitly aware that there was a problem. There was much discussion in the control room about how to deal with the situation. The musician was young and talented with a terrific reputation. Clearly she was just having a bad day. Ultimately Zimbel placed her in an isolation booth, where he was able to tweak her playing with subtle direction and multiple retakes without affecting the work of the other musicians. She responded enthusiastically and in the end Zimbel got what he needed.
I was impressed. A lesser man might have attempted to bully or humiliate the musician, which almost certainly would have resulted in tears and an inferior product. Not Zimbel. Watching him was like attending a master class in tact. It was worth the price of admission. Except, I hadn’t paid any admission—I was getting paid for being there. For doing pretty much nothing, other than observe.
I understood that my presence was meant to discourage the CBC from hiring outside the union. Otherwise, theoretically, the CBC could just start hiring whomever they wanted whenever they wanted, paying them whatever they wanted. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all a bit silly. Why, I asked myself, was a union even necessary? Couldn’t we all just play nice together? Couldn’t the CBC just be counted upon to do the right thing?
I was of the mind that although I belonged to a union, it didn’t really apply to me. Unions were for dock workers and truckers, not people like me. I considered myself a white collar worker, whatever that was. I worked according to my work ethic, not because someone told me how long or how hard to work. When older technicians insisted on taking every single break and made sure to claim every red cent of overtime/turnaround/night differential owed to them, I would shake my head and tell myself, “That’s not me, and never will be.”
In time, however, some of the benefits of belonging to a union gradually dawned on me. For instance, I got paid more. It was harder to lay me off. There was such a thing as overtime, turnaround, night differential, and so on. I got paid for sick days, moving, bereavement, et cetera, all of which might not have existed were it not for the strength in numbers provided by belonging to one union or another. I still thought it was unfortunate that we lived in a world where we didn’t just do right by one another, but over time, as I grew more aware of humanity’s resistance to do the right thing of its own accord, I concluded that unions were a necessary evil.
In the spring of 1996, one serious impact of belonging to a union reared its ugly head. I was single and not earning that much as a Group 4 technician, living pay cheque to pay cheque, as so many of us do. I was engaged to be married on July 20th that summer. That spring, though, it looked like my union, CEP at this time (the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada) couldn’t come to terms with CBC management. One summer day, I went home to my one bedroom apartment in High Park certain that I would be on strike the following morning.
Going on strike would have been disastrous for me. My fiancé was about to quit her job in Prince Edward Island and move up to Toronto to be with me. She wouldn’t have a job and I wouldn’t be getting paid. I knew little about strike pay; I assumed it wouldn’t be enough to tide us over. We wouldn’t be able to pay rent, wouldn’t be able to afford to fly to PEI where the wedding was to take place, and certainly wouldn’t be able to take a decent honeymoon.
The deadline for negotiations was midnight. Apprehensive, I stayed up late to watch the news. During the midnight local CBLT newscast, it was reported that CBC and CEP were extending negotiating until past midnight. Both sides finally came to an agreement around 1:30am. Entering the Broadcast Centre the next morning, I felt like I’d dodged a bullet.
I was able to forget about belonging to a union until shortly after I joined the radio drama department in 1999, when we got word that negotiations weren’t going well. Job security and wages were a sticking point. We had been without a contract since June. It was now February. I was in a better position financially because my wife was now working but I still wasn’t keen on the idea of a strike.
The membership of CEP was asked to vote on whether to give the union a strike mandate. In Toronto, we did so across Front Street in a small boardroom in the Metro Convention Centre. I did not want to vote yes, because I did not want to be on strike, but I felt like I had no choice. If we didn’t give the union a strike mandate, they would have no clout with management and we would be forced to accept whatever terms they offered. I felt like a pawn.
(Afterward, my friends at CJBC-TV interviewed me briefly on the subject. I was reluctant to be interviewed in French because I didn’t think my French was television worthy, but they convinced me, so I provided a short blurb. I still have a copy on VHS tape. I watched it recently. My French is acceptable but undermined by a nervous laugh at the end.)
Negotiations completely broke down the evening of Feb 17th, 1999, setting the stage for the first strike by technicians since 1981. Over the next couple of weeks, CBC would remain on the air but with pared down newscasts and repeat programming. Most local content was cancelled. We stopped production on popular shows. Ratings for The National plummeted fifteen percent and ratings overall went down twenty percent. The National reduced their show from one hour to twenty minutes. Reruns ran instead of live programming on Newsworld.
I woke up the first full day of the strike and listened to the news on CBC Radio, hoping to hear that the situation had been resolved overnight. Instead, the announcer confirmed that CBC technicians were on strike. I could not immediately hear any on air impact; apparently a manager who knew what he or she was doing was operating the console.
I was a little worried. I had no idea how long the strike would last. I had just bought a new house, my first, in Brooklin. How would we pay the mortgage and all the other bills? Fortunately, my wife was a pharmacist, working at a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Port Perry. So we had some income.
I couldn’t wait to get down to the Broadcast Centre to see what was going on. So I did, wearing the clothes that I usually wore when I spent all day working inside in a nice warm studio.
I got to the Broadcast Centre to find hordes of technical staff milling around outside the building and an RV belonging to CEP parked on John Street. Someone pointed me to a sign-in sheet. I wrote my time of arrival beside my name. Someone else pointed me to a pile of white cardboard picket signs. I picked one out, slung it around my neck, and began sludging through the slush around the Broadcast Centre with a bunch of other picketers.
It was cold. After a few circuits around the Broadcast Centre my feet were soaking wet and freezing. Like an idiot, I was wearing sneakers. Sneakers with holes in the toes. I did four hours that first day, four of the twenty I was expected to do each week. To make it through the rest of the strike without frostbite I would have to learn to dress properly.
Over the next few weeks I dutifully picketed my requisite twenty hours a week, signing in and out of each shift. I volunteered to picket overnight, when our ranks were thin and needed to be bolstered. There were some damned cold nights. I learned to dress warm, in layers. Gym pants under jeans, a T-shirt under a flannel shirt under a sweater under a coat. Two pairs of socks. A warm hat and gloves.
We had oil barrels set up at strategic locations around the building that we burned wood in – creosote soaked wood, someone once told me. A fellow radio technician and I went on a wood hunting mission one night, finding discarded pallets at a factory, which we loaded into the back of his truck. I refused to stand around the barrels. I didn’t want to smell like smoke or breathe the fumes. I walked around the building to keep warm, walking fairly fast. There were grates in front of the building along Wellington Street that vented warm air, providing some relief. When we couldn’t stand it anymore, we’d take a short break someplace warm—a coffee shop, or under Metro Hall across the street, or sometimes in the CEP RV.
There were rumours of people who would sign in and then not be seen again until it was time to sign out, off drinking coffee someplace warm or seeing a movie up the street. Others chose not to walk the picket line at all, foregoing strike pay, opting instead to pick up jobs elsewhere, such as delivering pizza. Yet others stayed at home.
We heard stories of colleagues who went to other CBC locations to work as scabs, helping to keep those places on the air. I know people who to this day have not forgiven them for that.
Several staff were made supervisors immediately before the strike to help keep the CBC on the air. They usually became a part of a body called APS (the Association of Professional Supervisors). Except as a strategy to keep the CBC on the air, it didn’t always make sense to make them supervisors. They usually didn’t have staff reporting to them. After the job actions it made little sense having them in these positions. However, nobody that I’m aware of held it against these people for accepting and benefitting from these positions.
A few days into the strike my hometown newspaper, the Summerside Journal-Pioneer, wrote an editorial coming down heavily on the side of management against the union. It was filled with what I perceived as factual errors and misperceptions. Outraged, I was stirred to write a rebuttal, which they published.
During the strike, I don’t recall a single person ever calling to see how my wife and I were doing. Although I noted this fact, I don’t blame anyone for it. Certainly I myself have fallen short in this regard. Some folks probably didn’t need to check in because we’d already covered it in casual conversation, usually after, “How are you?” “Well, we’re on strike, you know.” “How’s that going?” “Oh, we’re surviving,” kind of thing. It is, perhaps, a bit of a commentary on modern life. We’re all caught up in our own lives, with little thought to give to anyone else, really.
And the truth was we were doing fine. We had turned off the financial spigots, ceased buying unnecessary stuff. I bought cheap soup for lunch on the picket line, or ate what people donated, such as donuts and pizza. I received strike pay, which wasn’t as much as I ordinarily would have been paid, but it was not tax deductible. And in the end, I was somewhat astonished to see that I actually finished the strike with more money in the bank than I’d started with.
Others weren’t so lucky. There were several instances of both husband and wife working for the CBC, both of whom were on strike. No doubt they found the situation rather more difficult than my wife and I did.
At this time, winter 1999, about ten thousand people worked for the CBC. About eighteen hundred of us technical types were on strike. That meant that most of the CBC wasn’t on strike. Schedulers, for instance, were represented by CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees). CUPE themselves had struck briefly in 1989 (I remember my friends in that union escorting me across the picket line). Reporters, journalists, on air talent and so on were represented by the Canadian Media Guild. Eventually we would all be represented by the Canadian Media Guild, but that was still a few years away. For now, both CUPE and CMG had to be escorted across our picket lines to get to work.
I slowly began to resent those who were still working. There was a stereotype of the manager or producer or whomever who would approach you on the picket line and ask, how’s it goin’? Have you heard anything? And then they would go inside and do their best to keep the place on the air while the rest of us continued to picket out in the cold.
One radio producer in particular appeared to support us on the line, making all the right sympathetic noises. Inside, he continued to work hard to make the best radio possible. One of his colleagues suggested that maybe they shouldn’t be working so hard to create programming that appeared to be unaffected by the strike. Shouldn’t they be seeking a means to support their colleagues out on the street instead? The producer didn’t appear to get it.
After the strike, I met this producer in the hall and we spoke briefly about the job action. I’m rather ashamed of this conversation. Perhaps you have to go through such moments and reflect on them afterwards to be able to grow as a person.
“I know you guys were doing your best to support us in your way,” I told him disingenuously, deliberately trying to make him feel guilty.
He hung his head down low and didn’t meet my eyes. “Of course, of course,” he mumbled.
I may have succeeded in making him feel guilty, but I immediately felt guilty for doing that to him. Two wrongs don’t make a right. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was just trying to make good radio. And I’m a hypocrite. The truth is, if he had been on strike and I had been charged with making radio in his place, I probably would have seized the opportunity to prove that I could make radio every bit as good as he could.
I did not reserve my resentment for individuals alone. I saved a healthy amount for unions, too. Unions who didn’t appear to lift a finger to support us, such as the CMG (Canadian Media Guild) and the APS. I have since softened my stance toward both because it’s all water under the bridge and we all need to get along.
All told, we were off the job for seven weeks. Ultimately we settled for 10 to 11% wage increases over 37 months and improvements regarding job security.
The strike had been a fairly innocuous event in the grand scheme of things, but it placed divisions in the hearts of some, pitting us against one another, technicians versus management, picketer versus scab, disingenuous picketer versus disingenuous producer. It was quite an education. If we could all get that worked up over a silly little strike, it’s easy to see how a much greater geopolitical event such as a war, in which people actually got hurt, could instill much greater depth of feeling and resentment that could linger generations.
Almost two years later, in December 2001, we had another job action. The union considered it a lockout as opposed to a strike and it only lasted two weeks, but otherwise the experience was pretty much the same as in 1999.
Four years later, in August 2005, we experienced yet another job action.
But it wasn’t at all the same, and requires a completely separate blog.