Thursday, January 29, 2009

Quebecor locks its doors … again

You’re probably reading it here first: Quebec media giant Quebecor has locked out yet another group of workers, this time at its most profitable newspaper, the flagship Journal de Montréal. The lockout was imposed on 253 Journal workers last Friday night, but there’s been virtually no reporting on it in the English-language media. [And, really, why should we expect any different, given that it’s a story about the media and a labour-management dispute, a double-whammy against making into the lineup.]

While it will surely be tempting for some to dismiss the dispute as yet another case of greedy workers overstepping their bounds during an economic crisis, it is worth taking a closer look at reality.

This is the ninth lockout imposed by the company on its various employee groups since 2002. Barely six months ago, workers at Quebecor’s Journal de Québec went were allowed back inside after a 14-month lockout.

As in the Journal de Québec dispute, the company is continuing to publish the paper, ostensibly using “management personnel.” It should be noted that the union at Journal de Québec recently won its case before the Quebec Labour Board, where it argued that Quebecor used scabs to continue producing the Quebec City paper.

The Journal de Montreal workers were resisting 233 management demands at the bargaining table when the company walked away and locked the doors. The union hadn’t even held a strike vote. But they were ready for Quebecor’s strong-arm approach and almost immediately launched a competing news website called Rue Frontenac, which is already blinking with ads from banks and cell phone providers. It’s an echo of the strategy their comrades used in Quebec City, launching the city’s first free daily newspaper and distributing an impressive average of 40,000 copies per weekday throughout that lockout.

Quebecor is no fledgling media company. It owns the Sun newspaper chain, TVA (Quebec’s biggest private TV network),, as well as Videotron Cable. Its wireless aspirations also got a boost last year when Quebecor spent $555 million to pick up spectrum in the federal government’s auction. The union estimates the company drew $50 million in profits from the Journal de Montréal in 2008.

Meanwhile, Canwest’s negotiations have long been stalled with employees at the Montreal Gazette, where the collective agreement expired last June. On Sunday, two groups of Gazette employees rejected Canwest’s latest offer and are urging the employer to come back to the bargaining table. The main sticking point has been Canwest’s wish to deny the union any jurisdiction over the work of its members, which would open the door to unlimited contracting out. Canwest has already started to centralize some functions at a non-union shop in Hamilton. The union is encouraging people to sign a petition to “keep the Montreal in the Montreal Gazette.”

In a strange twist, Gazette subscribers in East-end Montreal got the scab edition of Journal de Montreal wrapped in their Sunday paper. Make of that what you will.

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