Response to concerns about Unifor's election campaign

September 25, 2019

Response to concerns about Unifor's election campaign

The Canadian Freelance Union executive expresses its concern about a letter signed by 40 journalists, some members of the Globe and Mail unit of Unifor Local 87M, subsequently signed by other Unifor members. The letter condemns Unifor National and specifically Jerry Dias for conducting a political campaign that targets Andrew Scheer, during the current federal election.

As fellow members of Unifor, though with far less job stability than the members of Unifor Local 87M, we are concerned that our brothers and sisters seemingly identify more with their employer than with the organization that fights their employer on their behalves.

They are concerned that the union’s political work threatens the public trust in their work. As media workers, we absolutely understand the need for media workers to do their job in a fair, honest and accurate manner. Just like when the Globe and Mail explicitly endorses the Conservative Party during an election, the work of their national leadership in no way should be understood as a reflection of journalists’ personal motivations or interests.

In fact, most Canadians would never think that it does. Canadians respect journalists because of quality reporting. They rarely even know that journalists hold membership in a union, let alone which union. Unifor has never claimed to speak on behalf of individual journalists whose jobs it is to impartially report the news.

The letter also argues that their credibility is jeopardized when they interview politicians who feel targeted by their union’s leadership. If this happens, this amounts to an outrageous attack on a free press.

No politician should refuse an interview with a journalist because of the work of their union, just like no politician should refuse an interview with a newspaper because the bosses endorsed a competing party. But rather than call out this phenomenon, these 40+ journalists condemned the political work of an organization whose literal job is to stand up for better working and living conditions for their members.

What’s worse, these journalists have made it impossible to now believe that they can cover Unifor or labour relations without these biases influencing their work.

Members of our own executive are routinely attacked by the far right for our affiliation with Unifor, and we imagine that some of the journalists on this list have seen similar attacks. In our case, every single time, they come from the far-right. Almost always, we can trace the attack back to groups like the Rebel Media. These are not average people who are worried about the impartiality of a free press. They want journalists to fall in line with the conservative political lines of the bosses. We regret that so many have taken the bait.

Unifor is a political organization. It’s through their political action that we have the clout to fight for better contracts. To condemn their political work during an election campaign isn’t a show of neutrality, it’s a show of deep partisanry that is unbecoming of any journalist.

The industry is in a moment of crisis and the solution to this crisis will not be through publicly denouncing the union while management lays off journalists, closes bureaus and slashes budgets. No amount of sucking up to management will save the industry. We need to be clear-eyed about what the pressures are that the industry is facing. The far-right attack on the press by interested parties like the Rebel Media, which the Globe management has recently welcomed with open arms, is a far bigger threat than perceived notions of credibility from motivated far-right activists.

When a member of the Canadian Freelance Union has trouble getting paid, one of our points of leverage is the high-profile that our union has. If someone refuses to pay one of our members, we can demonstrate that Unifor will have our back in pressuring the contractor to pay up. Even though we have concerns about certain aspects of the current national election campaign, we understand that the high profile of our union helps our members assert their rights. And even as our members assert their rights, we understand that when we are working as journalists, we conduct that work with the principles of journalism that are expected of us all.

In solidarity in work and survival,

Canadian Freelance Union executive

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International Workers' Day

Never in history have our rights been given to us. Our rights have been demanded. They have been fought for. People have died for them. In our country, far more people have died for the right to a union than to vote. The history of the labour struggle has never been one that has been won without struggle.

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Why Unions Should Engage in Political Campaigns

As a Member Organizer with the Canadian Freelance Union, I was part of a Unifor member-to-member campaign during the three weeks leading up to the provincial election in Alberta on April 16. Our duties included communicating with Unifor members across the province in person, on the phone, and, in the final days prior to the election, via text messages We were asking members to take a pledge to vote in the election, as well as answer questions about issues affecting working people in Alberta.

One of the questions I got a number of times during the campaign was, “Why would a union be involved with politics?” That is a very good and legitimate question. Here are some reasons why:

  • At their heart, unions are organizations that are trying to affect the power balance in the workplace. We are trying to make the boss, or clients in our case, to be more even with us the workers. This power play often finds itself playing in the larger society during elections. We as workers need to ensure that those representing our districts are also representing our interests.
  • The labour movement has always been rooted in social justice. That's why it advocates for things like fair working conditions, hours and wages. The actions of the ruling political party can affect healthcare, education, housing, and other public programs. These issues affect union members and society at large.
  • Government makes policies. Policies affect people – this includes working people, like our union members. It falls within the purview of union representatives to form political positions based on a careful examination of what current and prospective political candidates and parties are communicating with regard to issues affecting workers. It also follows that union representatives would seek to communicate such positions to members. The ultimate choice of who to vote for, of course, still rests with the member.
  • The labour movement, like any social movement, requires the active participation of its members in order for it to be successful. It's a microcosm of society. And voting is a way to be an active citizen. Even if someone doesn't vote in their best interests, individually or collectively.
  • The party in power impacts the direction of labour and social movements. A progressive government should ideally result in the ability for the labour movement to work for positive changes, rather than always being on the defensive - as is often what happens when a regressive party is leading government.

While the Alberta election did not go the way we hoped, the member-to-member campaign made a difference. I believe it helped contribute to the record number of advanced poll voting (over 700,000), as well as voter turnout in general (over 70%). It allowed us to connect with many in our membership to discuss issues affecting workers in light of current events. Initiatives like this can help labour activists in mobilizing members around issues and lead to a more involved membership.

Paula E. Kirman is a Member Organizer with the Canadian Freelance Union.

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The Canadian Freelance Union stands in solidarity with journalism students at Concordia in their struggle to end unpaid internships. Their decision to join students across Quebec and take a one-week strike is courageous and an important action to demonstrate that unpaid internships are unacceptable, and a relic of a past.

Journalism is a difficult industry. As industry bosses find increasingly clever ways to cut costs, under-pay journalists and attack job security, unpaid internships have risen in prominence as a solution to generating more profits. From the days where one could argue that a journalism internship part of the educational costs that one might pay to attend university, unpaid interns are used more and more to fill employment gaps that bad decisions have created. Unpaid internships look far more like unpaid work than educational opportunities.

To be able to work for free requires that students have a certain level of financial freedom. Unpaid internships squeeze out poor students, who are more likely to be racialized, Indigenous, women, disabled, trans* and/or queer. This forces a new class of homogeneous reporters into an industry already plagued by systemic inequalities. Poorer students who want to become journalists find themselves at a disadvantage as they lack the volunteer service that their wealthier peers could afford to take on, thereby boosting their resumes and potential hiring possibilities.

Indeed, there is a straight line between who is rewarded by the industry based on their personal wealth, and who is denied entry.

As freelancers, we are well aware of these barriers. We fight for better job conditions for freelance media workers in Quebec and across Canada. We encourage our members to refuse to volunteer when they should be paid. As such, we naturally are in solidarity with Concordia journalism students as they embark on their strike.

It is actions such as these that will change our industry for the better

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B201 Mackintosh Corry Hall, Queen's University Campus

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