Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Log 553 July 18 2017: Some reflections on unions and bosses: Closed shop, union shop, non-union shop, I have experienced them all. Even “Canada shop”

IN my last blog I touched on the dilemma of the working man in face of the decline in unions. It may seem puzzling as to why unions, the very bedrock of the advancement of the condition of working people, should have declined.
Where I grew to adulthood, in New Zealand, the Labour government of 1935-49 had passed legislation making it compulsory for anyone who had a job to join a union. Thus, when I left school to work in the local newspaper, I joined the New Zealand Journalists’ Union, and was covered by the provisions of the nationally-negotiated contract covering all newspapers in New Zealand.
I grew up to be proud of this union membership, even though, with hindsight, it could be argued that such a system did lead to the creation of some unions that were, as the saying goes, deadwood, whose executives were not really imbued with the principles of unionism, and were inactive in the defence of the rights of their members.
At the time the politics of the general society in which the Cold War was settling in, interfered with the running of unions to a certain extent. In the antipodes, in particular, as on the West Coast of the United States, the wharfies, as they were called, workers on the nation’s wharves, tended to be led by members of the Communist party, which at the time, though small in number were large in influence, because of their concentration on the welfare of working people, especially in the unions. There, as in Canada, which had is own Communist-led Canadian Seamen’s Union (CSU), the leaders of the more orthodox union collectives were firmly set against the Communist unions, and since it was mainly the Communist-led unions that caused industrial strife, such collectives --- the AFL-CIO in the United States, for example, the Federation of Labour in New Zealand, the Canadian Labour Congress in Canada ---- gradually began to act more or less in lockstep with their governments. My sympathies at the time were with the more militant unions, which not only were strong in defence of their members, but also had no hesitation in using their influence in support of foreign workers. For example, it was not at all unusual for the Australian wharfies to refuse to handle ships for political reasons, such as in support of  anti-imperialist struggles being fought in various parts of the world, and I firmly supported these actions.  With the enthusiastic backing of the media, governments were easily able to portray these actions as being stimulated by Communist affiliations with the Soviet Union.
It is undeniable, of course,  that western Communist parties lost all hope they may have had of broad public support when  they first opposed the  Second World War because of the pact between the Soviet Union and the Germans, and then, when Germany attacked Russia in 1941, they changed their minds on a dime, and became effective fighters against the Nazis.
Thus, immediately after the war, it was easy for non-Communist Western governments to use the Communist stick to beat the trades unions with, and they didn't hesitate to do it.  In the United States unions became tainted with corruption and gangsterism, but this was not enough for the employers, who frankly set out to denigrate unions and used every  trick in the book to undermine them.  Years later I worked on finishing a small film made at the NFB called Who Needs Unions? which followed the career of a man whose business it was to propagate the anti-union case, something he and others of his ilk did with sensational success.
When I left New Zealand in 1950, and a year later was hoping to get a job in England, I ran into the problem of jurisdictions that was altogether avoided in New Zealand by its system of mandatory unionism. Many English unions were what was known as “closed shops.” That is, you could only join them by getting a job; but to get a job you needed to be a union member. Some were simply “union shops”, that is, once you got a job, you had to join the union. And then, of course, there were jobs that were non-unionized. Although I eventually succeeded in getting a job for a small weekly in Coventry,Warwickshire, I really cannot remember that I was ever required to join the union, although I am fairly sure the journalists on  the local evening newspaper --- which owned the little weekly for which I worked --- were union members.
It was not until I came to Canada in 1954 that I ran into the non-union shop, and that with a vengeance.  My first port of call was Toronto, where I was told I needed Canadian experience to be hired by a Canadian newspaper --- if one were to describe this in the jurisdictional terms outlined above, I suppose this could be called the “Canadian shop” or the Canadian version of the English “union shop”  --- “you can get Canadian experience only by working in a Canadian newspaper, but to get a job in a Canadian newspaper, you need Canadian experience.”
When I was hired to work on the Northern Daily News in Kirkland Lake, I ran into the Thomson newspaper chain, Roy Thomson’s infamous creation, a chain of small-town newspapers built on the firm principle of paying the lowest wages possible consistent with keeping unions at bay.  Here I discovered an entirely new instrument in my experience, an electronic tape that could be attached to a linotype machine and do the work that hitherto had been done by a linotype operator. The sole purpose of this was to avoid hiring the skilled staffers who were always the most likely to be unionized.  The tape was sent out from headquarters in Toronto, containing news dispatches from around the country and the world, and even editorials, pre-written in Toronto. The editorial staff was run by two members, an editor and chief sub-editor (a recovering drunk, who was down on his luck from a ruined career in the metropolitan centres) who might be considered full-time workers, while the reporting staff was made up of people like myself, experienced journalists, most of us, from England (a descendant of the poet Wordsworth), South Africa,  Jamaica, Latvia and New Zealand who had drifted into the country from abroad, and were willing to accept whatever wage was offered. We were expected to work at any time of the day or night, any day of the week, and whatever we wrote was set in type by the sole linotype operator needed to keep the system moving.
Although two of us on that staff later received the Order of Canada (Fred Bruemmer, later a famed Arctic photographer and myself), the newspaper that resulted from our efforts was a poor thing, indeed as were all of the other newspapers in Thomson’s chain. Roy Thomson had been an itinerant businessman whose efforts to get going all proved fruitless until he tried to sell radios in Northern Ontario, and decided to set up a radio station to encourage sales. This had caught on until he was able to buy his first small local newspaper in Timmins, and the rest is history. Thomson Newspapers became one of the mightiest businesses in the entire world of journalism, operating in several countries, and buying the man himself a peerage in the British realm. His first quality newspaper, as they are called, was the well-regarded and long-established  Scotsman.  Next he was able to establish the first Scottish TV station, which, he said, in a famous quote, was “like a permit to print money.”
I lasted only three months on the $45 a week he paid me, and soon moved on to the Winnipeg Free Press, another low-paying non-union paper but one with a solid reputation that rested on the fact that its editor for more than 40 years, J.W. Dafoe, had such political influence that his turgid editorials were said to be capable of toppling governments. I used to whisper in the editorial room that the newspaper was “regarded as a great newspaper by more people who had never read it, than any other in history.”
When I moved on after two years to Montreal, I found myself in a very strange newspaper situation. This was 1957, and although the tranquil revolution had not yet arrived, French-language journalists had managed to get themselves unionized. Through a stroke of good fortune I became friendly with many of them and they introduced me to a side of Quebec life ---modern, radical, anti-clerical, pro-union and alive to the outside world --- which seemed to be unknown to those running the English-language newspaper for which I worked.  On our side of the town, we were employed by a steadfastly anti-union boss, who nevertheless had sense enough to peg his wage structure at just below the higher wages won by the French journalists through their union.
I remember after I had been there a couple of years, someone arrived from the American Newspaper Guild in the United States who had the intention of perhaps organizing Montreal’s English-language journalists. He asked me what sort of support he could expect from the journalists on our staff, so one evening I ran through the list of some 130 editorial staffers with him, and came up with four whom I considered might be relied upon in a union organizing drive. He went away.
In fact, the behaviour of the French journalists at that time was a revelation to me. While we were mere creatures of the editors and management, without any leverage to control our work, the French journalists were extremely active at the level or professionalism, and did not hesitate to strike when they felt they had good cause.  On one strike at La Presse they had not been content just with picketing, but had managed to produce every day a miniature version of the newspaper which they called La Presse Ouvriere that became a considerable weapon in their armoury. That strike ended with the overthrow of the administration of the newspaper and its replacement with a new editor, with some of the more vigorous and radical younger journalists promoted to management positions. A result like this could not even be dreamed of on the English-language side.
I had never been impressed with the management of The Montreal Star, an immensely profitable newspaper that continued rolling on thanks to its guaranteed huge classified advertising every day. After I left the newspaper the proprietorial McConnell family wanted money more than they wanted a newspaper, and sold the paper to a chain organized by the Winnipeg Free Press. They were  finally unionized in the 1970s. But on neither side did they have experience of negotiating, and when in 1979 negotiations seized to a halt with a strike, the conflict was allowed --- in my view through stupid management --- to drag on for so long that when the strike was settled the newspaper had lost its formerly unchallenged circulation.
So, a deal --- a dirty deal, if I may coin a phrase --- was made between the Free Press outfit and the Southam’s chain that owned The Gazette, the only remaining English-language newspaper.  The Southam paper in Winnipeg would be closed, leaving the field to the Free Press,  and simultaneously the Star in Montreal would also be closed leaving the field to the Gazette.
I suppose these are the kinds of deals one has to expect from capitalism, where money and profits are the only criteria of success. But since I returned to Montreal I have mentioned from time to time that I had worked on The Montreal Star and have been surprised at an almost unanimous reaction: oh yes, the Star was such a good newspaper, we miss the Star, we read the Star every day.
I am not sure the Star ever deserved such accolades. But certainly its loss has been an immense one to Montreal as a city, much greater than those of us who wrote for it could ever have imagined in the years leading up to the tranquil revolution.

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Log 552 July 14 2017: Mea culpa: I confess to rigidity in my beliefs, but that conceded, can find no reason to change

For a guy like me, who hates flags, the revamped version of Sherbrooke street in downtown Montreal should be a nightmare. Probably as part of the 375th anniversary of the founding of the city, this street, once known as the most elegant in the country, has been given an almost total makeover.  Ancient pipes, sewers and wires have been replaced (as in many other parts of the city), and spiffing new sidewalks have been constructed, twice as wide as they used to be, beautifully paved with handsome stones, and with lovely new trees, already flowering though just planted, and beautiful flower boxes along the one kilometer of roadway between the intersections with St Laurent boulevard in the east, and Guy street in the west. To mark the occasion some 30 artworks have been commissioned and laid out along the way, and all in all one might be excused for thinking it is a job well done.
Except for this one thing: the street has been decorated with the flags of surely all of the world’s nation states, and to accommodate them, a series of long high aluminum poles have been established on heavy concrete bases that are themselves far from beautiful, poles that reach up towards the sky and tend to give the street an overladen sort of feel.
But I have to confess, much as I dislike flags, that all those multi-coloured flags do enliven what has become in the last half century  a more or less typically North American-looking street of gleaming skyscrapers, many of whose ground floors are now occupied with pizza and burger joints. I myself first saw the street more than 60 years ago, when it was still marked with the elegant ancient houses of Montreal’s earlier times, and over the years I have been one with the citizens who have deplored every demolition of these old houses and their replacement with skyscrapers that have reduced the city’s links with its past. 
In those days Sherbrooke was more or less a symbol of the primacy of the monied class that had played so prominent a role in the development of Canada, just as its twin street, Ste. Catherine,  that runs parallel through the city 200 or 300 yards to the south seemed to be, in its brawling, bustling, vulgar antithesis, the street of the common man. At the time, I remember, Ste. Catherine was loftily but rather affectionately described by the well-known British architectural critic Reyner Banham as “one of the great, awful streets of the world.” Unfortunately in recent decades Sherbrooke has moved in the direction of Ste. Catherine as it has become just another street of commerce, and all the prettying up that  has recently been undertaken, though welcome, seems unlikely to arrest its movement towards aesthetic mediocrity.
It was a bit of a shock to me today to see how the flags have enlivened the Sherbrooke street scene, because ever since I was a kid in New Zealand and refused to stand up for the national anthem when it was played before the movies, I have distrusted everything to do with flags, and I cannot imagine myself ever carrying one and waving it around to establish the supremacy of our particular nation, whichever that might be. In fact some years ago I gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on citizenship and told its members that two of the things I liked particularly about Canada when I first came here in 1954 were that the nation had no flag, and no anthem.  (A third element I mentioned was that the only thing  that seemed to be demanded of a new resident of Canada was that he go into debt enough to buy a second-hand car. Ah, those were the days!)
Ruminating on my detestation of flags, I began to think that maybe I have taken it a bit too far.  Nearing the end of my ninth decade, I have surely reached the time when I might justifiably engage in some self-criticism (as the Communists used to call it.)
There might even be other things for which I might justifiably be criticized.
For example, I have never voted either Liberal or Conservative, and have always been so fixed in my detestation for our governing parties as to vow that I never would vote for either of them. I suppose it can be argued that occasionally some Liberal Members of Parliament might be decent fellows deserving of support. Okay, I am willing to concede that, although I cannot reasonably extend my concession to cover Conservatives.  All of this stems from my upbringing in a country that was ruled by a Labour government in my youth.  I always heartily supported that party, and grew to detest the Conservative  opposition, and I have carried that on through my seven or eight decades since, having never seen any reason to change my opinion. When I came to Canada I quickly realized that one of the things separating this country from the United States was simply the existence of the NDP (or CCF, as it was known when I arrived), because it has kept as part of the normal political discourse in this country ideas of collective responsibility that are regarded as anathema in the United States. This difference was illustrated to me forcefully when I first visited the United States in 1956, and met many people of like mind to mine who were living in isolation from neighbours who shunned them because of their ideas. As I heard Noam Chomsky say in a recent interview, solidarity is the word that describes the idea that we are all responsible for each other, the very bedrock idea of national health systems, social welfare schemes and so on. I agreed entirely with his description of how without this quality no society can solve its social problems over the long term. The proof of this is in the current situation of United States and British society, no longer functioning as democracies but as oligarchies governed by wealth-owners, whose wealth in recent years has grown to obscene levels.
I read just today that this rise in inequality has gone in lockstep with the decline in union membership.  In the days when union membership in the United States was 30 per cent of non-public workers, the difference between the income of the highest paid CEO and the average worker was as 30 to 1. Now, with union membership fallen to 6.5 per cent, the difference is as 350 to 1. In that same article I read of the multitude of measures enacted to destroy the Labour movement. In fact, according to the International Labor Organization, the United States is violating international standards by failing to protect the right to organize, by banning secondary strikes and boycotts, and by allowing employers to permanently replace workers who strike. If strikes are banned, workers are defenceless against their employers, and, as the authors contend, all advancement in the rights of workers have been won as a result of strikes, which means that they are in the present circumstances unable to organize workers effectively into unions for collective action. (This information is taken from an article in the Boston Review called The Right to Strike, by James Gray Pope, Ed Bruno and Peter Kellman.)
I didn’t intend when I set out to write this to descend into a defence of my opinions in this way. Rather, I was expecting to confess to a certain rigidity of opinion.
Another area in which I am even more rigid now than when I was younger is in my attitude towards religion. I cannot deny that there have been good people who have been motivated by religion and have done wonderful works. But my study of the history of how indigenous people have been treated by the invaders who have taken over their lands has hardened my detestation of those who came among them propagating what they claimed were superior religions.  It is undeniable that missionaries have been part of the conquering force, in fact, in many places they have been precursors of the soldiers who have followed them with their guns. And, taken all in all, I find that the effects of religion have been disastrous to human kind in general. It is impossible to believe that reasonable people can actually believe many of the central precepts of religions. We have been seeing in recent years the rise of the suicide bomber who is apparently motivated by the belief that his  or her action will result in his being transported to a heaven in which he will have access to 72 virgins. I daren’t go on with a catalogue of the absurdities that are believed by religious adherents, but will content myself with mentioning the supposedly virgin birth of the leading figure in a religion whose name discretion forbids me to mention.
Anyway, if any of my acquaintances (or readers) find me too rigid in expression or belief, I have written this to say that (maybe) I agree with them. I accept I could be wrong, but please don't expect me to vote Liberal or Conservative in the next election.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My Log 551 July 4 2017: At last, some justice for Omar Khadr, who at 15 was almost killed in an Afghanistan firefight, and was treated as a guilty soldier by both American and Canadian governments

It is probably in the nature of being a journalist that one tends to concentrate on things that need to be improved or changed, but I can hardly think of a single government action that has given me more pleasure than today’s news that the government of Canada intends to apologize to Omar Khadr, and compensate him for the terrible experiences he has undergone, at least partly because (as the Supreme Court has found) of actions of this government’s officers.
This young man has never had a break in life: the son of a fanatic follower of Al Queda, he was transported at the age of 15 by his father  into the heart of the  battles undertaken by the Western world against Afghanistan, which was thought to harbour Osama Bin Laden, held responsible for the attack by Saudi terrorists on the World Trade Centre in New York. Although only a child, he was present during a firefight in which everyone except him and one or two others were killed.  American soldiers believed --- or at least said they believed --- that he had thrown a grenade that had killed an American soldier, but Khadr was discovered covered in blood, one eye permanently damaged, and  having been shot twice in the chest.  When arrested by the Americans, he was treated thereafter as an adult, in violation of all the rules of war, and after a period in Bagram air base prison, during which he claims to have been tortured and roughly handled by his interrogators, he was transferred to Guantanamo, where he became the youngest inmate.
Khadr  owes his escape from that dreadful prison to the selfless Edmonton lawyer, Dennis Edney, who represented him throughout his 10 year imprisonment in the Cuban prison and later, after he was  reluctantly transferred to Canada because the Canadian courts put the onus on the Harper government to facilitate his return to his home country. The government showed no enthusiasm for this task, and even after his arrival home, they made his life as difficult as possible.
That he was by this time as young man of 25 did not alter the fact that he had been a child when arrested, but neither the American nor the Canadian governments took this into account in deciding on his punishment.
Very severe doubt was thrown on the American claim that he threw a grenade that killed an American soldier, but Edney advised him to accept a plea deal, confessing to the crime to escape the most probable outcome of the Guantanamo legal proceedings, which would have been a 40-year prison term, in return for a reduced sentence of eight years to be served out in Canadian prisons.
Eventually, again at he insistence of Canadian courts, he was released from prison, into the custody of his lawyer, who has  sheltered him in his Edmonton home ever since.
That he is now to be granted compensation for his ordeal is no more than he deserves, for he has accepted the misfortunes that have followed him through life with remarkable courage and grace.