Nova Scotia

'It could go on ... forever': Chronicle Herald strike hits 1-year mark

Last Jan. 23, 61 journalists with the Halifax Chronicle Herald walked off the job. Today, one year later, 55 remain on the picket lines. How long can the strike go on? And what lessons are there to be learned from the bitter history of Nova Scotia’s longest strike more than three decades ago?

It's the longest strike in Nova Scotia in a decade, but walkouts have been known to go much longer

Eric Wynne waves to a supporter while joining other Halifax Chronicle Herald newsroom union members as they picket outside the newspaper's office after walking off the job in Halifax last year. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The strike at Canada's oldest, independently owned newspaper hits the one-year mark today, writing a new chapter in Nova Scotia's labour history as the longest walkout in a decade.

CBC News spoke to both sides in the Chronicle Herald dispute and experts on labour relations, while uncovering parallels from a bitter, 3.5-year strike by bus drivers in Digby to understand where things stand — and what the endgame could look like.

In short, the strike could end within days or, according to one labour expert, last forever.

'They're handling it brilliantly'

Ian Scott, chief operating officer at the Chronicle Herald, said Friday it's business as usual inside the newspaper.

"These anniversaries, if anything, inflame things and don't help," he told CBC in a brief phone interview. "So the less said the better from my perspective."

Scott said he hoped both sides would start moving toward a deal during negotiations Friday.

"It's ongoing and a pain for everyone," he said. "We're trying to get it resolved and not do media interviews about it."

Praise for replacement workers 

Scott praised those who have been putting the paper out for the last year. 

He acknowledged the newspaper has made editorial mistakes while using replacement workers, but said it was within the realm of normal reporting mistakes.

"I think they're handling it brilliantly," he said. "It's obviously a much harder process when you have as much angst and animosity."

The Chronicle Herald's management praised its staff and replacement workers for continuing to publish the newspaper. (Rachel Ward/CBC)

Labour complaint on pause

The Halifax Typographical Union recently filed a complaint against the Herald with the Nova Scotia Labour Board, alleging unfair labour practices. The union agreed to put that complaint on hold, opening the way to new talks. 

"Off-the-record talks between the two sides have hopefully laid the groundwork for meaningful negotiation," union president Ingrid Bulmer said in a news release.

"There hasn't been much talking in the past year, so this is a step in the right direction."

HTU plans to hold a day of protest Monday across Nova Scotia to rally support. But what are their chances of reaching a successful deal?

'Employers have the upper hand'

Stephanie Ross is an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. She's been following the Herald strike, although she thinks it's better framed as a lockout. 

Those conflicts last a long time because employers are demanding things of unions that are very difficult for them to accept.- Stephanie Ross, Associate professor of labour relations

"These workers, yes, are on a picket line, because they have refused to take what I understand was a set of concessionary demands the employer made," she said in a recent phone interview.

"Those conflicts last a long time because employers are demanding things of unions that are very difficult for them to accept."

Stephanie Ross, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., said employers often have the upper hand in labour disputes. (McMaster University)

Ross said each side is trying to put leverage on the other to get the terms they want.

"When an employer is willing to lock workers out, it shows that they don't believe that they're actually dependent on those workers for their business to thrive, and that takes a lot of leverage away from those workers," she said. 

"Employers have the upper hand because they are not legally prevented from getting other workers to come in and do the job of people who are on strike or locked out."

End in sight?

So how long could the Herald strike last?

"It could go on, potentially, forever," said Ross.

"There is nothing that is legally required to bring a conclusion to this conflict. It becomes a decision that the union would have to make — whether or not it's going to try to salvage what they can and go back under conditions that had been previously unacceptable."

In 2014, a New Brunswick radio strike ended after 22 months when workers stopped picketing without a deal. 

Earning community support

Ross said the union can try to gain leverage by winning public support. 

"This conflict is not just about the terms and conditions of a group of workers, but whether or not journalists can have working conditions that allow them to meet their social mission of contributing to informed public debate," she said. 

"I guess the question is whether or not that message is penetrating the community."

Ross put some of the blame on the McNeil government, arguing its tough approach to public-sector negotiations sets the tone for the private sector and "emboldens them in this kind of aggressive approach to collective bargaining in their own workplaces."

Employers benefit from transparency

Jack Graham, a partner with the McInnes Cooper law firm in Halifax, works with owners and employers in similar disputes, but is not involved in the Herald situation. 

Jack Graham, a partner with McInnes Cooper, said both sides must be creative to resolve the dispute. (McInnes Cooper)

He said if the Herald's owners and management think they need union concessions to stay profitable and sustainable in a tough newspaper environment, they need to be open with their striking employees. 

"It's very important for the employer to be as clear as possible about the economic circumstances and to be as transparent as you can about why the kinds of changes you are proposing to the collective agreement are necessary for the sustainability of the organization," he said Friday. 

That could include privately opening the financial books to the union. It can build trust, although employers aren't required to share their finances.

"One of the challenges when you're not fully transparent is there are times when the union simply doesn't trust what you have to say if you can't support it," Graham said.

Lessons for both sides

He said both sides have good reasons to resolve the dispute beyond the money.

"A labour disruption places the maximum amount of pressure on all parties and I think that's the case here. I've never known of a labour disruption to go a year without serious issues on both sides. It's not good for the newspaper and it's not good for the employees."

Striking Chronicle Herald workers have been picketing businesses that continue to advertise in the newspaper. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

The employer can't draw too tough a bottom line, but should understand what it can truly live with and make that sustainable, Graham said. And the union side has to accept the reality of the business position and negotiate for the future, not the past. 

"I've been involved in enough labour negotiations over the years where what is being reported is not really the actual dynamic of what is going on at the table," he added. 

Call for an industrial inquiry commission

Danny Cavanagh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, said labour relations in the province are at an all-time low. Speaking at a press conference Friday in Halifax, he called on the McNeil government to set up an industrial inquiry commission to resolve the Herald dispute. 

Under section 61 of the Trade Union Act, the government can call a commission to "endeavour to bring about agreement between the parties." Cavanagh said the commission would let them get to the facts of the dispute. 

"If the Chronicle Herald says they don't have any money, they could look into that and try to get to the bottom line of that," he told CBC News. 

He said a bad deal for Herald workers would be bad news for all Nova Scotia workers.

"We believe this is not about saving money. It is clear the Herald owners and management are trying to wipe out the union."

CBC News asked the government if it would set up an industrial inquiry commission. It noted that sides were back in discussions, but that "our conciliation services remain available." 

Replacement workers have been keeping the Chronicle Herald going since the strike began. (CBC)

The longest strike in Nova Scotia's history

While the Herald strike is unusually long, it's not the longest in Nova Scotia.

In 1979, 25 unionized school bus drivers in Digby — members of CUPE Local 1185 — walked off the job seeking equal pay to their counterparts in the Municipality of Clare.

They would be off the job for three years and eight months.

The walkout is detailed in an academic paper published on the Acadia University website and offers parallels with the Herald case. 

Bitter strike

In the Digby case, the school board hired replacement drivers. Some strikers wound up putting their own children on replacement-worker driven buses in between stints on the picket line. 

A judge headed an industrial inquiry commission in February 1980, similar to what Cavanagh is calling for with the Herald. The judge released his suggestions in March, but the school board declined them in May and the strike rolled on, turning increasingly bitter. 

Digby bus drivers picket at Weymouth Consolidated School about 28 months into the dispute. Journalist Stephen Kimber covered the strike and shared this clipping. (Courtesy Stephen Kimber)

Before the 1980 school year began, the bus garage and five buses burned down. The union worked on gaining public support, but got only mediocre results, according to the paper's authors.

Three years into the strike, the school board sold its buses to the replacement workers to run as independent contractors. By 1981, only 13 picketers remained. That December, the CUPE strike pay ran out.

Deal fell short

The strikers stuck to the picket line for another full year until school board elections brought new faces to the table. CUPE struck a deal with the new board. 

The drivers got their jobs back and the replacement drivers were allowed to finish their contracts.

The regular drivers did get a wage increase, but were still $100 short of the Clare rate.