Picket wounds

By Adina Bresge

The Chronicle Herald made headlines this week after it emerged that management is recruiting freelance journalists to replace unionized workers in the event of a work stoppage.

Halifax freelancers face a dilemma: Do I pick the scab?

The independently owned newspaper is bracing itself for a lockdown after talks with the Halifax Typographical Union, which represents 61 newsroom employees, broke down this month. Herald management is pushing for a one-third staff cut, wage decreases the elimination of guaranteed equal pay for men and women.

Union President Ingrid Bulmer said Monday that the Herald has been soliciting journalism students from University of King’s College. Kelly Toughill, director of King’s journalism school, later clarified that recent graduates have consulted with faculty after being approached by the Herald.

Toughill says King’s journalists will have to make the decision for themselves, but she wants novice reporters to be aware of
the potential consequences. “In the past, people who worked through a work stoppage tend to become pariahs in the journalism community.”

Current students were  discouraged from working during a lockout.

“Editorial supervision is extremely minimal during a labour disruption. Few of our students are ready to work on their own, without meaningful supervision, at a major daily paper,” she wrote in an email to faculty.

“I don’t think that would serve the interests of journalism students or the interests of the paper.”

For now, it seems the Herald requires a full journalism degree to qualify for active solicitation, but that could change come Jan. 23, when Herald employees could be locked out of the newsroom. If negotiations drag on, students looking to fulfill their one-month internship requirement might be tempted by contracted employment at a major daily newspaper.

“I would do it because I need the money,” Sarah Poko, a student in the one-year bachelor of journalism program says. “At the same time, it’s an opportunity to get your work to a wider audience.”

The King’s Student Union has declared its solidarity with Herald employees, but KSU president Alex Bryant recognizes the difficult circumstances student journalists face. He says steep tuitions may give students extra pressure to get ahead, but the professional costs of scabbing outweigh any short-term benefits.

“By crossing the picket line, you’re contributing to a movement of casualization in the journalism workforce,” Bryant says.

“That’s going to contribute to a lack of protection for full-time workers when you graduate.”

As a part of ongoing negotiations, Herald management is challenging the current contract’s jobs security clause, which prohibits non-union workers from doing certain tasks. If struck, it could mean an expanding role for freelancers.

“There’s nothing wrong with freelancers, under normal circumstances,” Rick Conrad, former Herald union president says. He says the limit on freelancers exists so companies cannot exploit them as a cheaper alternative to full-time journalists.

“You may not think you need a union now, but chances are you’ll benefit from unions in some way as you enter the work world.”

As the countdown to lockout looms, this issue is far from resolved. But luckily, students at King’s are not alone.

“A couple of instructors have asked me if their conduct during a lock-out or strike will affect their status at King’s,” Kelly Toughill wrote in an email to faculty.

“The answer is no.”