Staff at the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Sun have voted 91 per cent in favour of giving their union — the Ottawa Newspaper Guild — a mandate to go on strike. The union and the newspapers’ parent company, Postmedia Network Inc, have been locked in negotiations over a new collective agreement.
Voting by members was held Wednesday afternoon. The current agreement between the Guild and Postmedia expired in November 2015.
In January, six employees at the Citizen and Sun were laid off after Postmedia failed to reach a company-wide 20 per cent salary cost reduction target through voluntary buyouts. The Citizen and Sun have been operating out of a single newsroom since the company merged several of its broadsheet and tabloid operations in order to save costs in early 2016. (Other papers, including the Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star and Vancouver Sun were also subject to layoffs earlier this year.)
The company, which is the largest newspaper publisher in Canada, has struggled alongside counterparts in Canada’s print media industry to find a business model to support itself as readers increasingly abandon print products in favour of digital news consumption, which is harder to monetize on account of lower ad rates and competition from international online tech giants Facebook and Google.
In the second quarter of its 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Feb. 28, Postmedia lost $26.5 million as revenue fell 13.5 per cent year-over-year to $180.8 million. In the quarter, print advertising revenue fell $25.2 million or 22.6 per cent and print circulation revenue fell $5.5 million or 8.7 per cent.
For its full 2016 financial year, Postmedia lost $352.5 million or $1.25 per share on $877.2 million in revenue.
CWA Canada — to which the Ottawa Newspaper Guild belongs —said that the vote Wednesday authorizes a strike only if necessary and that the overwhelming majority of labour negotiations are settled without a strike. The union and Postmedia would have to apply to the Ontario Ministry of Labour to have a mediator oversee a conciliation process in an attempt to resolve any differences; if that process fails, only then is strike — or lockout by management — a possibility.
“Conciliation meetings are scheduled for June 20 and 21,” said a Postmedia spokesperson. “We are hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”
“This vote shows overwhelming support for our bargaining committee,” said the Ottawa Newspaper Guild in a statement, which criticized Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey and four other top company executives for $2.3 million in “retention bonuses” they were awarded last year as part of a renegotiation of the company’s finances that significantly reduced its debt load. (Three of the executives who received bonuses — counsel Jeffrey Haar, CFO Doug Lamb and National Post and Pacific Newspaper Group president Gordon Fisher — have since left the company.)
“It also shows complete condemnation of Paul Godfrey’s plan to bleed off the profits from the Ottawa newspapers to line his own pockets and feed predatory hedge fund lenders,” added the Guild. “Our members have not had a raise in five years and now Postmedia wants them to give up their right to sick leave and a decent pension. Our members make these newspapers great and they deserve a fair contract.”
Martin O’Hanlon, CWA Canada’s President, echoed the Guild. “At a certain point you have to stand up and say ‘enough is enough'” he said. “We’ve reached that point. How can Postmedia justify trying to slash pensions and benefits for staff when it’s funneling tens of millions of dollars to its hedge fund masters and giving $2.3 million in bonuses to its top executives? It’s outrageous, immoral, and we won’t take it.”