‘Hell freezes over’: National Post staff announce union drive at Postmedia’s flagship paper

Postmedia-owned newspaper National Post are displayed.
Postmedia-owned newspaper National Post are displayed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Editorial staff at the National Post, the flagship publication of Canada’s largest newspaper company, announced Wednesday that they are beginning a union drive with CWA Canada. The paper’s beleaguered parent company Postmedia, which has suffered steep revenue declines affecting the entire print media industry, offered buyouts last week, just months after completing a company-wide salary cost reduction of twenty per cent.

“It has been a year of unprecedented events, of things we once thought were beyond the realm of possibility,” said the union drive’s organizers, in a playful nod to the paper’s conservative editorial bent that has often been critical of Canada’s labour movement. “A reality television star is president of the United States. Ontario’s liquor control board is planning to sell marijuana. And the National Post is unionizing.”

The Post is currently Canada’s only major non-unionized newspaper, and staff said in a statement that this, combined with the deteriorating financial condition of its parent company has meant that they have we “borne the brunt of cuts.” (The Post saw 25 staff depart last December, following a round of buyout offers associated with the salary reduction initiative announced in October 2016 and completed earlier this year.)

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“We see unionizing as the best way to protect both ourselves and our readers across the country, who suffer every time the newspaper loses a great reporter, photographer, editor or designer to a buyout or a better-paid job with a competitor,” adds the statement.

The earlier round of staff cost cutting proved significant, as Postmedia’s compensation expenses fell to $74.6 million in its third quarter results published on July 7, down from $91.6 million in the same period a year earlier.

Cost reductions also saw Postmedia turn a $13 million profit in the quarter, despite revenue falling 11.1 per cent year over year to $194 million.

Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey speaks during the company’s annual general meeting in Toronto on Thursday, January 12, 2017.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey speaks during the company’s annual general meeting in Toronto on Thursday, January 12, 2017.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette.

“We’re unionizing because we love this newspaper,” added the unionizing staff in a statement. “We want the Post and its newsroom staff to have long, bright futures. We have broad support among our colleagues and are planning to file for certification soon.”

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According to sources at the paper, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, representatives from CWA Canada and at least one other media union began contacting newsroom staff in the spring, following significant cuts to non-unionized employee benefits at Postmedia, which included including the axing of its employment assistance program and the elimination of maternity and parental leave top-up payments.

Non-unionized employees also saw the closure of their defined benefit pension plan to future accrual as of August 2017, and the end of other capital accumulation plans including a retirement savings plan and a deferred profit-sharing plan.

Informal discussions among staff went on for months following the March benefit trimmings, but picked up pace over the summer until it became clear there might be consensus emerging around what the union organizers acknowledged could be a “hell-freezes-over moment.”

The idea of unionization had long been anathema to many of the Post’s most senior writers and reporters, many of whom took pride in the paper’s non-unionized work environment that was seen to encourage a meritocracy.

However, Post staff with the most tenure were the ones most drastically impacted by the company’s pension plan changes, with one staffer telling Global that “it sort of triggered the impetus to finally raise a middle finger to the 12th floor [where Postmedia’s executive offices are located at the company’s downtown Toronto headquarters].”
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In addition to buyouts and benefit reductions, another issue which raised the ire of staff in recent months has been lavish bonuses awarded to Postmedia bosses in spite of the company’s declining financials. Last fall, the company’s top five executives were given a combined $2.3 million in “retention bonuses” tied to the completion of a financial restructuring plan that erased $307 million in debt from its books. Three of those executives have since left.

“Last week, Postmedia management opened yet another buyout offer for the National Post newsroom, which means we’ll be losing even more skilled and experienced colleagues,” said the Post staff union organizers. “But in recent days, they’ve been telling us they’re interested in hearing our concerns and care about making things better, saying they want us to be ‘working together in this fight.’ The company’s actions send a different message.”

CWA Canada, which the staff hope to unionize with, is an independent segment of the Communications Workers of America, and has approximately 6,000 members at 17 locals across Canada, including at Postmedia papers including the Montreal Gazette and the Regina Leader-Post.

Postmedia did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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