Unionized workers in front of a SAQ, Montreal. Photo courtesy Arielle De Pagter
By Paula Dayan and Thomas Delbano
When 23-year-old Amina Diaby, a refugee and temporary worker at a Toronto-area industrial bakery died from a work accident, Toronto Star reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh decided to go work undercover at the plant to find out more. As the Work and Wealth reporter of the paper, she had spent three years researching and covering various stories of precarious work in Canada. Diaby’s death was not the first one at that plant.
Over the course of a month, Mojtehedzadeh researched the increasing number of temp agency workers replacing full-time employees. Without being entitled to equal pay or the same benefits, temp workers represented cheaper labour for companies. And in case of an accident, liability would fall back on the temp agency rather than the company. Visible minorities and newcomers were often the ones filling these positions, making it even harder for Mojtehedzadeh to find people willing to speak on the record about the dangerosity of their work. So she decided to go see for herself.
These types of investigations into worker issues have become increasingly rare in Canada. In fact, Mojtehedzadeh is the only labour reporter left in the country, working on a beat that has disappeared in the last 25 years.
For Brian Gabrial, a former reporter who spent the last 15 years teaching journalism in Canada and the United States, the labour beat was not the only one to lose its place. It is part of larger trend that has seen most of specialized reporting fade away. “There are very few people that are assigned to beats at a newspaper anymore,” he said, “unless you’re working for a bigger newspaper that still has them. Most reporters are general assignment,” he said.
In most papers, labour issues tend to be covered by business reporters, like François Desjardins who has been writing business news for Le Devoir for the past 11 years. Although he has to juggle between reporting on business and labour, Desjardins said there isn’t a clear time division, nor preference, for the type of stories.“The point is to always cover the news,” he said, “the information that readers are interested in, with the most rigor. Whether it’s a strike, a plant closure, a merger, an acquisition.”
Ronald Boiron, who works in media relations for the Quebec branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, disagrees. He said he has yet to see sufficient coverage of labour news. “These days it’s rare to hear from anyone in the news media unless there is a conflict between workers and management,” he said. “And now it needs to be an important conflict, too.”
The Montreal Gazette had a labour reporter until the 1990s. Since then, many of its beats have also disappeared, replaced by “clusters” that cover a wider range of subjects. It is their City reporters who cover workers’ issues.“We had to focus on what is the greatest interest to the largest number of people, or that we think it’s important,” Editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan said. “A very micro-focus on labour is probably of less importance than say, city hall coverage.”
Readership wasn’t the only concern behind the decision to end the labour beat: it is no secret that newsrooms have been shrinking. “It’s all a matter of consolidating resources and making people that were still there do more work and other types of work,” said Gabrial. “It’s all about the money issue with newspapers. Broadcasting, too. They often had reporters that would cover a specific thing and they can’t afford to do that [anymore].”
Even if it can’t be used as the only reason to explain the disappearance of the labour beat, it’s undeniable that the influence of unions and the interest of the public for labour issues started to decrease in the 1980s. “In the 1970s [unions] were very effective in politicizing a lot of issues and get a lot of public support,” said labour historian Steven High. “In part because they would wrap themselves in a Quebec or a Canadian flag and would frame the issue as ‘Canada versus USA’ if it was an American employer.”
High thinks that free-trade and globalization have participated in unions’ loss of influence and impacted how labour issues are reported by the media and perceived by the public. “Now the government and the public’s response [to labour issues] is ‘this is a private matter between an employer and their workers,’ and not a public issue,” he said.
This privatization of worker issues happened alongside the delocalization of Canadian factories, which also fragilized local unions and their leverage on public opinion.
As divisions of corporations themselves, mainstream news organizations are generally wise enough to avoid covering labour issues from a business or managerial perspective, said Christopher R. Martin, a communication studies researcher. In Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media, he argues that they adopt instead the point of view of the consumer as their “common ground” narrative between the workers and their management.
But with this change of angle, part of the stories is being left out. “This shift in coverage of labour issues means that we don’t get the critical connection between labour unions and labour laws”, said Quebec-based writer Nora Loreto, editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media. For instance, a 42-day strike of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in 1981 was successful in winning improved maternity leave benefits. Postal workers received 17 weeks of paid maternity leave and set a new standard for health benefits when in response, governments decided to improve the benefits offered by the employment insurance program.
With the disappearance of the beat, labour news ended up being covered by reporters who don’t always have enough background knowledge to put current events into context. “It’s important to have industry watchers in any case,” said Loreto, “But this one affects a lot of people in a lot of different ways, and journalists need to understand it fully to report on it,” she said.
Over the last three years, Sara Mojtehedzadeh reported on hundreds of different stories ranging from daycare cost to precarious jobs to bullying in the workplace. Through her job, she also wants to show that labour reporting doesn’t have to be antagonistic to business interests, but that it has its own value. “There is a need to look at those workers who are particularly precarious and vulnerable,” she said in an interview with Canadaland. “Some professions are not entitled to the minimum wage, to overtime, to rest periods,” she said, “And those exceptions and how they affect people need coverage.”
After publication of the undercover story, several business owners reached out to her, saying that the story had motivated them to make sure their own supply chains were treating their workers properly. “I think there are a lot of business people out there who want an even playing field,” she said, “It’s interesting to talk to business owners who have been around and have seen the way our expectations of business as a society have changed.”
High has been studying labour movements for more than 20 years but said that he has received more interview requests from journalists in the last few months than ever before. When General Motors announced it was closing its Oshawa plant and faced the subsequent backlash from workers, High was approached by several reporters. He was pleased with the quality of their questions.“It wasn’t just a one-day hit [in the media cycle] because of the centrality of the auto industry in Ontario. But most labour issues don’t have that kind of duration and reporters can’t research their way into a story.”
The closing of the General Motors plant is an example of the ongoing change in Canadian industries. The automatization in factories, the general deindustrialization of the economy, and many other factors that are leading to the disappearance or precarization of jobs. High believes the recent rise in right-wing populism, notably among the working class, comes from a place of anger and hopelessness caused by the impression that the rest of the population has been ignoring their needs.
“Reporters cannot disengage with what’s happening in the workplace and the wider class politics that are unfolding,” he said. “Class dynamics are re-emerging in a weird way, a racist way often, but the silence is starting to be broken which is positive.”
Paula Dayan is a student reporter at Concordia University. She has spent the last few years photographing people and places around Montreal.
Thomas Delbano is an aspiring culture writer, he’s currently pursuing a Master Degree in journalism.