Portrait of a picketer

 

Elissa Barnard, who has spent more than 30 years as a reporter and editor at the Halifax Chronicle Herald, is one of Nova Scotia’s best known and most respected arts and entertainment journalists. “My identity,” she says simply, “has been tied up in my job.”

Today, she is carving out a new identity — as one of close to five dozen Herald reporters and editors walking the picket line in a bitter, year-long strike against the newspaper that drags on, and on. She admits it’s “odd” to be on strike rather than covering it. “I never thought of myself as a strong union person,” she remembers. She didn’t even volunteer to serve on the local union executive, “partly because I didn’t want to give up my Saturdays for meetings.”

If Elissa Barnard wasn’t born a “union maid,” however, there’s little doubt journalism was bred into the bone. Her father Murray served as a reporter and editor with the London Free Press and the Toronto Star; her mother Margaret worked as a reporter for the Halifax Chronicle Herald during World War II and later for the Canadian Press wire service.

Elissa herself began working at the Herald during high school vacations in the late seventies, working her way up from clipping stories in the library to writing obituaries and, finally, her own stories. “I still remember my first front-page piece,” she says with a laugh. “It was a light story about a dog catching a ball in the field. But it was a thrill.”

She joined the newsroom fulltime in the early 1980s “at the tail end of the typewriter era. You wrote on sheets of paper with carbons in between. The editors would tear off the top sheet as you wrote and take it to the desk… I worked nights, and one of my first jobs involved going to the Midtown Tavern to pick up the night food order for the newsroom. At midnight, I’d go down to the pressroom — it was still in the [same] building then — to pick up the first copies of the next day’s paper.”

Although she’d joined the Herald soon after a first abortive attempt to unionize the newsroom, “there was not an atmosphere of labour strife,” she says today. “The newsroom was exciting and fun.”

Change came slowly. The eighties, she says, was a “very creative time” at the papers, but then “the boom times ended with the [1987] stock market crash. Salaries were frozen for about 10 years and there were more permanent part-timers who had no benefits or sick days, and were making a lot less than regular reporters. There was great inequity in salaries; some women were reportedly earning less money.”

Barnard supported the 1999 union drive. Despite the previous failed organizing effort, “people were not fearful about forming a union.” Although tensions rose with each new contract negotiation, she says “it all still felt positive, familial. When [Graham’s son] Will died suddenly in 2002, everyone in the newsroom was invited up to the fourth floor to greet the family and offer our condolences. Everyone went.”

The turning point, she says now, followed Graham’s death in 2011, “and the end of the benevolent capitalist… It was a combination of things,” she admits. “There was a tailspin in the industry. And then, with Sarah [Dennis] and Mark [Lever] in charge, came a change in ‘management style.’”

Although, in the beginning, Lever would come into the newsroom “from time to time and say hello, or deliver speeches about the how things were going with the company,” he became a less benign presence as tensions increased over the summer and fall of 2015, and both sides geared up for an anticipated strike.

The “news hole” shrank as management began to fill pages with human interest material stripped from the Herald’s non-union-produced community newspapers. The Herald’s journalists saw that as practice for keeping the paper going in the event of a strike. Reporters staged a brief byline strike to protest the slow pace of negotiations; management countered by banning bylines entirely. Management, meanwhile, disciplined top union executives for what it considered workplace violations, and what reporters saw as “issues related to their union work.” Management retained a number of journalism interns beyond their usual summer work periods and offered them year-long non-union contracts to supply copy in the event of a strike. (Barnard isn’t bitter: “They were just trying to make a dollar like anyone else in a difficult field.”) Colleagues also found themselves “pushed into difficult positions — offered promotions that would require them to leave the union,” and therefore be available to continue to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike.

Despite all those ominous signs, Barnard admits with a sad laugh, “I didn’t think it would happen. It was unreal the day it started. I wasn’t psychologically prepared to be on strike… Perhaps I’m Pollyanna-ish and naïve, but I still believe they could have found a better way. It didn’t have to get to this point. There were more creative solutions that could have been reached collaboratively.”

And now? “I don’t see an end to it right now.” Unlike some of her colleagues, she hasn’t begun to look for another job.” She does her picket duty, writes occasional stories for the strikers’ online news publication, LocalXpress.ca, and waits. And yet, “I can’t imagine going back [to the Herald]. You’d like to believe that you would open the door and it would be the same place, but that place doesn’t exist anymore. It’s like we’re ghosts.”

 

Main story: “What would Graham say?”

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  1. Very poignant. Thank you for posting. I have long admired Elissa’s work and this account of her career at the paper is most interesting, and disheartening.

    Reply

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