The Chronicle Herald strike meets the ‘final option’

 

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner on July 17, 2017.

For the sake of the 53 reporters and editors still walking the picket line at the Halifax Chronicle Herald, part of me hopes super-mediator-arbitrator-industrial inquiry commissioner William Kaplan is able — through an initial stage of mediation next month — to find a quick resolution to their seemingly intractable, brutish, one-year-176-days-and-counting dispute with owners Mark Lever and Sarah Dennis.

Part of me hopes.

But none of me expects.

On Thursday, following the McNeil government’s regular weekly cabinet meeting, Municipal Affairs Minister Derek Mombourquette (sitting in for Labour Minister Kousoulis, who recused himself because of a personal relationship with the paper’s owners) surprised everyone by announcing Kaplan’s appointment.

The decision came as a surprise for a number of reasons:

  • the former labour minister, Kelly Regan, had turned down three previous union requests for an industrial inquiry;
  • there hasn’t been a similar last-resort industrial inquiry in the province since 1993;
  • the Liberal government, which continues to place official ads in the paper, has seemed more than content not to have a major province-wide daily newspaper around to report on its doings and un-doings.

Mombourquette justified the Liberals’ change of heart by saying the government had hoped — and hoped, and hoped, and wished upon a star — for the two sides to work out their differences on their own at the bargaining table. But they didn’t, so “government has now decided it’s time to act.”

He didn’t explain, of course, why the government had waited to act until after the provincial election… but I digress.

Kaplan seems a wise choice for such a tough assignment. Having recently been tasked by the federal government with settling a labour dispute at Canada Post, he is considered among the best in his rarefied $500-an-hour arbitrating-mediating field.

All good. All hopeful.

But after Mombourquette spoke, Ian Scott, the Herald’s chief operating officer and designated spokesperson, quickly issued a middle-finger statement questioning whether the government should have invoked this “final option” when “we have offered Herald journalists the best newsroom salary and benefits in Atlantic Canada’s newspaper industry, and our offer is still on the table today.” The union, he added, “has not moved a single complaint forward through the Labour Relations Board.”

Uh… earth to Scott: early in year two — Year two! — the union did file an official unfair labour practices complaint against the company. It only withdrew it after the company agreed to resume talks on a new contract. But there were no real talks. The company simply said here’s the offer we offered you back before this all began. Our new offer is worse. Take it or leave it. And that was the end of that discussion.

So it seems fair to say the Herald does not appear to be embracing the notion of mediation.

While I did say part of me hopes Kaplan’s mediation can end the strike, I don’t expect that to happen. And part of me would like to see the process proceed to a full-scale industrial inquiry.

While Kaplan can’t impose a settlement on the parties, he can shine a bright light on the state of labour relations at the newspaper. As an industrial inquiry commissioner, Kaplan has the powers of a judge to conduct a public hearing into the reasons for the dispute, including the power to call and compel witness testimony and require the parties to produce documents. After the inquiry, Kaplan would produce a report for the minister, with findings and recommendations.

Now that would be interesting!

***

 

Noted:

  • Last week, the new lawyer for a Dartmouth businessman facing a re-trial on 2015 sex assault charges was in the Supreme Court to set dates for the hearing. The lawyer had a scheduling conflict with the originally designated November 2017 dates, so “court clerks then started looking for dates… They initially offered dates in November 2019 before finding a three-week block of time in October 2018.” Attempts to speed up the judicial process seem to be proceeding apace.
  • Supreme Court Justice Denise Boudreau has agreed to what she admits is a “fairly extreme measure” — sealing documents and ordering in-camera hearings in the next phase of Alex Cameron’s defamation suit against the province.
    Cameron was the government lawyer who authored the “conquered people brief” the province initially submitted in the Alton Gas storage case.
    After First Nations protests, Premier Stephen McNeil publicly countermanded Cameron’s (aka the government’s) submission and replaced him on the case. Cameron retired, then sued to recover his reputation. But Cameron — claiming a public airing could violate solicitor-client privilege — now wants the proceedings closed, and the province agrees.
    Which means the public may fully ever fully understand what happened behind the closed doors of the Justice Department and who was ultimately responsible for approving the “conquered people’s” argument.
    Is that any way to restore anyone’s reputation?
    And so goes another week in the life of justice. Duly noted.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

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