Winnipeg Free Press faces major layoffs

Union under fire for strict seniority provisions

  • Melissa Martin was one of five reporters abruptly laid off by the Winnipeg Free Press Sept. 18, a move that shocked news junkies in the city. – Daniel Crump

In a surprise move last week, Manitoba’s largest print media organization laid off seven editorial staff members, causing many to question the viability of print journalism in Winnipeg.

At 4:00 p.m., Sept. 18, the Winnipeg Free Press announced it had laid off what amounts to 8 per cent of its newsroom, according to the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP); the union representing staff at the Free Press and several other Manitoba newspapers.

The seven laid off staffers include deputy online editor John White, web paginator Mark Lowe and reporters Alison Mayes, Lindsey Wiebe, Rob Williams, Adam Wazny and Melissa Martin.

The cuts precipitated a flurry of social media commentary, with laid off reporters actively tweeting their disappointment, questioning the future of the Winnipeg Free Press as a renowned Canadian newspaper.

Among the most vocal critics was Melissa Martin, a 30-year-old former general assignment reporter at the Free Press.

“When you treat your content like it’s disposable, like it’s time limited, are you really so surprised that people don’t want to pay for it?” she said.

By cutting editorial staff so drastically, Martin added, the Winnipeg Free Press is ultimately sending the wrong message to its readers who pay for quality content.

Martin argues the layoffs will make day-to-day reporting significantly more difficult for the paper now that the organization retains only four general assignment reporters - the bare minimum to cover the day-and-night shifts that make up the lifeblood of a daily newspaper.

And with the daily grind becoming more onerous, she said, cuts to investigative and feature content will inevitably follow.

“This is the time that mainstream media outlets need to have faith in their content,” Martin said. “They need to draw a line in the sand and say … we are going to teach our readership this is valuable and keep teaching them until they believe it.”

Martin estimates that, with the recent layoffs, the vast majority of Free Press reporters are now white men over 45.

“The fact the union protects this is frankly discriminatory and unjust,” she said.

The CEP local 191, which represents Free Press staffers, retains tight seniority provisions in its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with newspaper management.

The seniority provisions within the CBA ensure any layoffs occur by classification in reverse order of seniority, according to Aldo Santin, the president of CEP local 191.

This means that, if management seeks to lay off a staffer classified as a reporter, they must lay off the newest hire first. In the case of the five reporters laid off last week, all five constituted the Free Press‘s most recent hires in reverse order of seniority.

Martin argues the union has done a great deal in terms of ensuring a quality wage and other benefits. However, those benefits have at times come at the expense of new talent and have ensured there is a preponderance of white men in the newsroom.

“(It’s) not deliberate discrimination, but discrimination nonetheless,” she said.

Duncan McMonagle, a journalism instructor in Red River College’s Creative Communications program who used to work at the Free Press, agrees.

“As a manager at the Free Press, I signed a collective agreement that said the seniority system prevails, but in a time of dramatic and revolutionary change such as we’re in now, that seniority system is a big barrier for the new … people,” he said.

“I’m not blaming management, I’m not blaming the union; I’m saying both sides need to get together and figure out how to get past that.”

McMonagle sees the future of print journalism as something constantly evolving.

While high-paying jobs such as those at the Free Press may be going away, the lower-paying entry-level jobs are numerous, he argues, estimating nearly all the roughly 17 annual journalism graduates at Red River come out of the Creative Communications program with jobs in the industry.

Aldo Santin, the president of CEP local 191 and a justice reporter who has worked for the Free Press for 26 years, argues seniority is a crucial part of trade unionism and blames the layoffs on poor management.

“The principle of seniority is sort of embedded with trade unions … Seniority is there for a reason. People put in their time and they’re protected for that and its just a fact of life in every industry that there are layoffs,” he said, adding seniority provisions will not be on the table when the next Free Press collective bargaining agreement comes up in July 2013.

“Just because a reporter may be a little bit older, that doesn’t mean they’re unable to do their jobs, evolve and grow and lead the paper into the future. It’s insulting to those people to say that.”

Santin maintains the Free Press has been facing layoffs incrementally since 2009, with cuts to the newspaper’s circulation department and other areas. Over the course of the past year, he estimates the Free Press has lost 10 per cent of its total newsroom.

These layoffs are coming because of a reduction in profits since the 2008 economic crisis, he said, adding the Winnipeg Free Press is still making money and should have actively consulted the union and the public about the recent layoffs.

“They still make money and I still believe they are one of the healthiest regional newspapers in North America,” he said.

Free Press publisher Bob Cox was unavailable for comment before press time.

Published in Volume 67, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 26, 2012)

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