ImageThese are distressing times for labour reporting. I was a labour reporter for 19 years, and I had plenty of company. It was always fun at CLC conventions, when the pack of us from across the land would fill an entire row of tables across the front, laugh at the idiosyncrasies of the union leaders we’d come to know so well (“It’s a love-in, you sausage.”), and then fill up more tables at the pub, once our deadlines had been met. Heck, such was the critical mass of news, especially in union-heavy B.C., that when I started at the Vancouver Sun, there were not one but two (!) labour reporters – myself at night and on days, the legendary George Dobie (“Everyone’s trying to find out Ed Lawson’s salary, and a guy from Fruitvale tells us. You’ve got to have your sources in the right place.”). We were on the front page all the time.

Now, as far as I know, there’s not a single full-time labour reporter left in the country’s mainstream media, and hasn’t been for some time. Regular coverage of labour issues is dead as a dodo these daze, drowned out by the deluge of business stories.

CBC’s The Early Edition, for instance, has a weekly “business panel”, a weekly feature on cool businesses, and thrice-daily reports from its Toronto-based business columnist. Oh yes, and a workplace psychologist who dispenses mostly management advice,  and tips on advancing one’s career and getting along in the workplace.  Sensible though she is, I can’t remember her ever advocating that dissatisfied employees join a union.

But CBC is hardly alone in its emphasis on business. Most of the time, in the mainstream media, you’d never know unions exist or serve any kind of valuable function in society.

Yet more than 4.5 million Canadian workers belong to unions, including nearly 600,000 right here in beautiful British Columbia. Sure, there’s coverage of strikes and lockouts, but too often its cursory and superficial, with reporters forced into an unfamiliar field, where all the cards are not always on the bargaining table.

Recent examples: a CBC website headline had teachers threatening strike, rather than school support staff, and a rare, shoddy story by the good folks at Canadian Press highlighted a “promise” by BCTF president Jim Iker that there would be no teachers’ strike in September. Not much of a “promise”, since the teachers have yet to take a strike vote and are scheduled to resume negotiations in early October.

This is not to point fingers but just to illustrate. And yes, there are certainly good stories done on labour, too, many of them by the CBC, and reporters who understand how unions and bargaining work. As a generalization, however, it’s a pretty sad situation. (And by the way, it’s not a matter of advocating for unions. Both sides need to be respected. I really liked the employer guys I dealt with on the beat, because they were pros and accepted that unions had a right to exist.)

I donned my old labour reporter’s cap last week, and weighed in with a look at the state of the unions for the Globe and Mail. (see below). It was great talking to smart people, both union and non-union  and my feature barely touched the surface of all the interesting stuff that’s going on. The stories are out there, folks. Why does the media show such disinterest in them?



11 thoughts on ““DADDY, WHAT’S A LABOUR REPORTER?”

  1. As problems with labour coverage go it’s a small thing, but I grind my teeth every time I see the term “union boss.”

    • agree completely…..union leaders are elected…they are not bosses……i find the term used more and more these days, since there’s so little understanding of the way unions work….

  2. There is a glimmer of hope with the recent award of the 2013 Michelle Lang Fellowship in Journalism to Vancouver scribe Jessica Barrett. She will spend six months working at Postmedia News in Ottawa before joining the Calgary Herald for six months. Specifically, she will be reporting on Canada’s changing workforce, job market and economy. She’s not pounding a labour beat per se. but it represents that there is some life on that beat’s heart monitor.

  3. yes, interesting…and Jessica is a very good reporter….my hunch, tho, is that her editors will not be interested much in unions, other than as old-fashioned obstacles to the free market…i hope I’m wrong….

  4. As usual these days the New York Times is out in front … Steven Greenhouse seems to be covering labour pretty much full-time. AWR.

  5. Brother Mickle, you are so right, and your tribe is so sorely missed! I can’t tell you how many gazillion hours I’ve spent on the phone trying to explain labour stories/issues/values to young reporters who are given no training on the beat and whose editors auto-default to the employers’ position. Thanks for your voice!

  6. Pingback: Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer Sept 4-9

  7. very few labour reporters, very few reporters at all

  8. I was trying to remember either a Wobbly slogan, or a Trotskyist one. It was “We shoot at the bosses, but if the union heads show up, we keep shooting.” It’s probably not nearly the perfect quote, but the truth is in it. The union bureaucracy separated itself from the membership a long time ago, and the reason Unifor is seen by a few people as One Big Union, as opposed to One Big Union Bureaucracy. One of the reasons being huge salaries for the luminaries, but also the bigger money if you get elected. I’m not suggesting that the right wing has gained ascendency by this bureaucratizing,solely. It’s just that it has, and is, playing a role. Unions just aren’t what they used to be, and must be again.

    • yeah, i know about Deverell.aka “big shoes”..of course, i would argue both McQuaig and Freedland are still journalists.hehe.

      did you know Deverell was a long-ago squeeze of Pam Wallin..

      are you ever coming back to Vancouver..hehe.

      cheers Rod

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